Literary lions join protest against Amazon
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The authors are uniting.
Last spring, when Amazon.com Inc. began discouraging customers from buying books published by Hachette, the writers grumbled that they were pawns in the retailer’s contract negotiations over e-book prices. During the summer, they banded together and publicly protested Amazon’s actions.
Now, hundreds of other writers, including some of the world’s most distinguished, are joining the coalition. Few if any are published by Hachette. And they have goals far broader than freeing up the Hachette titles. They want the US justice department to investigate Amazon for illegal monopoly tactics.
They also want to highlight the issue being debated furiously on writers’ blogs: What are the rights and responsibilities of a company that sells half the books in the US and controls the dominant e-book platform?
Andrew Wylie, whose client roster of heavyweights in literature is probably longer than that of any other literary agent, said he was asking all his writers whether they wanted to join the group, Authors United. Among those who have said yes, Wylie said in a phone interview from Paris, are Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera.
“It’s very clear to me, and to those I represent, that what Amazon is doing is very detrimental to the publishing industry and the interests of authors,” the agent said. “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America.”
Amazon declined to comment for this article.
Even Amazon’s detractors readily admit that it is one of the most powerful tools for selling books since the Gutenberg press. But how that power is used is increasingly being questioned in a way it was not during the company’s rise. Take, for instance, the different treatment Amazon has given two new Hachette books on political themes.
Sons of Wichita by Daniel Schulman, a writer for the Mother Jones magazine, came out in May. Amazon initially discounted the book, a well-received biography of the conservative Koch brothers, by 10%, according to a price-tracking service. Now it does not discount it at all. It takes up to three weeks to ship.
The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea by Representative Paul Ryan has no such constraints, an unusual position these days for a new Hachette book.
Amazon refused to take advance orders for The Way Forward, as it does with all new Hachette titles. But once the book was on sale, it was consistently discounted by about 25%. There is no shipping delay. Not surprisingly, it has a much higher sales ranking on Amazon than Sons of Wichita.
An Amazon spokesman declined to explain why The Way Forward was getting special treatment. A spokesman for Ryan, the 2012 Republican party nominee for vice-president, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Hachette declined to comment.
A recent sign-up to Authors United who is not a Wylie client is Ursula K. Le Guin, the recipient of the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Le Guin, author of The Left Hand of Darkness, the Earthsea series and other award-winning works, will be presented her medal by Neil Gaiman, a regular attendee at the all-expenses-paid Campfire weekend for writers hosted by Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive. She has strong feelings about the Amazon-Hachette dispute.
“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author,” Le Guin wrote in an email. “Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”
The Wylie Agency has about a thousand clients. Many have not yet responded to Wylie’s query about Authors United because they are travelling or are inattentive to email. But about 300 Wylie writers have signed on, as well as the estates of Saul Bellow, Roberto Bolaño, Joseph Brodsky, William Burroughs, John Cheever, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Hunter S. Thompson.
Authors United, spearheaded by the thriller writer Douglas Preston, is in the midst of two efforts—writing members of the Amazon board individually in the hope that they will sway Bezos to take Hachette books out of the line of fire while negotiations continue, and drafting a letter to the US justice department asking it to examine Amazon for possible antitrust violations.
Any threat presented by these initiatives does not seem to have weakened Amazon’s resolve. The retailer has said that it was trying to make e-books cheaper and thus more affordable for all, and that publishers and writers would make up in volume what they were losing in margin if the prices were lower.
Confronting Hachette and its authors might incur some short-term public relations damage for Amazon. But if Wall Street feels that the suppliers have the upper hand, that could damage Amazon in a more vulnerable place: its stock market valuation. Amazon shares are underperforming the market this year, but its valuation is still sky-high.
The letter to the justice department is being written by Barry C. Lynn, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. Lynn said the letter, which is being prepared with the help of several antitrust specialists, would be ready at the end of the week.
Whether a viable case could be mounted against Amazon is a matter of debate among antitrust scholars. An earlier effort by Hachette to interest government regulators in a case did not go anywhere.
Amazon had better luck. In 2010, it sent a letter to the justice department outlining a possible antitrust case against Apple Inc. and five major publishers that suggested they had colluded to raise e-book prices. How much that influenced the government is unknown, but the case became a reality. The publishers, including Hachette, denied collusion but settled the case, saying they could not afford to defend it. Apple lost in court.
That acrimonious past hangs heavily over the New York publishing community. Few major editors or agents have spoken publicly about the latest dispute. “Everyone is scared to death of being accused of something,” Wylie said. “It’s impossible for two publishers to have lunch without a lawyer being present.”
©2014/The New York Times