What About Hachette’s Responsibility?

Remember that Amazon/Disney dispute that was supposed to be yet another harbinger of the doom Amazon was looking to bring down upon all its suppliers? Well, that’s over. Or at least negotiated to a point Amazon was willing to reinstate preorders and such on Disney products. So much for the doom. It lasted a little under two months.

There’s also this little tidbit from the same Wall Street Journal article:

“A similar dispute between Amazon and Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. in the spring lasted several weeks. Warner Bros. movies became available for preorder again in June after the studio and Amazon had made significant progress toward a deal, but hadn’t finished ironing out details.”

So that one, that I’d never even heard about before, lasted just a few weeks and preorders were made available as part of the negotiation. What do you know? Let’s also not forget the attempt by Hachette a couple months ago to buy the catalog of Perseus Books, with Ingram absorbing their distributor business, that failed miserably when Hachette, who spearheaded the deal, failed to negotiate an adequate end with either of the other two parties.

Is it time to consider, rather than a victim of some evil Amazon publisher-destroying plot, Hachette may just be really bad at business? Other companies involved in terse negotiations with Amazon, involving many of the same tactics, have emerged none-the-worse-for-wear in a matter of weeks. This has been dragging on with Hachette for almost a year, the past six months of which involving things like lessened stocking and no preorders. Those other two media companies both reportedly got out from under Amazon’s tactics through negotiation. Hachette has taken a hard line stance in negotiating with Amazon (and to this point, an horrifically ineffective one that’s looking more misguided by the day.) It really might be as simple as Hachette just kinda sucking at this.

With all the chatter about the responsibilities Amazon has (or some feel they’re supposed to have, anyway) I got to thinking, doesn’t Hachette have any responsibilities here? Nobody seems to be asking that question. Do you think their parent company cares about their excuses about Amazon, especially when they see other companies settle similar disputes quickly and relatively quietly? Apple’s shareholders didn’t give a damn about how supposedly evil Amazon is when they just filed a lawsuit against them to recoup damages from their illegal collusion with publishers. Why aren’t Hachette’s authors throwing an unholy fit? Maybe we’ve been reading the phrase “special snowflake” all wrong. Maybe the authors are trying to get concessions out of Amazon because they know the company they’re contracted too isn’t competent enough to get them on their own.

In any circumstance, I don’t see how Hachette can be absolved of its responsibilities to the writers under contract to them, no matter how many name brand authors keep mouthing off in the absolute wrong directions. I ran across this letter to Hachette by writer Blair MacGregor yesterday. It’s from early July, just after the first Authors United letter hit, but you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t look at the date. It’s oddly prescient and, in my opinion, spot on.

In it, MacGregor raises four important points, each a different area where Hachette can take action in regards to its responsibilities to the writers they represent (and likely should have already). Read the entire letter, it’s well worth it, but I’m just going to focus on a few points here:

“When I read through the latest round of open letters telling Amazon what they ought to do to support Hachette writers during your negotiations, I thought it exceedingly odd no one had written to you.”

She’s not alone there. I’m at the point where it’s far past exceedingly odd and getting into negligence and/or intentional obfuscation. There is zero logical business reason why someone, anyone under contract to Hachette hasn’t lit a raging fire under their ass to get something done by now.

“You see, your writers are contracted directly with you, and not at all with Amazon, even though many target Amazon with their urging to settle disputes. I get the impression you prefer it that way, which is an odd preference as it assumes you, Hachette, have no ability to support your writers and fulfill your contractual obligations without Amazon’s approval.”

Exactly. I would add, however, that what I think they’re lacking is the will to support their writers, not the ability. And, honestly, many of those same writers are giving them a free pass and, in doing so, applying no pressure or giving them even the slightest reason to lift a finger to fulfill their contractual obligations, as she put it.

“When ethical businesses in your position struggle — with negotiations, with collections, or with other cash flow problems — they don’t send their contractors out to solve the problem for them. Instead, they take care of their obligations to their employees and contractors while making every effort possible to resolve the issue.”

Yup, that’s what ethical businesses do every day. What’s that tell you about where Hachette stands on the ethical scale? Remember, this letter was from three months ago, nearly as long as both Disney and WB’s negotiations combined. What have they gotten done in that time? Zip. Now he gets to the four areas where she believes they should act:

“First, your response to Amazon’s offer to participate in a royalty fund for impacted writers is puzzling if your desire is to care for your writers. Requiring a total resolution be reached with Amazon before discussion on royalties takes place might feel like a powerful move, but exposes the priority you place upon your writers.”

It looks even more egregiously bad now that we have direct examples of both Disney and Warner Brothers getting immediate actions out of Amazon during negotiations. And that’s not to mention MacMillan accepting a nearly identical deal during its last negotiation. Why the authors didn’t use Amazon’s offer to get Hachette to act to mitigate the damage done to themselves and their fellow authors is lost on me. Their irrational and indiscriminate hatred of Amazon is blinding them to both their own and their fellow writers’ interests. But they shouldn’t have had to. Hachette showed zero interest in taking Amazon up on this. Worse still, they have done absolutely nothing on their own, nor did they even try any sort of counter proposal. Someone should mention to Hachette that negotiations typically involve some form of actual negotiating.

“Second, disclose precisely how you are fulfilling the just-in-time orders Amazon is placing with you. I assume your distribution centers aren’t set up for small and swift shipments, but surely a multinational company such as yours has someone in its distribution department able to cobble together a temporary remedy.”

This is spot on, too. If you want us to believe Amazon is why books are shipping slower, prove it. Show us that you’re getting those orders out ASAP and they’re not sitting on someone’s desk in your warehouse for two weeks. I’ve only seen one writer inquire about these shipments, and here’s how that turned out:

“Hachette has continually assured us all orders were shipping “in a timely manner” and Amazon was to blame for placing small orders. We’ve asked for copies of the purchase orders and confirmation of the shipment dates from my publisher but have been told, ‘It is not information we would like to be shared with any third party at the current time.'”
–From Digital Book World

Third party…for his own book shipments! Dripping with concern for writers, right there!

“Third, put some effort into promoting your writers who aren’t your top sellers since they are the ones who stand to lose the most—and most fear that loss.”

I’m totally down with it but they won’t do this when times are good. A snowball has a better chance of wintering successfully in Hell than Hachette ponying up to promote non-mega-selling authors. Still though, not only should they be because of this situation, but because it’s the right thing to do all the time.

“Lastly—and most importantly—publicly and firmly assure your writers that their future contract negotiations will not be based upon lower sales numbers that result from your prolonged negotiations.”

Yes, yes, a million times, yes! This should be the first question anyone asks Hachette from now until the end of time; will you guarantee not to use the lower sales figures during this dispute to drop or otherwise force better deals with writers for yourself? All day, every day. Even Hachette’s most virulent supporters just assume it’s a foregone conclusion that they will employ such unforgivably sleazy actions as this. They’re all over Amazon about the preorders because they’re afraid of the punitive actions Hachette will use those figures to take against them. Yet from writers to Hachette…crickets.

“It’s almost as if no one believes you’d consider it in your best interest to mitigate the damage writers believe will be done to them. It’s almost as if all those urging Amazon to act are far more confident in Amazon’s likelihood of listening than they are in yours. After all, none of them have yet asked you to do…well, much of anything, really.”

Yeah, almost. I think she’s on to something here. Perhaps no one’s pressuring Hachette because they know how futile it is. Whatever the reason, it’s high time that many, many someone’s start not only asking, but demanding Hachette do something here for its writers, if nothing else. Complain about Amazon all you like, but Hachette is directly responsible to the writers it has under contract. And right now, they’re pissing down all of your backs and telling you it’s raining.

You all are worried about your next contract if you rock the boat or make any noise about this? Let me ask you, if this continues to drag on through Christmas, book buying’s most wonderful time of the year, what next contract is it you think is going to be there? Unless you’re a superstar, there won’t be a next contract for you to be concerned about. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

UPDATE: Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader just pointed out to me that Perseus Books, the company Hachette swung and missed at, recently struck a new ebook deal of its own with Amazon. According to the report, the deal included not just their own catalog but all the books in their distributor business that were set to be spun off to Ingram in the failed acquisition.

Talk about dodging a bullet! If that sale had gone through, all of those Perseus books would be caught up in the same vortex as the rest of Hachette’s catalog right now. Instead, they’re selling ebooks unencumbered. It’ll be interesting to see if we get any information on what the terms of the deal are, but there can’t be too many smiles around Hachette’s campfire right now.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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Amazon the Great and Terrible

So I’m sitting here this fine Sunday morning patiently waiting for David Gaughran’s promised blog piece on the PR campaign Hatchette may be running in its now six-month contract dispute with Amazon. (Warning: profanity ahead because some of this shit just pisses me off.) I, for one, am not buying the “poor helpless little Hatchette being bullied by big, bad Amazon” meme that’s so popular these days. It’s making the rounds everywhere, which I find fascinating due largely to the fact that nobody outside the negotiating wing of those two companies has any knowledge whatsoever about the dispute, and they’re not talking. Well, Amazon, per usual, isn’t talking. Hatchette isn’t talking about any of the issues at hand either, but they are going through great pains to play the wounded party, and igniting the entrenched Amazon hatred out there to do the rest of the heavy lifting.

I’d think people would be more suspicious of things like that. In my experience, when someone in a position like Hatchette is playing the victim card, without clearly backing it up, odds are, they’re conveniently leaving out the parts where they are anything but victimized. So my opinion, knowing nothing about the specifics of their negotiation but strictly looking at the outward actions of the participants, Amazon is going about its business and Hatchette is playing a totally different game. Are they justified? Possibly but I get a strong sense of Hatchette trying to control the narrative and I don’t much care for being manipulated.

“Scott Turow said that Amazon recently raised the price of his most recent book, “Identical,” a move that he said would depress sales.”
–From Washington Post, May 16

Ok, what? First off, that quote’s from the Washington Post, you know, the newspaper Jeff Bezos owns. So much for slanted coverage huh? The difference I see between the Post’s coverage and most other coverage is that the Post consistently uses phrases like “could be”, “might be”, “industry insiders suspect” and things like that when discussing the negotiation. They’ve presented the argument without validating it, which is exactly what all these papers should be doing, unless they actually have hard evidence to support it, then they should print that. But they don’t. It’s rumor and conjecture presented as fact when the people writing can’t possibly know if it’s true.

Secondly, WTF Scott Turow!?! You’re actually bitching that Amazon isn’t discounting your book? Didn’t you just spend two years telling us Amazon was destroying the industry by discounting books? Is there any coherence in your argument at all? Are you just going to complain no matter what Amazon does? Or are you, as is the case with many political pundits, just going to spout the party line regardless of whether it contradicts what you just said. “Amazon’s discounting is killing us” is so last month, I guess.

So here’s my assumption about you based on your own comments. You’re a writer and a lawyer, for God’s sake, so it defies credulity to me that you don’t see the obvious contradiction in your own statements. So I must conclude that you do see it, and just don’t care. You likely never gave a shit about other writers, the industry at large or Amazon’s discounting. You were playing a mouthpiece for your publisher because you thought it was in your best interest at the time. And you did it in defense of a criminal conspiracy by your own publisher and others to violate antitrust law. But now, Amazon’s not discounting and that may hit you in the wallet, so discounting suddenly is no longer destroying the industry but necessary, and you’re statements have shifted accordingly. Credibility all day long, I tell ya. My conclusion is that you’re full of shit, and acting out of your and only your own self interest. Let me ask you, what’s your statement going to be if we find out Hatchette’s trying to reinstitute Agency in some form, limiting or eliminating Amazon’s ability to discount? Actually, I don’t even need to ask, I already know. Assumptions are a bitch, aren’t they?

“Amazon has begun discouraging customers from buying books by Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Colbert, J. D. Salinger and other popular writers, a flexing of its muscle as a battle with a publisher spills into the open.”
–From the New York Times

“Hachette has continually assured us all orders were shipping “in a timely manner” and Amazon was to blame for placing small orders. We’ve asked for copies of the purchase orders and confirmation of the shipment dates from my publisher but have been told, ‘It is not information we would like to be shared with any third party at the current time.'”
–From Digital Book World

The first quote, from the New York Times, contains no “could be”, “reportedly”, or “may be”. It’s “Amazon is”. They don’t know that, only that Hatchette is telling them that. Mightn’t they have an agenda? So does the Times, of course, but that’s a different article. The second quote is from an actual Hatchette author trying to get his publisher to prove what they’re saying. Look at the response again: “It is not information we would like to be shared with any third party at the current time.” No shit. Wonder why?

Here comes some assumptions again. Say I’m in a business arrangement with someone and they get involved in a dispute that negatively affects me, and they’re telling me “It’s not our fault. Those bastards over there are doing it to you.” My reaction is going to be exactly like this guy, “then you’ll have no problem proving to me you’re doing what you say?” If they come back with a response like he got, I can only conclude that they’re lying to me about something.

And are you telling me the writer is a third party in the distribution of his own fucking book? He’s not entitled to see proof that you’re not lying right to his face and actively harming what he contracted you for in the service of your interests elsewhere? Sales that, in the traditional world, operate in a very short time window and can have disastrous consequences on any future career? Fuck off with that noise. Whatever the negotiating battle is being fought over, this little tidbit of information may be the most important of all for writers. Hatchette doesn’t respect this guy, and they certainly aren’t treating him like a business equal. And their refusal to back up their attempt to escape responsibility for something that’s hurting their own authors even to those authors themselves, should be unacceptable. But writers, please remember, you all signed the contracts that made it this way. This Hatchette writer certainly does and is factoring that in to his future choices. So should we all.

What saddens me about this is that there are all these writers out there who see Amazon as a rival of sorts but don’t see the publishers that way. The Hatchette/Amazon dispute, and the ones like it certain to come, is a fight between billion dollar enterprises over staggering sums of money and that’s all it is. The Amazon haters are right about one thing, Amazon is not your friend. But neither are publishers. And if you’re looking for friends in a contract, anyway, you’ve got bigger problems. The best you can hope for in a business arrangement is that your interests and the interests of the other party align and flow in the same direction. You get into one where your interests diverge at some point, you may well find yourself screwed by your own signature.

I can cut off all business dealings with Amazon in the half hour it takes me pull my stuff offline. If I was signed with Hatchette or some other publisher, that type of action is simply unthinkable. I’m stuck with that contract maybe for the rest of my life, or 35 years at the least. And I don’t even have the right to verify they’re living up to their end of it. If the New York Times or Salon or the Wall Street Journal or Scott Turow want to talk about power imbalances, how about we address that one first? Who, exactly, is that man behind the curtain we shouldn’t be paying attention to?

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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