Column: Is Amazon Friend or Foe to Authors?
Nina Laden is a children's book author and illustrator who lives in Seattle. (MCT)
Frank Schaeffer is a writer based in Salisbury, Mass. His latest book is "Why I am an Athiest Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace." (MCT)
The Seattle Times recently invited children’s book author Nina Laden and writer Frank Schaeffer to debate the fractious contract negotiations between online retailer Amazon.com and book publisher Hachette.
Laden argues Amazon is a marketing behemoth with far-reaching tendrils poised to squeeze unfamous authors out of the market. Schaeffer, on the other hand, says Amazon is a bookseller and a friend to midlevel writers squeezed out of traditional book publishing models.
The writers’ competing thoughts on the topic follow.
Once upon a time there was a children’s book author who wrote a book called O nce Upon a Memory. It started as a poem she wrote while walking next to the Salish Sea. After many revisions, the author donned her black riding hood (no one wears red hoodies in Seattle) and sent it to her literary agent, who sent it to a big publisher in New York City called Little, Brown Books For Young Readers, which is owned by the kingdom called Hachette Book Group.
The book publisher Little, Brown invited the children’s book author into its house by offering to publish her book. The author was thrilled, and even though the publisher had big teeth and didn’t eat her, Once Upon a Memory was published on Dec. 3, 2013.
But then a giant came knocking on Hachette’s door. The giant’s name was Amazon.com. Amazon and the king of Hachette began to fight, arguing over who should keep the spoils from the sales of e-books. The authors became trapped in the middle as Amazon restricted access to sales of books by Hachette’s authors. I, the author in the black hoodie, became trapped between the giant and the king.
My book did well when it was released, selling out the first printing in three weeks, and it even won a Crystal Kite Award for the Northwest Region, an award given by my peers.
Months went by and Once Upon a Memory became a memory as Amazon refused to ship it, wouldn’t discount it and told shoppers to buy other books instead. It did this to all of Hachette’s books, not just this one. Amazon thought this would secure a win, but the little authors fought back. So Amazon sent a Trojan Horse — 100 percent e-book royalties to the Hachette authors to try to make them happy.
But this little author’s book, Once Upon a Memory, was not in e-book form. It hearkened back to a day when children would curl up with their parents in bed and say “read to me,” and nothing needed batteries or recharging.
It was from a simpler time when people talked to each other face-to-face in a place called a bookstore, and they asked what was good for a boy or girl of a certain age. No one asked for free shipping and everyone paid their taxes to the state, unless they lived in Oregon. Other people went to a wonderful place called the library and borrowed it.
What the giant, Amazon, didn’t understand was that a book was something magical and real at the same time. It was not a “unit” or “one click.” The author in the black riding hood (that would be me) was very sad that Amazon was hurting her book sales and there was nothing she could do, except stay away from the mean giant. Hachette wasn’t offering any condolences either, and the little black riding hood was getting threadbare.
The author wishes this tale could have a happy ending, especially for children who need real books, not just devices. And if there could be a moral to this story, perhaps it would be: If giants and kings want to fight, let them keep their content providers’ content, or they will call for an even bigger giant to come along and sort things out. That giant lives in a kingdom called The U.S. Government. That is a giant you don’t want to upset.
By denouncing Amazon.com over its negotiations with book publisher Hachette, some grandstanding mega best-selling authors are siding with the book-publishing conglomerates against midlevel working authors like me.
James Patterson paid for a full-page ad in The New York Times criticizing Amazon, Scott Turow talked about the “nightmarish” future that Amazon will bring and Stephen King signed a petition decrying the Seattle online retailer.
They do this as if they are fighting for the little guy.
The “1 percent” mega best-selling authors side with giant publishing corporate entities because they make a lot of money from them. The rest of us don’t.
While publisher Hachette Book Group and Amazon are arguing over how much each company should receive for e-book sales, Amazon has restricted sales of books by Hachette authors.
Let’s remember that if publishers were such good guys, authors wouldn’t need agents to protect them.
Amazon has allowed me, as a midlevel unfamous author of more than a dozen books, to take control of my writing career.
Let me tell you about the good old days pre-Amazon.
When Laura Bush read a paragraph from one of my Washington Post guest columns on Meet the Press in 2002, the book my article referenced — a work about my Marine son called Keeping Faith — sold out in moments.
Had there been a print-on-demand book from a service like Amazon’s CreateSpace back then, I think it would have made the best-seller list.
Instead, the publisher, which never had enough faith in that book to order a significant print run, ran out of hardcovers. It was eight weeks before the book was back on shelves. Only because Oprah later interviewed me — after the publisher ordered a second print run — did the book finally make it to the best-seller list.
Over a 30-year writing career, every time I turned around, whatever publishing company I was with was bought and folded into a bigger conglomerate.
Five publishing conglomerates now control more or less the entire publishing industry. The names of the smaller houses that were bought up have been kept by behemoths like Hachette only for appearance’s sake.
What writer-editor relationship? What nurturing of talent? My editors got fired, moved on or were otherwise shoved aside.
Publishers nurture new writers only in their dreams. Author tours? Those were now my speaking gigs through which publishers asked me to promote my work. Marketing? The message from my publishers: Use your own social media network; we don’t have a budget.
As e-books have moved into center stage, my traditional publishers overpriced them, doing everything they could to hang on to print in a digital age. Traditional publishers are clinging to an inept, sometimes dishonest and always backward book-selling system where cozy insider gatekeepers — agents, editors and celebrity authors — scratch each other’s backs.
The publishers are like 19th-century icehouse owners who thought they owned the right to market ice perpetually, insisting on still cutting ice from a pond and complaining when freezers were invented. I’m done with them. So, though several publishers would have published it, I just self-published my latest book through Amazon’s CreateSpace.
How’s it going? If it were up to me, CreateSpace would run the country — instant response, fair pricing, help when I needed it.
And by the way, I’m not leaving out my friends in the small bookstores. In September, my book will be distributed to traditional stores by a trade distributor. The stores might not like the fact Amazon had the book first, but this is not a zero-sum game: More is more for everyone. Kindle buyers would not buy the print book anyway, but they will (hopefully) be talking it up.
Amazon pays me more from the sale of a $3.99 Kindle download than my publishers pay me from a $26 hardcover sale.
With each Kindle sale, I get 70 percent. With a publisher I see royalties once or twice a year — after they hold back a reserve against books that might be returned, which are never clearly accounted for to the author. Amazon pays every month, and I can go online and see what my book is earning.
Traditional publishers are opaque and backward in their marketing and accounting. Unless you are a celebrity author married to the clueless publishing world and afraid of the future, it’s time to wake up to the fact that Amazon is a bookseller — in other words, a friend to working stiffs like me.
Nina Laden is a children’s book author and illustrator who lives in Seattle. Frank Schaeffer is a writer based in Salisbury, Mass.