Hachette Authors Write A Letter To Amazon's Board: Do You, Personally, Want To Be Associated With This War?

Jeff Bezos MadGetty / David RyderAmazon CEO Jeff Bezos

As the war over e-book prices continues between Amazon and “Big Five” book publisher Hachette, a group of authors is sending a letter to Amazon’s board of directors, warning them that their reputations — as well as the company’s — are at risk.

“Efforts to impede or block the sale of books have a long and ugly history,” the letter says, according to the New York Times. “Do you, personally, want to be associated with this?”

The group, called Authors United, includes major Hachette writers like Stephen King and John Grisham (as well as non-Hachette authors) who protest Amazon’s negotiating tactics.

In its efforts to convince Hachette to price all its e-books at $US9.99, Amazon has refused pre-orders and stalled delivery of Hachette books. As a result, Hachette authors report their sales on Amazon have sunk by at least 50% — and in some cases as much as 90%.

“Since its founding, Amazon has been a highly regarded and progressive brand,” the letter to Amazon’s board continues. “But if this is how Amazon continues to treat the literary community, how long will the company’s fine reputation last?”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the chairman of the board. Other members include Tom Alberg, from Madrona Venture Group; John Seely Brown, former director of Xerox’s research center; William Gordon, from Kleiner Perkins; Jamie Gorelick, deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration; Judith McGrath, former MTV chairwoman; Alain Monie, from Ingram; Jonathan Rubinstein, former CEO of Palm; Thomas Ryder, former CEO of Reader’s Digest; and Patricia Stonesifer, CEO of nonprofit Martha’s Table.

Here’s the full letter, which authors have until Wednesday to sign:

Dear [name],

We are writing to you in your capacity as a director of Amazon.com, Inc. As we all know, Amazon is involved in contract negotiations with several media and publishing companies, including Hachette. About six months ago, to enhance its bargaining position, Amazon began sanctioning Hachette authors’ books. These sanctions included refusing preorders, delaying shipping, reducing discounting, and using pop-up windows to cover authors’ pages and redirect buyers to non-Hachette books.

These sanctions have driven down Hachette authors’ sales at Amazon.com by at least 50 per cent and in some cases as much as 90 per cent. These sales drops are occurring across the board: in hardcovers, paperbacks, and e-books. Because of Amazon’s immense market share and its proprietary Kindle platform, other retailers have not made up the difference. Several thousand Hachette authors have watched their readership decline, or, in the case of new authors, have seen their books sink out of sight without finding an adequate readership. These men and women are deeply concerned about what this means for their future careers.

We urge you to review our names at the bottom of this letter. No group of authors as diverse or prominent as this has ever come together before in support of a single cause. We are literary novelists and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists; thriller writers and debut and midlist authors. We are science fiction and travel writers; historians and newspaper reporters; textbook authors and biographers and mystery writers. We have written many of your children’s favourite stories. Collectively, we have sold billions of books. Amazon’s tactics have caused us profound anguish and outrage.

Russell Grandinetti of Amazon has stated that the company was “forced to take this step because Hachette refused to come to the table.” He has also claimed that “authors are the only leverage we have.” As one of the world’s largest corporations, Amazon was not “forced” to do anything. This is an obvious fact. We all have choices. Amazon chose to involve 2,500 Hachette authors and their books. It could end these sanctions tomorrow while continuing to negotiate. Amazon is undermining the ability of authors to support their families, pay their mortgages, and provide for their kids’ college educations. We’d like to emphasise that most of us are not Hachette authors, and our concern is founded on principle, rather than self-interest.

We find it hard to believe that all members of the Amazon board approve of these actions. We would like to ask you a question: Do you as an Amazon director approve of this policy of sanctioning books?

Efforts to impede or block the sale of books have a long and ugly history. Would you, personally, want to be associated with this? We feel strongly that such actions have no place in a common commercial dispute. Amazon has other negotiating tools at its disposal; it does not need to inflict harm on the very authors who helped it become one of the largest retailers in the world.

Our position has been consistent. We have made a great effort not to take sides. We are not against Amazon. We appreciate that Amazon sells half the books in the United States. But Amazon has repeatedly tried to dismiss us as “rich” bestselling authors who are advocating higher ebook prices — a false and unfair characterization, as most of us are in fact midlist authors struggling to make a living. And we have not made any statements whatsoever on book pricing. Our point is simple: we believe it is unacceptable for Amazon to impede or block the sale of books as a negotiating tactic.

Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on that book finding readers. This is the process Amazon is obstructing.

There has been much talk on the Internet about how traditional publishers like Hachette are “dinosaurs” defending a moribund business model. There have been claims that Amazon is leading the way to a new publishing paradigm, one that that pays authors higher royalties, allows anyone to publish, and cuts out the elitist gatekeepers. We agree that Amazon has spurred important innovations in publishing, including a wonderful self-publishing model that has given many new writers a voice.

But what these commentators and Amazon itself may not realise is that traditional publishing houses perform a vital role in our society. Publishers provide venture capital for ideas. They advance money to authors, giving them the time and freedom to write their books. This system is especially important for nonfiction writers, who must quit their jobs to travel, research and write. Without an advance, for example, many aspiring writers would never be able to leave their jobs to write their first books. Thousands of times every year, publishers take a chance on unknown authors and advance them money solely on the basis of an idea. By assuming the risk, publishers expect — and receive — a financial return. What will Amazon replace this process with? How, in the Amazon model, will a young author get funding to pursue a promising idea? And what about the role of editors and copy editors, who ensure that what ultimately ends up on the shelf is both worthy and accurate?

We are certain that you, as an Amazon board member, prize books and freedom of expression as much as we do. Since its founding, Amazon has been a highly regarded and progressive brand. But if this is how Amazon continues to treat the literary community, how long will the company’s fine reputation last? We appeal to you, with hope and goodwill, to exercise your governance and put an end to the sanctioning of books, which are the very foundation of our culture and democracy.

Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.

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