The legal battle between Amazon and Hachette – what are authors to do?
I have been following the legal battle between Hachette and Amazon. Hachette is one of the "Big Six" publishing companies, along with Macmillan, Penguin, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster. Although the parties aren't disclosing the details, the specific argument is understood to be about e-book pricing, both retail and wholesale. In the case brought by the Department of Justice in 2013, publishers were accused of colluding over e-book prices. The judge's final order in the case laid out a schedule for the publishers involved to renegotiate e-book prices with retailers. Hachette is up first and the negotiation is apparently not going well with Amazon.
I confess I don’t understand the nuances behind the legal claims; I don’t know the laws that are applicable to their dispute nor the interests behind their arguments. But one thing is abundantly clear: the driving force behind this fierce fight is simply money. Yet another example of how corporate America works (or is supposed to work).
As an author, I feel sympathy for the authors caught in the middle of the legal battle. At the end of the day, all they want to do is to sell their books so they can keep writing. I have been there. I know what it feels like to endeavor for six years on a novel, then trust the work to an editor who suddenly gets in trouble with its distributor and as a result, the book is not available. In my case, I knew that if I wanted my first book to sell, Los Hijos del Mar, I would have to help my editor. So I got ready. I spent almost a year prior to the launching of my first novel organizing presentations, here and abroad, in libraries, schools, museums, book fares. I organized radio interviews and critiques, and I personally sent my own copies of the book to contests. All efforts were in vain, for the book was not available in this country. The reason? My editor was having difficulties negotiating “good terms” with its international distributor. By the time they settled their differences the “New Release” golden moment had lapsed…
I was naïve and knew very little about this business. I thought that if I wrote a polite letter to my editor and expressed my sentiments, I would get a thank you and an apology, and things would be better for the next novel. Now I know that the letter I wrote was actually what writers call “the suicide letter.” They say that when an author dares complain about anything, that author is automatically blacklisted from the industry. Good luck getting another editor, unless, of course, you are already a famous writer. I don’t know to what extent this is true in the Spanish publishing word, which is my world, but I hear that it is true when it comes to the Big Six.
So what is an author to do?
If you select the traditional method of publication, you must overcome incredible barriers of entry (getting an agent, an editor, and doing your own marketing). At the end of the day you must accept a low royalties percent, and if things go south, you live with it and ask no questions.
If you select Amazon, you can publish tomorrow (no agent, no piles of rejection letters, you do your own marketing). At the end of the day you get a much higher percentage in royalties, and if things go south, well…do you suppose you can ask questions? Who (other than Hachette) would be willing to represent an author without a retainer and go up against the Big Gorilla?
For me, the good news is that at least we have a choice, which is more than we had before Amazon came into the picture.
When I was informed that my second novel, Mas allá de la Justicia, was among the 10 finalists for the second most valuable literary award in the world after the Nobel Price for Literature, I traveled to Barcelona to be present at the awards ceremony. As soon as I saw the impressive Planeta building, with its shining golden globe on top, I realized that the publication business in no small business. I had used all my savings for that trip. I went because I thought it was significant that my novel had been selected as a finalist among the 509 manuscripts that competed that year. The first place would get €601,000 prize. The second place would get €150,000. The third place would get nothing. My novel came in third place. The biggest disappointment was not about the money, but the fact that Planeta decided not to publish the manuscript. In years past, the editor had almost always published at least the last five finalists. That year, however, Planeta published only the first and second place. Perhaps it had something to do with my “suicide letter.” More likely it had to do with money. Though their outstanding jury (Ángeles Caso, Alberto Blecua, Juan Eslava Galán, Pere Gimferrer, Carmen Posadas, Rosa Regàs and Carlos Pujol) found the book to have literary merit, it was the beginning of an economic crisis. Not a good time to take a chance on an unknown author, like me.
I went ahead and self published the manuscript with Amazon, and in so doing, the novel became my vehicle to explore and learn an alternative way of publication. The story of Mas allá de la Justicia is not over and I am still learning. Knowledge is power and so, little by little (I tell myself) I am gaining confidence in the decisions I make for each of my individual books.
I look forward to learning the outcome of the legal battle between Hachette and Amazon. I am certain they will eventually reach an agreement whereby both parties will continue to profit handsomely. Hopefully the Hachette authors will be vindicated somehow. I, in the meantime, will continue to do my best to fatten my piggy bank, one penny at a time and save for another trip with my third book, perhaps to Barcelona.