Friday, June 06, 2008

The bigger you are, the harder you fall

The Bookseller online edition reported about 2 weeks ago that the now infamous Amazon had removed the buy buttons on books published by the UK's largest publishing group, Hachette Livre, and now it seems that Hachette CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson has upped the ante by sending a strongly worded letter to authors affected by the embargo.

Amazon are reported to be doing to Hachette what they have been doing for some months now to print on demand publishers in America, namely demanding extortionate terms, and when the publisher refuses to give in, using Peter to rob Paul by going to the next publisher, and claiming that the first has given in, in order to make sure that the second one follows suit. Their plan has though been rumbled, as in publishing news travels fast, and it is if nothing else an industry built on communications, communications which I feel will ultimately prove to be Amazon's undoing.

Hely Hutchinson's letter, a copy of which has been sent to the Bookseller (although not published on their site) explains Hachette's position in regard to this dispute, which has seen Amazon remove the buy buttons from key front and back list titles published by Hachette, including Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, Stephen King's Duma Key and James Patterson's The Sixth Target.

The letter reportedly tells authors that Amazon's actions could "prove to be a catalyst for Amazon starting to lose its popularity with the public" because it is reducing its range and service to customers. It goes on to say that despite advantageous terms, "Amazon seems each year to go from one publisher to another making increasing demands in order to achieve richer terms at our expense and sometimes at yours", before affirming Hachette's intention to stand firm against these bullies.

The response from Amazon was predictably lukewarm with them refusing to comment and insisting as always, that they are committed to offering the broadest range possible to their customers at the lowest possible price, through a range of outlets, both direct on their own site and through re-sellers.

Agents are also expressing their angst, since this affects the careers of many of their authors, whose careers they oversee. It also of course affects their own income, since they take a proportion of what their authors earn. Anthony Harwood, who represents Chris Manby, said his client has been dealt a "double whammy", as both her new hardback Spa Wars and her first book written under the name of Olivia Darling, were affected. Anthony said "It's incredibly frustrating; the author suffers while these disputes rumble on."

The Economist, which has had some interesting articles on publishing in recent weeks, pulls no punches when it says that those in the publishing industry are running scared because of the rise in new technology brought about by the Internet, but also through the rise in print on demand and electronic publishing (e-books). Amazon is of course also at the forefront of this, in America at least, with the Kindle e-book reading device and their attempt to control the print on demand sector through demanding that print on demand books be printed by their own printing arm, Booksurge in order to be listed directly on Amazon's site.

From the outside, to the author at least, book publishing seems like a closed shop, which is impossible to penetrate. The author has to jump through many hoops and pass through many gate keepers on their journey to publication, and on the way, most of them do not pass go and do not collect £200. 411,000 new titles were published in America last year, and more than 3 billion books sold. The industry saw a growth rate of 4.3 percent in the adult sector, yet reading as in other westernised countries, is actually down. Since 1985, books' share of entertainment spending has fallen by some seven percent.

Paper book sales may well be in decline, but sales of e-books are reported to have tripled since 2005. Some say that they may eventually surpass printed copies, although personally apart from academic titles, I cannot see this happening. There are though advantages to this method, especially to the author, least of all, the removal of all the middle men who are all too keen to take a slice of our hard earned cash. E-books after all are a direct route to customers that have the potential to bypass both traditional book stores and online ones, as the author can publish them for relatively low cost and sell direct to the public via either their publishers website, or their own, as indeed I do. All books published by Authors OnLine are also available as e-books; that is why they chose the name Authors OnLine, as that is how their business began. The paper copies came later, after the introduction of print on demand into the UK 10 years ago.

It is in my opinion, print on demand that has the potential to change the industry much more than e-books could ever do, for not only does it enable authors to publish their own works at low cost, circumnavigating the gate keepers, but the costs also continue to come down. The cost of paper and shipping has gone up so much in recent months that it is now cheaper to print 1200 books via print on demand that it is by traditional means.

The article in the Economist wisely says that publishing has only two indispensable participants: authors and readers. Like the music industry, any technology that brings these two groups closer makes the whole industry more efficient, but hurts those who benefit from the distance between them. Those that stand to gain the most are therefore the small players traditionally left out of the loop by practises that prevent their books from being stocked on the same terms as those issued by the larger publishing houses. Those that stand to lose the most are those who have helped to support a system that encourages this to happen, which seems to include just about everyone except the independent authors and publishers themselves. Our time it seems has finally come, as the big boys are now learning that what goes around does come around, and what you do to others does have an effect that comes back to you in hard lessons to be learnt. Whether they will see this and understand remains to be seen. For what it is worth, the response from Hachette does seem to be encouraging, and I applaud them for taking the stand that they are. I just hope that it doesn't come back to haunt them, as the bigger you are, the harder you fall. Amazon would be wise to remember this.

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