Let the Pimpslaps Fly

15 Aug

The latest skirmish in Amazon vs Hachette happened while I was on the road, which worked out well for me, as I was forced to spend five days as passive observer to the initial volley and the subsequent Category 5 Opinionstorm. I’m actually grateful for this, as when I got home I had already read the email Amazon sent out to its Kindle authors; if I had seen it raw in my inbox for the first time, I probably would have roared and said Things I Would Regret Later.

Seriously. It’s not a very good email. It’s insulting and pandering, and when I asked Brown to read it, he said: “Amazon did know they were sending this to writers, right? Because I’m taking a heavy beating from these metaphors.” You can read the full text for yourself here. If you don’t want to read it (don’t blame ya!), the takeaway argument is that readers (and yet somehow the primary audience for this email was authors who publish on Amazon…) need to come together and put pressure on Hachette to lower its ebook prices.

They referenced Orwell.

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.

They referenced Orwell several times, actually, which is a huge warning sign to me because Orwell is synonymous with the little guy fighting against a giant oppressive force. Also? That giant, oppressive force tends to be a self-interested douche. Whoever wrote that email/press release seems to have intentionally misrepresented Orwell. Amazon could have chosen better, stronger quotes from any number of Orwell’s contemporaries to support their position, but Orwell wasn’t picked by accident. There’s never any subtlety when the O-bomb is dropped: it instantly creates the impression of conflict between good and bad, oppression and freedom, mind control and free will… It’s a trigger warning that an emotional argument is underway.

I can’t stand emotional arguments. I make them myself, and I’m as susceptible to them as anybody else, but if I’m being called in as part of Amazon’s own personal army, I’d like there to be a little more logic involved. Crowdfury is an exceptionally useful tool, especially for smaller persons and companies who do not have lawyers and publicists on staff. As one of those smaller persons and/or companies, I know firsthand that you do not release that particular Kracken unless there is no other choice. Crowdfury is nigh impossible to control, and can turn on you in a heartbeat because nobody likes to be used.

Don't knock the militant cuttlefish. Those buggers are small but grumpy.

Don’t knock the militant cuttlefish. Those buggers are small but grumpy.

Which seems to be what is happening here. There’s been a substantial backlash to Amazon’s call to arms for this exact reason. No number of invocations of the ghost of Big Brother can change the fact that they are a giant organization with entire battalions of lawyers and publicists. They do not need us to fight their battles for them.

I am not obligated to go to war for Amazon. I provide content to Amazon, they provide services to me, and that is the end of that. And they are arguably less accountable to me than to some of the other service providers I’ve worked with: my relationship with Amazon has the illusion of transparency, as I can check my stats to see if my books are selling, but I can’t request additional data to verify these sales have occurred. I have to trust that Amazon’s algorithms are working, and that there is a 1:1 ratio between actual sales and reported sales. (I have no reason to doubt this is exactly what happens, but I can’t read an article about ebook price-fixing without thinking, “Hmmm…”)

I’m probably not alone in saying I would fight their battles with them if saw a righteous cause. I happen to like Amazon. They have provided great opportunities for me and many other self-published authors. I like the quality of the paperbacks they print for me. And I love the way their monthly payments arrive on time! If I saw another company actively threatening Amazon, I’d probably go and get my old plowshare and start hammering it back into shape. However, that’s not what’s happening here. Amazon’s existing business model is not being threatened, and many (most) of the points they have made to support their anti-Hachette arguments have been disputed.

Each of Disney's lawyers is formed from a minimum of five smaller lawyers.

Each of Disney’s lawyers is formed from a minimum of five smaller lawyers.

By pushing this campaign, Amazon has made itself vulnerable. Best-selling authors are ten kinds of grumpy with them. And it’s quite possible that they have overextended themselves in going up first against Hachette, and then against Disney. (Disney, people!) Google Shopping Express, the fledgling Google/Barnes & Noble partnership, sees Amazon’s fight against Hachette as an opportunity. Since nearly a third of my income comes from Amazon. I’m watching all of this play out very, very closely.

p.s.: It seems a good time to offer up a new take on old advice. Here! I’ve redone the Orwell poster for you, free!

Follow the link below to download a free copy at Gumroad.

Thanks to the Guilford College library staff for letting me photograph their stack of old Orwells.

Download your own copies here. The .zip has two convenient print file sizes (4.5″x6″ and 8″x10.5″). If you want it in a larger size on heavy paper stock, let me know and I’ll see if I can get it into the store.

5 Responses to “Let the Pimpslaps Fly”

  1. Paul Raulerson August 16, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    I am not at all sure I agree with your outrage here. I think Amazon is probably right in this argument. E-Book costs are not trivial, but once formatted ans ready to go, the distribution costs are far far less.

    As for how Amazon treats authors, well, I remember watching publishers who owed me money gleefully go bankrupt – the glee coming from the knowledge they would never have to pay me and dozens of other authors. And royalty issues- oh my. Paying royqlties is tradtionally one of the things publishers hate the most. And book publishers are positively angelic compared to music publishers.

    Amazon at least, pays what they owe on time and without a lot of grief. Or legal hassles. Just my opinion of course. YMMV. 🙂

    • KBSpangler August 16, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

      Because it’s an emotional argument! They’re asking me (us?) to come and fight on their behalf, which I would IF Amazon was threatened. They aren’t. They chose to enter into this fight with Hachette, and while the dispute over ebook pricing might have started it, the fight is not simply about ebooks. If I’m (we’re?) called in to lend my support to a cause, it should be for better reasons than to help a large organization with tremendous resources bully another large organization with tremendous resources. Simply, this is a clash of titans, neither of which are personally my friends.

      If Amazon has a clean win in this round, they will then go after other publishers. I still want to work with Amazon as my service provider, but I DON’T want to help a bully solidify its monopoly, and I dislike the assumption that I somehow owe Amazon my loyalty to help the company fight its battles.

      Plus the Orwell thing irked the heck out of me. Mentioning Orwell is one step down from mentioning Hitler in an online argument; if you have to bring up Orwell, you’ve already lost the discussion.

  2. SpyOne August 16, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    I guess I don’t really understand the fight here.

    I work in a store where we sell wine. Distributors are always trying to get us to stock some new wine. They tell us what it will cost, and we add about 50% to that to get our retail. If they don’t like how we’ve priced it (“This is really competing against those $7.99 wines, so it should be $7.99”), we tell them to lower our cost. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.
    And if we don’t think it will sell, we don’t order it. (“We’d have to price that at like $34.99, and none of our customers are paying over $20 for a bottle of wine. Not here, anyway.”

    If Amazon was working the same way, they’d be saying to Hatchette “We make XX% on book sales, so we will just add that to whatever our cost is and that’s the price we charge.” “But we want it to have a cover price of $19.99.” “Well, then lower our cost. Or live with the fact that you aren’t going to sell many through Amazon, because Amazon charges more.”

    Somehow Amazon is trying to dictate the retail price to Hatchette. But Hatchette doesn’t set the retail price, Amazon does. Hatchette sets the wholesale cost. But nobody is saying that Amazon wants to change the wholesale cost.
    Sometimes a wholesaler will make a contract that says you can have XX units at price Y if you sell them at price Z, and maybe that’s what Hatchette does, and Amazon wants to change the deal. And if you cannot come to an agreement on that, you stop selling the product. “I’m sorry, but our negotiations with that publisher failed to get them to offer that product to us at a cost where we could cover our expenses and still sell the product at a fair price. I hope you can find it elsewhere.”

    So all I know for sure is that nobody is doing a good job of explaining what is actually going on here.
    And that Amazon seems to be playing a particularly dirty game to get what it wants.

    • KBSpangler August 17, 2014 at 6:20 pm #

      I tripped over a blog post that says exactly this, in different words.

      http://johnaugust.com/2014/no-one-cares-about-manufacturing-costs

      Both good points, IMO.

    • Sean Eric Fagan August 19, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

      a) Hachette was setting the retail price. I disagree with this. So did the US DoJ.
      b) Amazon is in fact demanding lower wholesale prices. Amazon gets significantly lower whole-sale prices on print books than almost everyone else, and this impacts what authors are paid.

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