Amazon Keeps Fighting Big Publishers But Authors Pay The Price

It’s Amazon’s world and we’re just living in it. As the company continues to flex its muscle against big publishers – this time against Hachette – the average author could be excused for feeling a bit of schadenfreude. Publishers have run the show for a long time and their efforts at cultural curation have resulted in million dollar deals for Snooki and bupkus for smaller literary writers. Luckily, the world’s slushpile is slowly flowing around the big houses, moving directly to on-demand publishing and epubs. I should know. I use Amazon as my primary sales channel for my book Mytro.

But when Amazon flexes, authors get hurt.

Amazon is essentially squeezing the big houses for more profit. They are not entirely blameless and the company is as far from the little old bookseller in the village square as possible. To Amazon, books are another product. Some books are as popular as tooth whitener and Rogaine and other books languish on the shelves like a five-pack of lag bolts. But Amazon carries them all and makes a few pennies per shipment. And publishers know that if they don’t sell their wares on Amazon then they’re dead. Barnes & Noble stores should be gone by 2015 (my own prediction) and independent bookstores offer a respite but not relief. Wal-Mart stores don’t want much of the publisher’s back catalog – they just want that Snooki book – and they can’t find any way to really control digital distribution without Amazon or Apple. In short, they’re stuck.

At the same time, I foresee a renaissance in writing. Being able to upload and sell a book in minutes is a boon to self-publishers and writers. Any author formerly on Hachette could, in the future, bypass the the house entirely like Clay Shirky who calls publishing a “button” not a job. He writes:

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.

But here’s the rub: publishing is hard. Marketing is hard. Distribution is hard. It’s not an impossible task by any stretch – there are plenty of independent writers (see Hugh Howey) who made it big for whatever reason – but the vast majority of these self-published pieces will languish.

That’s what Hachette and Random House are good at: running an engine of commerce that will ship millions of books a year. Seen in that light, Amazon is just a part of that engine and not even an integral part. If the publishers decided to go it alone, they could probably sell a few million books and ebooks on the backs of their best sellers. But the problem is that they need big sellers all the time. And that means fewer smaller books. And that means fewer important books.

Then, finally, we have the authors. As giants fight above, the authors are stuck in the mud. It may seem like no one needs to shed a tear for Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store. After all, he got a nice advance and he’s a famous writer. But Amazon briefly cutting his title on their site, as they did yesterday, means that Stone gets to sell fewer books. He gets lower royalties and he drops in the rankings. While I’m fine with Hachette getting a kick in the shin, I don’t like that Stone gets a kick in the chest.

Writers and publishers shouldn’t be enemies. Publishers are the gatekeepers while writers are the stewards. But, thanks to Amazon, these gatekeepers will become more selective and more mercenary. Amazon hurts them both in unequal measure. The publishers rewrite the contracts and keep making money. The authors get lower advances and the art in writing declines. It shouldn’t be this way.

Not everyone can be a self-published author. Writers have always depended on the kindness of strangers. The sad thing is that those strangers are getting hungrier and more callous thanks to Amazon’s efforts at squeezing a few more points out of the business of culture.