best-selling modestly selling occasionally selling book author on Amazon, I received a letter recently from “The Amazon Books Team” urging me to write to the CEO of Hachette Book Group to demand that Hachette capitulate to Amazon in a battle over ebook prices.
The letter from Amazon invoked George Orwell. It was an exceptionally poor choice on Amazon’s part for two reasons:
- Amazon is notorious for once having remotely erased digital copies of George Orwell’s “1984″ from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them. Oh, the irony.
- In the latest battle, Amazon took a quote from “the famous author George Orwell” and, in a blackwhite transformation worthy of Big Brother, completely twisted and reversed its true message.
Here’s what The Amazon Books Team wrote to me:
“Dear KDP Author,
“Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.
“With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.
“Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Let’s pause only briefly to marvel at Amazon’s “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” non sequitur. Here’s what Orwell really said:
“The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.” … “It is of course a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade. Actually it is just the other way about … The cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books.”
Suggestion to Amazon corporate communications: It might be a good idea to avoid mentioning George Orwell henceforth.
The Amazon letter to authors then gives me the email address of the head of Hachette’s USA Book Group and urges me to tell him that:
- “We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
- “Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
- “Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
- “Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.”
Here’s my open letter to the CEOs of Amazon and Hachette:
Dear Jeff and Michael:
You are attempting to thrust me, a powerless writer, into the middle of your corporate dispute over revenue and profits. The only analogy that comes to mind is that of two acrimonious parents, in the midst of a bitter divorce, each appealing to the children to take sides against the other parent.
I depend on you both. I love and hate you both with equal passion. Both of you have afforded me great opportunities, and both of you have treated me and other authors with breathtaking contempt. And, increasingly, I fear you both, Amazon because it is becoming a fearsome monopoly for book sales, and Hachette (as well as other book publishers) for lavishing attention on a handful of superstar writers while slashing advances, royalties, and support for your less-favored children.
We all agree on one thing: All of us want to sell more books. It doesn’t matter to me whether the books are made of atoms or bits, although I confess to a fondness for atoms; either way, all I want is an audience and a fair deal from both book publisher and book seller.
Amazon, if you don’t want to offer ebooks for more than $9.99, fine. Expand your in-house book publishing business, sign up your own authors, pay them decently out of your $9.99 — you can do this because, as you note in your letter, “there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs” — and win authors away from Hachette by giving them a better, more supportive home.
Hachette, if you don’t want Amazon to dictate prices for your books, don’t sell to Amazon. If you insist on charging higher prices for ebooks, and are confident that people will buy them at those prices — and confident that your authors will accept being cut off from the world’s biggest bookseller because of a battle over corporate profits — make a commitment to use some of your profits to support independent bookstores that offer an alternative to Amazon. Do more to support your mid-list authors. Take chances on first-time authors.
But leave George Orwell out of it. I’m pretty sure he would not be fond of either of you.