Overinvesting in the Battle of the Book Titans

deco crop

ICYMI, there’s an ongoing battle between Hachette (one of the big publishing groups) and Amazon. Specifically, a heated negotiation about ebook discount rates has been escalating. People on both sides of the battle are weighing in, including David Gaughran, Stephen Colbert, the Author’s Guildthose siding with traditional publishing,  and those defending Amazon as the publisher of the 99%. New York is a publishing town, so the business negotiations even rated a NY Times Op-Ed.  Martin Shepherd, publisher of the Permanent Press, gave his perspective as a smaller, independent publisher (he sides with Amazon).  And now, the Passive Voice blog reports that the European Union competition chief is looking into the dispute.

Um, nothing like a spat involving writers, to get writers writing. Right?

In this clash of the titans, it’s instructive to read the reader’s comments as well – many writers, including the sorts who cannot afford full-page ads in the New York Times, discuss their experience writing for traditional publishers, and as independent authors. (For a primer on the divide between the two forms of publishing, this article slamming self-publishing (though not for the reasons you think), and its comments, is a good place to start understanding the publishing landscape. The insights into the inner workings of the publishing trade are interesting.)  But if you read the articles above, you’ll notice that some of the commentary is getting downright hyperbolic. Is it just dueling P.R. streams, or are people really feeling this concerned?

It’s interesting how engaged the public gets in negotiations between business titans. Of course, those directly involved in the industry do have a stake in the results. But unless you’re an author or publisher, or a great big buyer of books, the outcome isn’t likely to change much in your life. Yet people are seeing it as a bit of a morality play, and choosing sides (good v. bad, greedy v. generous, tradition v. “disruption”).  Are our lives really so boring that we have to identify with, or worry about, which billion-dollar entity prevails? This sort of over-identification also seems to be found in people who get truly emotional about celebrity weddings, giddy about product launches, who genuinely mourned the passing of a man they never met (Steve Jobs), or among Americans who feel they must defend Kate Middleton. All that empathy and emotional energy may be kind of sweet, but….it’s wasted. Not to get all political on you, but in this sense corporations are not people – they don’t really have morals and feelings like the two-footed variety. It’s not as if Amazon and Hachette are fighting for life, liberty, and happiness on your behalf – rather, it’s a negotiation that will provide ancillary costs and benefits to different classes of people. It’s not Jeff Bezos who is personally complaining, it’s his team of  attorneys (acting in their own official capacity, regardless of personal beliefs) meeting with another team of  attorneys, because that’s what corporations with shareholders do.  In the meantime, Hachette is laying off 3% of its employees (nothing to do with this spat), and Amazon is (possibly) getting into the 3-D phone business. And chances are, neither company much cares what you think of them, unless, of course, you refrain from buying their products.


If you are going to follow a publishing battle like it’s the Yankees v. Red Sox, here’s where you should turn your attention: the battle in which Dinanath Batra sent a legal notice to Wendy DonigerPenguin Group USA and the Penguin India subsidiary, raising several objections on the book The Hindus: An Alternative History by Doniger.

Here is a brilliant article by Aarti Sethi in Kafila on the issue:

#youhadonejob: Or, A Quick Legal Primer for Publishers. Or, What (Not) to Do When Dinanath (and other busybodies) Strike






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>