The Hachette/Amazon War: One Writer’s Perspective
Not too long ago I linked to a letter Amazon had released regarding their spot o’ trouble (to put it mildly) with the publisher Hachette. In my post I encouraged authors to tell me what they thought about it and they did, but not on my blog itself. And why should they? With all the power Amazon wields, to say nothing of Hachette, it would be foolish to draw either company’s ire so directly. As such, I received one email that particularly caught my attention. Together we decided that it was worth publishing, though it would have to remain nameless. Here then is one perspective on the Amazon letter from a writer caught up in the midst of it all.
“Hi, Betsy —
Per your request for opinions from Hachette authors on the Amazon/Hachette ebook pricing fight, here are some thoughts I wish I had time to shape into more concise/coherent form:
As best I can tell, Amazon’s larger strategic purpose in keeping ebook prices as low as possible — and what Hachette emphatically does NOT want — is for ebooks to become so much less expensive than physical books that they kill off bricks-and-mortar bookstores, making Amazon and ebooks pretty much the only game in town.
As a children’s book author without much name recognition, this is bad for me on two levels:
1. The ebook market for kids’ books is much smaller than for adult books.
Children’s books, especially MG, have been much slower to migrate to ebooks than adult titles in general and adult genre titles (romance, mystery, sci-fi) in particular. Since the large, large majority of sales of MG titles are still physical books, the death of real bookstores would likely be disastrous for MG kids’ book sales.
Amazon’s claims of price elasticity — the “we’ll sell x at this price, but 1.74x at the lower price” or whatever — are limited to the Kindle sales channel and don’t take into account the potential loss of sales from sources other than Kindle. If I sell 1.74 times more books on the kindle…but my sales at physical bookstores plummet because the bookstores no longer exist…am I better off? My guess is no.
I’m also skeptical that price elasticity is the same for kids’ books as it is for, say, adult mystery novels — not sure that 1.74 number would be true for a MG title. But again, that’s less important than the fact that Kindle sales represent a very small fraction of the total pie of MG book sales.
For an author like me without a James-Patterson-sized following, discoverability is huge. Fewer physical bookstores mean fewer opportunities for audiences to discover new writers both via hand-selling by booksellers and display space. A world in which Amazon is the primary gatekeeper is one in which the only new authors who break out are the ones Amazon promotes. Having had one of my books end up on Amazon’s “best of the year” list, I know that getting on an Amazon list definitely sells books…and not being on their list (as in the case of other books I’ve written) means you DON’T sell books.
All things being equal, I’d rather not leave the decision about whether my books get wide exposure in the hands of a single bookseller.
Some other observations:
Unless I missed something, none of Amazon’s public arguments in favor of its position have addressed the fundamental problem with lowering ebook prices — that if those prices fall far enough, the business model for physical bookstores will be unsustainable, and they’ll gradually disappear (or suddenly disappear, like Borders did). Amazon keeps bringing up the publishers’ resistance to adopting paperbacks half a century ago, but a hardcover-to-paperback transition didn’t fundamentally threaten the existence of physical bookstores the way books-to-ebooks does.
And while an all-ebook (or primarily ebook) ecosystem might be just fine for adult genre writers, it’ll almost certainly suck for MG writers. Can you think of a single MG kids’ book writer (Amanda Hocking comes to mind, but she’s YA) who’s launched their career or built a significant audience via ebooks? There are a bunch of successful examples in adult genre fiction, but none that I know of in MG. Rick Riordan and R.J. Palacio have both released ebook-only short works that hit the bestseller list, but those were companion pieces to works that had become phenomenally successful as physical books first.
As far as I can tell, kids and their parents just aren’t discovering new MG authors through ebooks. Maybe that’ll change in the near future, but I’m skeptical — based on my experience with both readers and my own kids, even digitally native kids seem to gravitate more toward physical books than ebooks.
On a semi-related note (since what’s at stake in the Amazon fight isn’t just the viability of traditional bookstores, but traditional publishers), I’d like to add that I’ve personally benefited enormously from having been traditionally published, both financially and creatively. My current book has a ton of illustration, which has meant a lot of heavy lifting in the graphic design department. While I could have self-published my more traditional, non-illustrated MG titles without sacrificing much in the way the audience experiences the story, if I’d tried to do the current book without the help of Hachette’s art department, the results would have been ugly.
Given how many kids’ books rely on illustration, I suspect the art and design support that traditional publishers provide is a much bigger deal overall for kids’ books than adult titles.
Moreover, Hachette’s marketing support, even for less prominent titles on their list, is much more substantial than I can accomplish independently, no matter how much I spend out of pocket on publicists, building a social media presence, etc.
Long story short, I’m on Hachette’s side. It may be that physical books and bricks-and-mortar bookstores are doomed over the long run, but as a non-prominent writer of middle grade kids’ books, anything that extends their lifespan — and keeps not just bookstores but traditional publishers healthy — seems to be good for me as an author.
As someone once said (was it a French guy? I can’t remember) — I apologize for not having the time to write you a shorter letter.”
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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