Readers of the New York Times will have to steel themselves this weekend, as the unseemly brawl between Hachette and Amazon erupts on to the tranquil pages of the Grey Lady. Perhaps the most incendiary item in Sunday’s edition is due to be a full-page ad paid for by a group of bestselling authors – and backed by over 900 other writers – calling on Amazon “in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business”.
The extraordinary move is the latest salvo in a battle over terms which has seenAmazon delay delivery and remove the possibility of pre-orders on a swathe of books by Hachette authors, including JK Rowling and James Patterson. The online leviathan Amazon says it is attempting to “lower ebook prices”; publishing conglomerate Hachette argues that it is seeking “terms that value appropriately for the years ahead the author’s unique role in creating books, and the publisher’s role in editing, marketing, and distributing them”.
Both sides have gradually sharpened their rhetoric over recent weeks, with Hachette saying that it would be suicidal to accept Amazon’s proposals, and Amazon that Hachette should “stop using their authors as human shields”.
Authors have moved to take sides in the debate, with the bestselling writer Douglas Preston collecting over 900 signatures to a letter – the text of which is due to appear in Sunday’s advertisement – calling on readers to contact Amazon’s Jeff Bezos “and tell him what you think” about the situation.
“As writers – most of us not published by Hachette – we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation. Moreover, by inconveniencing and misleading its own customers with unfair pricing and delayed delivery, Amazon is contradicting its own written promise to be ‘Earth’s most customer-centric company’,” write the authors, who include Stephen King, Donna Tartt, Paul Auster, Barbara Kingsolver and a host of other well-known names.
Preston told the Guardian that the ad had been funded “by a small group of authors”. According to the New York Times, it cost $104,000.
Last month, Amazon described Preston as “an opportunist who seeks readers’ support while actively working against their interests”.
Preston asked “exactly what opportunity it is that I am supposed to be seizing—the opportunity to be disparaged by one of the largest corporations in the world? All we are asking is for Amazon to settle its differences with Hachette without hurting authors and holding books hostage.”
Authors, he said, “have nothing to do with this dispute. Why has Amazon dragged us into this? What Amazon is doing to authors is wrong, it is unfair, and it is unacceptable. It is Amazon who is actively working against the interests of readers by denying them books.”
According to the New York Times, since the dispute with Amazon began, Preston’s “paperback sales are down 61 percent and his e-book sales are down 62 percent”.
Amazon have not responded to the Guardian’s request for comment.
The British thriller writer Sophie Hannah said she signed the letter “because it seems to me that continuing business as usual while negotiations take place is a good idea. It’s a sign of good faith. ‘Look how great things are and can remain’ sends a jollier and more helpful message than ‘Look how bad things might get.'”
Kamila Shamsie, another signatory, felt that “all writers should be deeply concerned by the strong-arm tactics Amazon is using in its contractual dispute with Hachette – similar to tactics used in 2008 with Bloomsbury titles”.
“Writers want their books to reach readers; and we want to be able to earn a living from our work – it’s a great irony that the world’s largest bookseller is prepared to trample over both those wants in order to gain a business advantage even while claiming to stand up for readers and writers,” said Shamsie.
Other authors disagree, with a petition to Hachette launched by major names in self-publishing including Barry Eisler and Hugh Howey asking the publisher to “work on a resolution that keeps ebook prices reasonable and pays authors a fair wage” gathering over 7,600 signatures.
Eisler said that Sunday’s ad “will have nothing to do with improving publishing for everyone, and everything to do with preserving publishing for a select few”.
“When James Patterson and Douglas Preston and Richard Russo and Scott Turow tell you they’re trying to protect your interests, they’re conning you. Whether they’re also conning themselves, I don’t know. Don’t judge them by their rhetoric; judge them by their behaviour. And by their behaviour you can see they have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves,” said the novelist.
He added that “beyond that, maybe the most notable thing about the New York Times ad is that it demonstrates how the top one percent of authors are able to buy their desired media access. For them, a New York Times ad is about the equivalent of a cup of coffee for anyone else, the difference being that the ad leads to a ton of follow-on media coverage.”
Eisler said the fight was “asymmetrical”, but that “the forces of publishing progress have on their side both numbers and coherence”. “Over time, I’m confident numbers and coherence will prevail over money and star power. But it’ll require commitment, because a defining characteristic of all establishments is that they will never reform without a hell of a fight,” he said.
Another signatory to the petition to Hachette, the writer Orna Ross – founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors – said that “setting authors in opposition to each other, or to any service that is useful to them, is unhelpful”.
“This is a dispute between two large author-service companies. Authors should be guided by what is best for the writing and reading community, not what is best for the publishing industry,” she added.