A Philosopher's Blog

Amazon vs. Hachette

Posted in Business, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 6, 2014
Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

As this is being written, Amazon is involved in a dispute with the publisher Hachette. While the dispute has gotten considerable media attention, my main concern is not with the specific battle but with the general matter of the changing nature of publishing and selling books.

I, as shown by my Amazon author page, have published many books through Amazon’s Kindle and Create Space. While Amazon has been subject to some criticism, my experiences as an author have been positive. As I see it, Amazon (and similar open publishers such as Paizo and DriveThruRPG) has some important positive features. The first is that such publishers are open to everyone—this allows independent authors to bypass the elite circles of the self-proclaimed curators of culture and make their work available to the public at no cost to themselves. This sort of open publishing is revolutionary. Second, these publishers general pay very good royalties. For example, authors selling through Amazon can get as much as 70% of the cover price. However, arguments have been advanced in favor of the traditional publishers and these are worth considering.

One stock argument in favor of traditional publishing is the quality argument. This argument does have some appeal.  Since Amazon and other such publishers do not put books through the sort of editorial process followed by the traditional publishers, the books published by independent authors will tend to be inferior. Thus, traditional publishers are needed to protect the quality of books.

There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that the traditional publishers publish significant numbers of books that are not good (such as 50 Shades of Gray and the Twilight series). The second is that independent authors do produce some excellent work. As such, the traditional publishers cannot claim a decisive advantage here. They do, after all, churn out a lot of crap.

Another stock argument in favor or traditional publishing is that it provides extra value to the author. This extra value includes such things as editorial review, layout & design, promotion and other such services. Of course, an independent author can pay for these things herself—after deciding whether or not they are worth the cost.

One thing that is not always mentioned but is of critical importance is that the top traditional publishers enjoy strong connections to the other curators of culture—those that review books, those that interview authors and so on. It is no accident that the authors who are part of the stable of an elite publisher get the media attention that is rather important to having a successful book. It is also no accident that I will never be interviewed on NPR by Diane Rehm or by Stephen Colbert on his show. After all, I am just an independent author with no connection to the curators of culture. This is not to say that an author cannot break through on her own—I have enjoyed surprisingly good sales and some independent authors enjoy amazing success. But, the support of the cultural elites provides a great advantage.

As a final point, I will consider one of the specific points of the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Amazon, obviously enough, wants to sell books at low prices. Hachette, and other publishers, also want to make money. So, the heart of the contention is over the money—if Amazon charges less for Hachette books, Hachette makes less money. If Hachette gets a larger percentage of the sale price, then Amazon gets less. One argument advanced in favor of the publisher getting more is that the publishers can then pay authors more and this is essential in order to keep the top writers writing. This is, of course, based on the assumption that authors are motivated primarily by money.

One obvious reply is that most authors do not make much money, yet they keep on writing. In some cases, the authors are not making much money because (to be honest) the books are not very good. In other cases, the authors are writing for a small audience: academics, gamers and other niches. Since these folks write for little (or no profit) it is clear that authors will write for little (or no profit).

Another obvious reply is that (as noted above) publishers like Amazon offer very generous royalties—so an author could do very well indeed selling through Amazon rather than working with a traditional publisher.

The obvious counter is that while “amateur” authors like myself will keep cranking out books regardless of the profits, the “elite” authors will cease to do so if they are denied large advances and fat paychecks. This would, one might argue, be a great loss to culture. As such, the traditional publishers serve a vital role and need to claim a significant portion of the sales price on books sold through Amazon and other merchants.

One obvious reply is that these authors would still presumably make rather good money even if their publishers made less. Another reply is that these authors could jump ship for Amazon and perhaps make even more money. A third response is that if the “elite” authors quit, there would still be a vast army of independent writers and from their numbers would emerge, as has always happened, a new “elite.”

In closing, I have worked with traditional publishers and with the new model, that of Amazon and other companies. While traditional publishers certainly still have a place, the landscape has been shifting and the traditional publisher might soon go the way of the manual typewriter.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

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9 Responses

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  1. apollonian said, on June 6, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Mike Benefits FM Free Market, Yet Refuses To Defend It–Even To Understanding It
    (Apollonian, 6 Jun 14)

    Ok Mike: so what’s ur pt. here?–that free enterprise system has been veddy veddy good for u?–that ur talent, such as it is, is enabled to appeal to a substantial, like-minded (evidently) market? And isn’t it good now that u potentially have a couple of vendors, at least, who might compete in order to accommodate u?

    So I guess u’re just doing us all the svc of reporting things fm author’s pt. of view, eh?

    Must be nice to profit and benefit fm the free-market system (at least generally, to extent it is still free-market) and yet to make ur usual, smug & ignorant sort of typical leftist-type “criticisms” which are so hackneyed–u got the best of both worlds, eh?

    So let me give u here a hint at what much frustrates a free-market advocate like myself (fm Austrian school perspective, much like Ron Paul’s) regarding ur sooooooooooooooooo pathetically un-informed grasp, even for one who claims to holding a Ph.d.

    It has to do then w. the monetary system, specifically the US Federal Reserve Bank (the “Fed”)–why can’t u figure-out this is gross, horrific CRIMINAL enterprise? Is it because u lack even BASIC understanding of what MONEY is?–answer is obvious: yes. Why are u so ignorant (of nature of money)?–because it’s just a big mystery to u?–why is this?

    WHY don’t u make even the most basic effort to figure out what money is and should be?

    Mike: money, properly understood, CANNOT just be paper (or even worse–“digital”)–for if it is, it just gets printed (hence “inflated”) endlessly, and note most of all, it’s done by the big commercial banks (hence their Jew stock-holders) who then “lend” the money to the gov.–can’t u see the gross criminality in all this? For HOW can these scum be allowed to just print-up all the money they (practically) pls???????????????????????

    Can’t u see this (above-described activity of Fed) is just COUNTERFEITING, only given a legalized patina?–and that it’s no more ethical than legalized MURDER?

    That’s surely one thing I have MOST against u and people like u, Mike: ur blithe, brainless ignorance as u allow this horrific criminality by these Jews (and cohorts) to just get-by, ur excuse always being ur obvious ignorance, this without any effort on ur part to grasp the principles involved.

    It’s not like u’re to be blamed primarily, yet u allow it (this criminal COUNTERFEITING) to happen, this in ur typically smug manner–that’s what’s so frustrating, comrade. And as u hold a Ph.d., I don’t think u deserve to be given a pass for responsibility. After all, u sit there in ur ivory tower, in ur blithe, smug manner, not taking the proper notice of a patriotic citizen, this at same time as u perorate about “ethics.”

    Do u begin to seeing what gross, putrid, miserable FAILURE u really are?–and why u do not deserve to be paid fm tax-payers’ funds?–how “public edjumacation” has not only failed, but actually worked to keeping the poor people ignorant of the horrific threat and effects?

  2. apollonian said, on June 6, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Here’s decent explanation of what Fed is and how it works in 3 mins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iP9H5fADC0E

  3. T. J. Babson said, on June 6, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    Nice post.

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