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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Is Amazon Trying to Bury Hachette?








As the war over e-Book pricing between Amazon.com and Hachette Book Group grinds on, many writers have thrown in with Hachette, calling Amazon a voracious giant that is bullying the traditional publishing house.

What a load of bollocks! 

According to its own webpage, Hachette has nine publishing groups, probably the best known of which is Little, Brown. It is a subgroup of a much bigger conglomerate, Hachette Livre, the largest publisher in France and the third largest in the world, and it is getting bigger every day: last month, in fact, it vacuumed up the Perseus Books Group, the sixth-largest trade publisher in the United States. 

The Hachette Book Group and its various tentacles publish more than a thousand books a year and in 2013, it had 290 items on the New York Times bestseller list, 52 of which reached number one in sales for various periods of time.


That's a function of marketing, not quality: some of the biggest bestsellers in Hachette's catalog are collections of jokes produced by the gag-writers for celebrity authors like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, while others are the second-rate sausage that is ground out by fiction factories like James Patterson.

The point I am trying to make is simple: though it has been portrayed as fighting a desperate battle with a gigantic competitor, Hachette is hardly a mom-and-pop operation. Pretending it is some tiny David fighting Amazon's Goliath is simply a crock of steaming bullshit. 

How did Hachette get so big? Not by putting out high-quality literary products; after all, this is the company that publishes James Patterson, a man who hasn't written a book worth reading for years. No, Hachette got big the old fashioned corporate way: by buying other companies or being bought by them. 

     
How did Hachette get so big? Not by putting out high-quality literary products; after all, this is the company that publishes James Patterson, a man who hasn't written a book worth reading in years. No, Hachette got big the old fashioned corporate way: by buying other companies or being bought by them. 
    
Little, Brown, Hatchette's U.S. predecessor, was purchased by Time, Inc. in 1968; it merged with Warner Communications to form Time Warner in 1989; It bought Macdonald & Co. in 1992; Time Warner was absorbed by Lagardère [Hatchette] in March 2006; Its Warner Books subsidiary renamed itself Grand Central Publishing at the same time.

The result? Number one in France and third in the world as a whole.

An astute reader may have noticed that all this corporate hopscotch makes Hachette look like some sort of monopoly itself. In fact, it is: in April 2012, the United States Department of Justice filed United States v. Apple Inc., naming Apple, Hachette, and four other major publishers as defendants. The suit alleged that they conspired to fix prices for e-Books, and weaken Amazon.com's position in the market, in violation of antitrust law.

(For the uninitiated, antitrust violations are a corporate method of cheating the public, a type of white collar crime. So your "mom-and-pop" publishers at Hachette are actually flim-flam artists and grifters straight out of a Jim Thompson novel, not the put-upon victims of a corporate bully.)

Despite the anti-trust action filed against it by the federal government, Hachette continues to grow: in March 2014, Hachette acquired Hyperion Books from Disney Publishing Worldwide and renamed it Hachette Books. Last month it glommed up another publishing operation, Perseus Book Group, in a move that was clearly intended to give it a bigger share of the publishing industry and strengthen its hand against Amazon.

If this is a David v. Goliath fight, it is hard to tell who is supposed to be the little guy with the slingshot.

The issue in a nutshell? Not the domination of the publishing industry. Not the elimination of competitors by means of unfair business practices. Not freedom of the press. And damned sure not the future of literature. No -- the only issue is how much writers should get back for their hard work.

Which is why it is worth pointing out what is really at issue in this battle: Despite all the mewling and whinging by people like Patterson, Phillip Pullman and Stephen King, the central issue in the dispute between Amazon and Hachette is how much to pay the writers who produce the e-Book content publishing outfits like Hachette peddle. Amazon gives writers a good deal -- up to 70 percent of the royalties earned on a title. Hachette, like most trad houses, pays around 25 percent. And Hachette charges a hell of a lot more for an e-Book, too: up to $15 a title, most of which goes into Hachette's pocket.

The worst of both worlds, you see: a high price that discourages sales and a minuscule royalty per unit when you find somebody who is actually willing to pay the premium.

That's the issue in a nutshell. Not the domination of the publishing industry. Not the elimination of competitors by means of unfair business practices. Not freedom of the press. And damned sure not the future of literature. No -- the only issue is how much writers should get back for their hard work.

Period. End of fucking report.

Amazon says the writers who produce the e-Books Hachette sells should be getting a lot more. Hachette wants to hold onto that money and says the writers can go piss up a rope -- unless they happen to be Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson or some other millionaire.

Don't misunderstand me: I am not saying that Amazon is right and Hachette is wrong in the current dispute. What I am saying is that I think that it's ironic writers who have been cheated or ignored by traditional publishers (and sometimes both simultaneously), are siding with a publishing model that has oppressed them since Gutenberg devised movable type.

However, my mind remains open on the matter; if somebody can convince me Hachette is supporting  writers by jacking up the prices on their e-Books and writing them a smaller royalty check than Amazon, I will carry the company's flag. So far, nobody has. Until they do, the 70 percent in royalties Amazon pays looks pretty good compared to the 25 percent Hachette does. Save me a seat on the Bezos bandwagon: I'm ready to climb on board.


***

P.S.: The media have almost without exception taken Hachette's side in this dog fight, sucked in by celebrities like Patterson,  Pullman and Colbert, all of whom are pimping the publishing giant's line. If you are interested in an alternative point of view, check out the following links:

Amazon-Hachette fight deepens as authors take sides

Amazon v. Hachette: Don't Believe the Spin

Amazon v. Hachette: Annals of Dopey Battles

Amazon a Friendly Giant as Long as it's Fed

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