Amazon v The Publishers: Interesting Times

The chances are you must have heard something in the last few weeks about the ugly dispute between Amazon and the publishing giant Hachette (one of the so-called Big Five publishers). If you haven't please stop reading and go enjoy the lovely sunshine/apocalyptic storms this weekend. You'll be far happier not knowing.

If you're still here, I assume you're aware of the vast quantities of poorly-informed opinion being pumped into the discussion. This being the Internet, I feel compelled to offer my own poorly-informed opinion. 

If despite my warnings, you don't know what this is all about and are still reading, all we really know at this stage is that Amazon are engaged in apparently heated negotiations with Hachette regarding a contract for Amazon to sell books published by Hachette, and that Hachette books are suddenly starting to disappear from availability on Amazon. Consensus of opinion seems to be that Amazon are deliberately doing this as a way to put pressure on Hachette. Beyond that, the commercial details of the negotiations are confidential, so we don't really know.

In recent days and weeks I've seen a lot of Hachette authors arguing that their publisher is the only thing standing between us and a new cultural dark age. Who can blame them? If I was seeing my sales hit by something that threatened a system that was working out quite well for me, I'd be saying the same thing. 

The thing to remember is, Hachette (or rather, the Big Five publishers in general, since they're virtually a single business anyway) aren't the good guys here. For years they've been taking over smaller publishers and operating what is effectively a cartel. It's a rather incestuous system where authors for the most part have no choice but to accept extremely one-sided contractual terms, and where the publishing houses won't so much as look at an unsolicited manuscript if an author isn't already signed up to an agent. There's very little scope for competition in that world because they're all in it together. That's probably why they didn't quite understand that price fixing is illegal, until they got caught out last year.

Now, we all know Amazon isn't necessarily a model of corporate social responsibility. But what they are is a disruptive force in an industry that desperately needs it.  They've opened up the market to independent authors who would never previously have had the chance to reach an audience. They're not the only one doing so, but they're probably the most prominent and most successful. Thanks to Amazon anyone who can write a book is able to market it around the world as an ebook or a paperback, even if they're not the kind of person the old-fashioned publishers would ever touch, and they're going to get far better margins than they would with the old publishers. Of course Amazon aren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, but that's what they've achieved.

Perhaps the most compelling argument I've heard in favour of traditional publishing is the benefit of having an editor. Well, I'm sure a good editor is useful if you've got one, but they're not really doing anything that we can't do ourselves. Writers have already had to become graphic designers, marketers and webmasters, so I'm sure it won't be too much of a struggle to learn editing, particularly since at least 50% of writing is editing already. Obviously the input of someone else is invaluable, but that's what test readers are for (thank you, all of you!).

The brutal truth is that very few writers are able to make a living out of it, never mind make a fortune. That's no different if you're traditionally published or self-published. At the end of the day, in the vast majority of cases it's going to be down to the authors to promote themselves, and unless they've got a massive readership they're not going to make enough money from it to live on. The only difference is, in the old days it was only a few had the chance to reach an audience: those few the publishers and agents thought might be commercially successful.

That's why I don't have the slightest bit of sympathy for the old publishing giants. They've had their time, and they've done extremely well out of it, but the world is changing, for the better, and they're unable or unwilling to adapt to it.

Not really sure what else I can say on the matter. Don't listen to the publishers and their authors; they're naturally inclined to side with Hachette. Don't listen to me; I've only got a book on the market because of Amazon. So who should you listen to? Hell knows. Just whatever you hear, take it with a pinch of salt, and consider that there's two sides to this argument. And if you know any more than me, please let me know.