In which I weigh into the whole Amazon vs Hachette ebook pricing argument

Day three of the Awesome Week of Daily Blogging and the posts are still coming thick and fast.* Today I thought I’d weigh into the whole Amazon vs Hachette debacle, because for a new author currently exclusively ebook published on Amazon there’s no way that could be unwise. (‘You have books on Amazon?’ I hear you ask. ‘Why Alison, you hardly mention that at all!’ Indeed. I am too modest. They’re here. Feel free to go buy them.)

For those of you who don’t spend your free time reading articles about corporate disputes in the publishing industry, essentially Amazon (who I’m guessing you’ve heard of) and Hachette (who are a big publisher) have fallen out over new contract negotiations over ebook pricing. Amazon think ebooks should be cheaper. Hachette don’t agree, or, perhaps, just don’t want that to be up to Amazon. I’m simplifying, obviously, and if you’re really interested in the finer details you know where google is, and, if that’s too much effort, there’s some interesting stuff about the changes in the ebook pricing model that led up to this point here.

What I am going to bang on about is the way in which this whole hullabaloo** has led to an outbreak of rather bizarre open letter writing. 900 authors have signed this letter ‘to their readers,’ but actually clearly aimed at Amazon, and helpfully popped the whole thing in the New York Times. Amazon have written this letter to their kindle authors, but actually clearly aimed at Hachette, and, even more helpfully, popped it on the interweb for the world to see too (horribly misrepresented Orwell quote and all). Now part of me applauds this approach to doing business. It might have been thought that letter writing was a dying art, but apparently not. What does seem to be a dying art is the ability to address one’s letter to the relevant person and pop it in an envelope. Open letters are suddenly very much in vogue.

It’s not limited to publishing industry pricing disputes. Gyrate around on TV wearing a flesh coloured leotard accessorized with 2013’s Robin Thicke and people start writing them. Suggest that people ought not to vote, and people write them. And frankly I’m a bit annoyed. Irrationally annoyed, I admit, but annoyed nonetheless. If you want to say something to one individual or company, write them a letter. If you want to say something to a more general audience, write an article or a book or a blogpost or an exceptionally pithy tweet. If the thing you want to say is primarily aimed at improving your own commercial position then be honest with the universe and write an advert.

I’m not quite sure what it is about open letters that winds me up so. Actually, yes, I am sure. It’s the double standard. Open letter writers are trying to have it both ways. When you write something publicly you run the risk that people will think it’s dull, or crap, or will just disagree vehemently with the thought you’ve spent hours crafting and trying to communicate. When you call the thing you’ve written an open letter, you’re giving yourself a get out of being able to pretend it was only really aimed at the named recipient. But it’s not, is it? Because if it was you’d have got a stamp and an envelope and just sent it to them. But maybe you can’t. Maybe the person in question hasn’t given you their address, or email, but that couldn’t possibly be because you don’t know them and they don’t care what you think, could it? Obviously they, and everyone else, need to know what you think. Which is fine. I’m in no position to criticise anyone for the random spouting of opinion at the world. But stop pretending that it’s personal, when it’s just some stuff you reckon.

Now that’s probably a tad unfair on the authors who wrote to their readers, and the wider world, about Amazon. They do clearly have a vested interest in the dispute between Amazon and Hachette and in the wider direction of travel of ebook pricing and the bigger question of who now controls the publishing industry. But there’s another element that I find difficult here, which is that it’s starting to feel as though authors are expected to pick a side. I’ve been asked on facebook and other forums for a view and it’s tricky. The bottom line is that Amazon are a big ol’ business. They’ve already killed off a huge section of the physical bookselling market. They’re moving aggressively into publishing. From a commercial point of view, I see no reason why they wouldn’t want to dominate on both the publishing and retail sides of the business, which sounds bad, but they’ve also brought opportunities for new authors (me included) through the ebook market and the explosion in self-publishing which Amazon has massively supported. Big publishers are increasingly risk averse – previously secure mid-list authors have seen their contracts cancelled or not renewed in recent years, pushing many of them, slightly ironically, into Amazon’s self-publishing embrace.

For the individual players in the system – readers and authors – any one company, or cohort of companies, having dominance is probably not ideal, but being asked whether you’d prefer your industry to be dominated by one retailer or by a few big publishers is no real choice at all. What I want, as an individual author, is to get good quality books out to readers, and to be able to make a living from doing that. However the current round of chips falls, it feels like it’s getting harder and harder to do that.

And everyone breathe. Thank-you.

* Once per day. At best.

** It’s definitely the correct technical term. Stick with me.