There’s a contract dispute going on right now between Amazon and Hatchette, one of the “Big 5” publishers. Lately, there has been some increasingly outsized rhetoric by people in the writing world, with some people trying to frame Amazon or Hatchette as the good guy and the other as an evil evilling evil monster. I’m not going to link — Google if you must, but you’ll probably come away with a headache.
I don’t feel I know enough about the issues under dispute to have a firm opinion on what the outcome should be or whose tactics are more underhanded than whose. From what I know I will tentatively say that I think it would probably be a good thing for the book market as a whole if Hatchette is able to (at least mostly) stand its ground against Amazon, but I’d be willing to be convinced otherwise on that.
But one thing that’s happened lately is that a few voices in self-publishing have spoken up to plant self-publishers firmly on the side of Amazon The Glorious Let Us All Love Amazon, with Hatchette painted as the Reader-Hating Author-Trampling Hellhound, Slavering to Mash the Poor Book Industry in its Fanged Jaws.
I’m not sure quite what I think on this dispute, but I’m pretty damn certain it’s not going to be that. Most things, in my experience, have a bit more nuance to them.
But here’s the crux of what I wanted to address here: I see self-publishers saying that others calling for boycotts of Amazon will disproportionately hurt their incomes (since most self-publishers make the majority of their sales through Amazon). I see self-publishers complaining that others don’t understand how important Amazon is to self-publishers and that we all need to appreciate this fact more.
But I think Amazon taking it in the chin here would ultimately be better for self-publishers — for all authors and publishers, actually. Oddly, I think that would be good for us regardless of whether they’re in the wrong. To be clear: I’m not saying they should be punished if it turns out they were all rainbows and sunshine this whole time and just had horribly bad PR; I just see them being dinged as being ultimately beneficial to self-published authors rather than detrimental.
Yes, Amazon did a lot of really cool things with disruptive innovation that helped self-publishers. I’m a HUGE fan of disruptive innovation! I think it’s awesome. I’m on record as saying that I think people should ALWAYS adapt new business models to changing technologies rather than try to restrict or destroy them — for instance, the answer to television piracy isn’t “sue people into oblivion,” it’s Hulu. I love it when people do shit like that. I loved the ideas Amazon had from the outset — I was going around telling people it would succeed when the stock price was a nickel and everyone said it was going to go bankrupt the next year. And I love a lot of what Amazon did to help catapult the ebook market into existence. (I don’t like other things it did in doing so, of course, as that is the nature of life — I’m bound to agree with some things and not with others — but I like a lot of it.)
Amazon has done a lot of cool things. It’s also done a lot of shitty things, both as regards ebooks and not. It has some shady business practices. And it’s out for its own self-interests. The fact that it’s done a lot of cool innovation in that self-interest doesn’t make the innovation any less cool — but, you know, it also means I’m not about to give Amazon much of my own personal loyalty.
And the fact that I think Amazon has done some really cool things doesn’t change the fact that it scares the shit out of me. My impression of Amazon is that it is unrelentingly competitive: it weakens and gobbles up other markets and does its absolute damnedest to be the only game in town. It’s like the Blob. It wants to absorb the brains of everyone in the world and then control as much of the market of everything as it possibly can.
(Google scares me in much the same way, but at least Google’s PR machine has done a much better job of convincing me it would be a benevolent dictator, which probably speaks well to their PR. Still doesn’t mean I want either company to take over the world.)
What happens if Amazon gains 80, 85, 90 percent of the book market?
I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I don’t think any other authors or publishers want to know, either. I don’t think it would be good for any of us. Because Amazon’s out for Amazon.
If people boycott Amazon because of the ongoing controversy — and let’s be clear, I am not advocating a boycott, nor do I think an effective one to be likely — then what happens?
Amazon isn’t much hurt much, really. Most of what they sell isn’t books, and most people not in the book world probably don’t know or care that this is happening. The biggest ding from any boycotting will happen in book purchases. Yes, that might hurt self-publishers in the short term (though it may, assuming people are buying equal numbers of books, help independent bookstores on the other side — which I consider a good thing but may understandably be of cold comfort to self-publishers). But it also potentially gets book buyers onto other platforms.
The more readers are on a diversity of platforms, the better I feel about my future as a self-publisher. The more viable retailers there are, the better protected I feel by the competition among those retailers for a slice of my book sales. It becomes an environment in which, I believe, the publishing atmosphere can better remain a viable one for self-publishing in the long term. (And remember, much as Amazon helped self-publishers, they did not invent self-publishing — it exists independent of Amazon, and I wish it existed more independent of Amazon.)
Anyone with near-total control of the ebook market could easily make self-publishing into something people make hobby money off of only. Heck, there’s been plenty of rhetoric in self-publishing already that making a little hobby money is better than not being published at all. And I see this sort of thing happening in my other industry (movies) already: people are so desperate to work that they’ll sell themselves for almost nothing.
Like I said, I don’t know enough about the actual terms under dispute between Hatchette and Amazon to have an informed opinion on them. Maybe Amazon’s being unreasonable. Maybe Hatchette is. Maybe (far more likely) they both are, and the situation’s all sorts of complicated and they’re both using underhanded tactics and authors are caught in the middle.
Here’s what I do think: whether in this dispute or any other, whether the other guy is more evil or not, it might be an overall good thing if Amazon’s book market share were to be disrupted. Even if it were to mean fewer sales for self-publishers in the short term. Because I worry about my ability to sell my books over the long term, and I can’t see how Amazon getting more and more of a stranglehold on the ebook market is a good thing for any of us.
I’m not urging anyone to have an opinion on the Amazon/Hatchette issues that they don’t hold. By all means, hold whatever opinion you have after reading through the issues (or, like me, hold no firm opinion!). I’m also not trying to suggest that people looking at what’s best for THEM should necessarily be the driving force behind what they think the outcome here should be. But I do think people should re-think the rhetoric that any hurt to Amazon is a hurt to self-publishers — I, for one, suspect that the exact opposite is true.