The obdurate war between the giant international corporations Amazon and Hachette – a battle raging far over our heads like the rumble of gods clashing on Valhalla – will affect the future of publishing around the world. But it is also revealing a number of fervently held and basically emotional beliefs on the part of writers. Writers are coming across as a rather conservative bunch.
The war is about so much more than what it purports to be about, too. As the media have been reporting for the past several weeks, the online retailer Amazon.com Inc. and the mega-publisher Hachette Book Group (owner of a couple of U.S. imprints, including Hyperion) are in a dispute over the pricing of e-books. Amazon wants to sell them for around $10, and the publisher, like most other publishers, wants full control over the price, and wants that price to be higher (it doesn't say exactly how much higher, but e-books sell for as much as $16 right now).
Amazon has instituted aggressive pressure tactics against Hachette's books – reducing their availability and delaying their shipments, among other things – and this has enraged the authors being used as pawns. So far, most U.S. authors have lined up against Amazon, a corporation that has done almost as much for the dissemination of literature as the printing press itself, yet is pretty much universally despised in artistic circles. Amazon's transgressions against the artistic spirit are many.
For one, it is almost as powerful as a monopoly. It tries to tell publishers what to do in various ways, and most publishers feel they have no choice but to comply. It has put bookstores out of business, and writers love bookstores. Its labour practices are depressing (warehouse workers in particular have gruelling and badly paid jobs). Very few writers are going to publicly express sympathy for a corporate bully.
And so they are expressing outrage at Amazon's treatment of Hachette and its innocent authors. In doing so, they confirm the widely held publishers' view that e-books should be kept at high prices so as to better reward authors for their labour and brilliance.
This is a dubious claim. But the truth is that the price of an e-book is not really what this argument is about. There is the idea of a slippery slope at work here. Amazon wants to be more than a bookseller; it wants to be a publisher (and it already is, with its e-book self-publishing program). It wants to control royalty rates as well as prices. The price of an e-book is just the particular small hill on which Hachette is prepared to die.
I understand this, but I think authors should reconsider their pleas for expensive books. The idea that literature should be expensive is an odd one for a group that is generally leftist. Books should not be luxury items; books should be everywhere. People shouldn't have to think hard about clicking that "buy" button.
Odd, too, is the idea that cheaper books will lose money for the creators. Surely, even writers understand the basic business tenet that lower prices lead to greater sales. (Amazon has done research on this: In its open letter to authors, Amazon claims that its studies on "price elasticity" show that for "every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99." Total revenue would always be higher at $9.99. And don't forget that authors get a higher royalty percentage on e-books.)
In bookselling in particular, high volume is your friend: A large readership is the best possible advertisement a book can have, and it will snowball. People sometimes buy books simply because they are bestsellers.
Okay, the writers say, but what about respect for the book – you know, the notion that even though this digital file may cost exactly nothing to send from one storage device to another, it cost the author five years to write and a lifetime to imagine? Do we really want to start to consider books as mere digital files, as inexpensive, easily consumable and disposable, like pop songs?
Well, you may be surprised to hear that as a (doggedly slow) writer of books, I honestly wouldn't mind if my books were considered cheap-and-easy pleasures, even disposable. It might make more people buy them.
I suspect that a lot of the resistance to the Amazon e-pricing proposals comes from an emotional resistance to digitization itself, a romantic view that paper books are worth more because they are more beautiful and glamorous, and that people should be encouraged to buy them and have nice libraries the way they used to. And maybe fireplaces and cats, too.
Everyone in the industry, even in the book-reviewing media, is colluding to keep e-books from being taken seriously.
If a book is published solely in electronic form, even by a known publisher, it will not receive a review in most newspapers. Nor will it be considered for the major literary prizes – there must be a paper copy for it to be handed around to reviewers and jurors. This means it will never receive the necessary promotion and no one will ever hear of it.
Once these backward policies are changed, we will start to see serious yet purely electronic book publishers start to emerge, and that may well signal a great new opening in publishing, with presses once again able to take literary risks without huge financial ones.
I agree that Amazon shouldn't be able to dictate anything to publishers. But let's make the argument about power rather than about the book prices themselves. Let's give up on expensive books. By making it clear that books are not luxury items, that they are everyday items, we are not devaluing authors' work. On the contrary, we are making literature more accessible.