Opinion: What the Amazon/Hachette Battle Means for Future Publishing Professionals

Many people have already read about the circumstances of the Amazon/Hachette feud, and other articles have summarized the issues better than I could in a blog. Read this NY Times opinion piece for a succinct summary of monopsony—”when a buyer of goods has the power to unlawfully lower the prices of what it buys“—Amazon’s predatory business practices, publishers’ legal woes with Apple, and an argument for a new distribution system for all publishers. If you want to read about how publishers’ refusal to raise royalties for authors for ebooks left them vulnerable to Amazon’s aggressive negotiations, peruse this Slate article. And if you have a lot of time on your hands to truly understand Amazon’s corporate attitude and to see more of its attacks on unprepared publishers, read this excellent New Yorker article by George Packer. Finally, you should check out this PW summary of the Apple legal case, where Judge Denise Cote decided in favor of the government (and Amazon in effect) by stating Apple and publishers had attempted to create a monopoly.

Finished doing your reading? I’ll wait!

Now that you’re an expert on Amazon’s relationship with publishers, it should be clear why publishers have become dependent on Amazon as their primary sales channel, and how any steps they might take to rectify that can cripple their business. So, what could this mean for your future career? Here’s some possibilities, and their likelihood:

A. Publishers band together to create a new digital platform for ebooks (not likely)— Imagine if you were put on a task force to help design a new commercial platform for books from the Big 5 publishers, and possibly some smaller publishers. Each publisher has so many books that this new site would need a system of curation and recommendations that shows the products from each publisher. Would Penguin-Random House get prime placement because they sell the most books, and would they accept anything less? Similarly, would smaller publishers demand equal placement in order to compete against their larger counterparts, and would the Big 5 allow this to happen? And who would decide which books are put on sale (by genre or publisher or authors); would there be a committee of staffers from each publisher, or a third party company trusted with making fair choices?

In either case, if publishers set up this site with this level of collaboration and withdrew their books from Amazon, Denise Cote and the Department of Justice might leap to Amazon’s defense again, declaring this action another monopoly that gives one site power over pricing of goods. If they merely created the site and continued to put their books on Amazon, then publishers would have the continued problem of competing against Amazon’s business model of selling for a loss. Ultimately, if you can figure out a solution to the Amazon problem, you can guarantee yourself a promotion and a raise at your company, so the problem is worth tackling, but I don’t agree with the NY Times that this is the solution.

B. Publishers create more dynamic individual websites (likely to happen, not to succeed)—It’s weird to think that publishers used to warehouse and distribute their own books, even own their own bookstores. Now, publishers can take a leaf out of the books of self-published authors who distribute their own books. Marketing their own books and bringing readers to their actual website (not just job-seekers), publishers can make huge profits by cutting out the middleman. A lot of smaller publishers have revamped their website to try and make their books more accessible, while others have tried making it a site of social media. Editorial or marketing assistants who find a way to bring more traffic to the site, or business employees who manage to improve sales on the actual site, would greatly raise their stock in the company. Unfortunately, the problem of Amazon’s predatory pricing won’t disappear anytime soon. If consumers are going into bookstores only to buy them on Amazon, you can bet that they will find it even easier to open Amazon in a second tab from the comfort of one’s home.

C. Publishers drop all risky, diverse, and mid-list titles in favor of guaranteed moneymakers (Already happening)–Publishers sell the majority of their books at a major discount to retailers: usually 60% discount to big box stores like Walmart and 47-50% to B&N and Amazon. Combine that with the fact that about 600,000 to 1 million books are published per year in the US including self-published books, publishers are struggling to make enough profit on books to even make back their royalty advances to authors. Partially a sign that publishers need to step up their marketing and publicity schemes to support their authors, these statistics also show why publishers are becoming risk-averse. If you plan on becoming an acquisitions editor trying to pitch a book to your peers, you have to prepare for the eventuality that books will become so unprofitable that you can only acquire titles that are “guaranteed” to sell. That means more celebrity titles, more books by the same authors with strong fan bases, and more derivative knock-offs of whatever sells (i.e. the influx of supernatural romance and dystopias after Twilight and Hunger Games); by logical extension, that means driving away new authors toward self-publishing or not writing at all, as well as a continued exclusion of writers and characters of color (see the recent BEA controversy for a sign of how publishing remains overly homogenized).

 

There are certainly other eventualities that could arise from this feud. Amazon and Hachette could end up maintaining the status quo for a few more years. Or authors could Kickstart their own website to sell their books, which could actually end up helping publishers and authors while avoiding any claim of monopoly. Or Amazon could drive more publishers to merge together in order to survive. But what this means for you depends on whether or not you are willing and able to help your future employer separate itself from Amazon and create a new system of bookselling.

Thanks for reading!

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