Elites or freedom fighters: How the Amazon-Hachette battle took on the rhetoric of class warfare


Credit: Biz Carson / Gigaom

One side defends the ideals that this nation was founded on: Independence and freedom from tyranny. The other side is made up of elites who keep the little people down and take the money that is rightfully theirs in an attempt to control the message and maintain the status quo.

I’m talking not about the Tea Party and big government, but the worlds of self-publishing and traditional publishing. Yet the rhetoric in both debates often sounds very much the same. In 2009, the Tea Party movement took shape in the United States. At just around the same time, ebooks began gaining in popularity, and as the digital publishing revolution took off, so did the once-stigmatized practice of self-publishing. Authors were suddenly able to get their ebooks to large audiences without going through traditional publishers. On January 20, 2010, Amazon (s amzn) began offering 70 percent royalties on self-published Kindle books (priced between $2.99 and $9.99.) In doing so, it opened up a new revenue stream for thousands of people.

In the summer of 2014, the battle between traditional publishing and self-publishing has hit fever pitch as Amazon and Hachette wage a fairly public battle over their contract negotiations. On one side is Amazon, which is demanding a larger commission on ebook sales. On the other side is Hachette, which argues that Amazon’s demands would be ruinous for it and its authors. While the fight itself is not directly about self-publishing versus traditional publishing, that’s one of the things it’s come to stand for. It has deepened the sense of division between the two worlds.

The wildly differing rhetoric used on each side provides some insight into why the negotiations seem so momentous, and it is one explanation for why it can be so difficult for the supporters of each side to find any common ground. Some of the most outspoken leaders of the self-publishing movement have adopted Tea Party-like rhetoric benefiting Amazon that can make it difficult for those from the “elite” world of traditional publishing to sympathize. Those traditional publishers, bestselling traditionally published authors and literary folk, on the other hand, tend toward anti-Amazon arguments that the self-publishing movement finds preposterous.

Amazon, meanwhile, has capitalized on many self-published authors’ sense of disenfranchisement to advance the idea that it is the champion of the underdog, despite the fact that it is a multibillion-dollar corporation.

Don’t tread on me

Amazon is a larger company than any of the publishers it works with. Its revenue in 2013 was $74.5 billion. By contrast, the revenue generated by Hachette’s entire parent company, Lagardere, was $9.8 billion in 2013, with Hachette’s U.S. revenue totaling about $640 million. Though it is a much larger company than the publishers it does business with, Amazon has nonetheless successfully portrayed itself as the champion of the little guy.

Amazon’s ability to pull this off reflects an underlying trend in the self-publishing movement: Its reliance on Tea Party-esque, “freedom fighter” rhetoric. Earlier this year, self-publishing site Smashwords published “The Indie Author Manifesto,” modeled after the Declaration of Independence and including the line “I shall not bow beholden or subservient to any publisher.”

indie author manifesto

Similarly, self-published author Joe Konrath, who runs a blog that promotes self-publishing, wrote in a post last week:

“When in the Course of publishing events, it becomes necessary for writers to sever their ties with the industry that is supposed to have ‘nurtured’ them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that we should declare the causes which impel those writers to the separation.”

The language of Amazon supporters is often an odd combination of both Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street-type rhetoric, with allusions to class warfare and elite one-percenters. In early July, Konrath and self-published author Hugh Howey published a pro-Amazon petition on Change.org. (As of Sunday, it had been signed by over 7,000 people.) “We don’t celebrate…the tactics being used by Hachette, a publisher owned by the multi-billion dollar French company Lagardere,” they wrote (freedom fries, anyone?) and went on to write of “millionaire author propaganda,” “chattel,” “small business owners” and “independence.”

“While most of the major publishers are owned by large media giants, we are small business owners who work from our homes,” the petition states. “While Hachette has TV personalities and millionaires taking out ads in major newspapers, we have only a chorus of voices and an appeal for sanity and clear thinking. … Boycotting Amazon is preventing us from reaching you. It is an end to our independence.”

Meanwhile, statements that Hachette and Amazon released last week illustrate the ways in which Amazon has picked up on the voice of the self-publishing movement, while Hachette’s language is stilted and formal:


“Amazon has just sent us a brief proposal. We invite Amazon to withdraw the sanctions they have unilaterally imposed, and we will continue to negotiate in good faith and with the hope of a swift conclusion. We believe that the best outcome for the writers we publish is a contract with Amazon that brings genuine marketing benefits and whose terms allow Hachette to continue to invest in writers, marketing, and innovation.  We look forward to resolving this dispute soon and to the benefit of the writers who have trusted their books to us.”


“We call baloney. Hachette is part of a $10 billion global conglomerate. It wouldn’t be ‘suicide.’ They can afford it. What they’re really making clear is that they absolutely want their authors caught in the middle of this negotiation because they believe it increases their leverage. All the while, they are stalling and refusing to negotiate, despite the pain caused to their authors. Our offer is sincere. They should take us up on it.”

“We call baloney” is the master stroke: Brief, folksy and eminently tweetable. “Our offer is sincere. They should take us up on it.” Just 51 characters — easy to share that!

Hachette’s statement is written with more complex language and can’t be distilled into a single phrase; there is nothing there that you want to tweet and I had to think for a second about what they meant by “sanctions.” Both sides argue this is war, but Amazon is more charming about it and makes its message easier to spread.

You’re entitled to your own facts

One of the key questions in the traditional-vs.-self-publishing debate is how traditional publishers add value. In a world where physical bookstores are closing and retail is moving online, the argument that publishers are able to get physical books into bookstores becomes ever less relevant. Marketing support is intangible. So the debate often comes down to the advances: The money that traditional publishers pay authors before their books are published. Advances, arguably, allow for the existence of books that would not otherwise be written by allowing authors to sustain themselves as they write and research. Robert Caro, author of the multivolume Lyndon Johnson biography, is constantly trotted out as the example of the kind of author who would not have been able to do his work without advances and years of support from publisher Knopf.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=””] In a world where physical bookstores are closing and retail is moving online, the argument that publishers are able to get physical books into bookstores becomes ever less relevant.[/pullquote]

The flip side of advances, however, is the fact that traditional publishers pay low royalties on ebooks — 17.5 percent for books sold under the agency model, where the publisher gets 70 percent of an ebook’s list price and the retailer takes 30 percent. Combined, the notion of advances and low digital royalties can seem outdated and inefficient and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, with its 70 percent royalty on books between $2.99 and $9.99, seems more forward-thinking. Attempts to modernize the concept of advances — publishers are venture capitalists, taking on risk! — tend to fall flat in traditional vs. self-publishing debates. (Amazon’s more traditional publishing imprints, by the way, pay a 35 percent digital royalties and advances.)

There are valid financial arguments for both the traditional publishing model and the self-publishing model. But when it comes to a war of words, Amazon’s model sounds simpler and is easier to explain.

This is especially relevant when it comes to the “proposal” that Amazon floated last week, in which it suggested that Hachette authors receive 100 percent of the royalties on each ebook sold during the contract negotiations. Amazon wrote in its letter:

“If Hachette agrees, for as long as this dispute lasts, Hachette authors would get 100% of the sales price of every Hachette e-book we sell. Both Amazon and Hachette would forego all revenue and profit from the sale of every e-book until an agreement is reached…

Here’s an example: if we sell a book at $9.99, the author would get the full $9.99, many multiples of what they would normally get.”

This would actually hurt Hachette much more than it would hurt Amazon — but explaining how is complicated. Here is an attempt from book publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

“So we have a $10 ebook. Normally, Amazon would pay $7 to Hachette and keep $3. Hachette would notionally divide the $7 as $5.25 to Hachette and $1.75 to the author. What Amazon proposed was that the author would get the whole ten dollars, Amazon would give up its $3 and Hachette would give up its $5.25…

But the math is worse than that because Hachette has already paid the author’s $1.75 in the advance for the lion’s share of the sales that would be made under this deal if it were agreed to. So Amazon is giving up $3 and Hachette is giving up $7 on most of the books. And many of the authors, frankly, aren’t entitled to even their own share on those sales (they already got it), let alone Hachette’s (or Amazon’s).”

That makes sense, if you read the fine print, but terms like “100%” and “the full $9.99” are a lot easier to understand or to explain in one sentence.

In another example, here’s Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti on the company’s demand for a higher commission on ebooks sales:

“This discussion is all about e-book pricing. The terms under which we trade will determine how good the prices are that we can offer consumers.”

And on the other hand, here’s Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch, explaining:

“On a 30 percent retailer commission and 70 percent publisher split, a standard author agreement allocates the equivalent of 17.5 percent of the consumer price to the author. A 40 percent commission turns that into 15 percent of consumer price (a 14 percent reduction in author share); a 50 percent commission turns that into 12.5 percent of the consumer price — a 28.5 percent drop in author share. And yes, the big publishers ought to have increased their royalties for ‘hardcover’ ebooks long ago — but on a 50 percent commission split, a 35 percent royalty would leave the author standing still, while reducing the publisher’s final net by 38 percent.”

Explanations like these are essential — but they’re not sexy or simple. Amazon wins the public messaging war, repeatedly, and it does so with clear messaging that seems simple on its face.

Who exactly is the underdog here?

One of the main reasons that charges of “elitism” rankle the traditional publishing world, I think, is that most people who work in the industry — whether they are publishers, independent booksellers, editors or authors — don’t feel like one-percenters. And most of them aren’t: Book publishing pays notoriously low salaries and most authors — whether they are traditionally published or self-published — will never get rich.

Supporters of Hachette and traditional publishing fear Amazon’s growing power. They worry that its business practices will drive publishers into the ground, forcing them to consolidate or go out of business, and leading to a less competitive and vibrant marketplace for books.

Gigaom illustration by Biz Carson, adapted from Shutterstock.

Gigaom illustration by Biz Carson, adapted from Shutterstock.

But I think that many members of this group fear the loss of the “right” kinds of books. Thus far, all of the greatest self-publishing successes have been in genre fiction — thrillers, mystery, romance, science fiction — rather than literary fiction or narrative nonfiction, the types of books that win the biggest prizes and get serious reviews. There is a fear that in a world dominated by self-publishing and Amazon, it’s not just “books” that wouldn’t get published, it’s the “important” books that wouldn’t get published. (Robert Caro, anyone?)

There is, too, a fear that Amazon does not value or respect books as cultural objects. “To our knowledge, Amazon has never clearly and unequivocally stated (as traditional publishers have) that books are different and special, that they can’t be treated like the other commodities they sell,” the Authors Guild’s Richard Russo wrote last week. “This doesn’t strike us as an oversight.”

Barry Eisler, an author who has published books both traditionally and with Amazon and is on Amazon’s side in this debate, speculated last week on the sense of “sacredness” he perceives in many arguments against Amazon: “I’m not saying these people view Hachette authors literally as the apostles and Hachette literally as Jesus Christ. But they do seem to think the author/publisher relationship properly goes far beyond just business. For the references to be coherent, there has to be a perception of a substantial degree of intimacy, even of sacredness, in these relationships. Meaning, apparently, that by not buying into the faith, Amazon must be committing heresy.”

Supporters of Amazon, on the other hand, fear the power of media conglomerates and decry a publishing landscape dominated by Manhattan elites. They, too, worry that big publishers’ business practices will lead to a less competitive marketplace for books by forcing out the little guy — but in their view, the little guy is the “small business owner,” and the notion that a book publisher or traditionally published author like James Patterson or Douglas Preston or Stephen Colbert could ever be the little guy is absurd.

To those taking sides in Amazon vs. Hachette, this fight isn’t simply a contract negotiation between two large corporations. It’s a clash of value systems; an actual example of class warfare. Amazon seems to understand that better than Hachette does, and it is successfully making Hachette seem aloof, snobbish and elite.

The book publisher, ironically, is not winning the war of words.



Hi Laura: Thank you for noticing and calling out that trend. I agree that there’s an “us” vs. “them” mentality, somewhat reductionist, emerging in this debate. If we have to be reductionist, may I at least suggest we draw the lines a bit differently?

Self-published authors and small presses are in the same boat here, since many of us have a cozier relationship with Amazon than do the Big Five. So, while most small presses fit the “traditional publisher” mold, I think it would be more accurate to say that many independent publishers, aligned with Amazon, are taking on the rhetoric of class warfare against the Big Five.

Yesterday, Instascribe wrote something that stuck with me: “But right now many indie authors and publishers are celebrating Amazon’s power as their own. I am not so sure about their confidence. Amazon can definitely turn to squeeze them the next” (emphasis mine). To me, this trend also has parallels in the Tea Party: many grass-roots libertarians celebrate Big Business as a check against the tyranny of Big Government. But I’m not sure that Big Business is any more a friend of the grass-roots than Big Government.

Zach Higginson

I don’t think you could get this more wrong. No one cares what Amazon does sales wise, they sell everything under the sun. So comparing sales of the two companies is more or less pointless. The reason Amazon gets the “for the little guy” tag is why? Because, they give 70% of sales to the one doing all the work, the way it should be. My wife couldn’t even get an agent to actually open and read a manuscript for 4 years. She indie published in 2010, She is regularly ranked in 4-5 top 100 author categories and makes well into 6 figures. She makes more than 95% of traditionally published authors.

Legacy publishing is dying because they refuse to evolve. They missed the boat, but instead of trying to jump on board, they are running the opposite direction. Just read anything put out by the authors guild, it sounds like they are talking about a printing press in the 1500’s. You’ve got James Patterson out there talking about wanting the government to get involved and essentially stop indie publishing. Really James? You want the Government to get involved in what people can read, can you say fascist?

The fact is technology will always move forward. Look at Napster(and others), initially sued and shutdown. Look how it changed the landscape of music. Do people still buy Cd’s??? Books will continue to grow towards ebooks, the only way to combat Amazon is to challenge their prices and make something better. Adapt or die.

Deborah Smith

Hi, Zach. I hear this a lot. I always find it interesting that the name of the super successful author (in this case, your wife) is rarely mentioned. Can you update us with her name or pen name and some book titles?

John F. Harnish

Hello Mark… the issues are beyond opposing points of view. It’s more like an open and shut case of blocking avenues as opposed to opening the marketplace for all authors.

Power plays are not unusual for mega publishers.

My problem with the Big 6… now 5… publishers goes back to the early 2000s. This was the dawn of the Digital Age of publishing. POD was the new evolving branch in the industry. Bookstores were special ordering POD books and even adding a few books by regional authors to in-store inventory. Indie bookstores were stocking POD books and scheduling book signings featuring local authors. These POD books by unknown authors were starting to sell in respectable numbers in a retail market dominated by the publishing giants. This influx of POD books by unknown authors into the marketplace could not be allowed to happen!!!

There’s no way to prove there was collusion to suppress the sales of POD books through the bookstore chains, but follow a suspected chain of events and connect the damning dots. The mainstream houses talked with the owners of the major newspapers expressing concerns that their mega advertising budgets might need to be reduce if their book reviewers wasted a column inch reviewing those damn POD books. Newspapers survive on advertising dollars, the big publishers were big advertisers, thusly ended the opportunity of reviews in the major papers.

Next the publishers had a conversation with the bookstore chain executives to bluntly explain if they wanted to continue to receive sweetheart deals and have A-list authors appear at store events then they damn well better keep POD books out of their stores. This was a no-brainer, business was business and famous authors were good for business—customers bought discounted books hyped onto the bestseller lists by the traditional publishers.

The gigantic publishers, major newspapers, and bookstore chains created a perfect Catch-22. The major reviewers could tell POD authors without distribution through the national chains we would anger our readers if they couldn’t buy reviewed books in their favorite bookstore chain. The chains refused to handle POD books that weren’t reviewed by the major reviewers—no reviews equals no sales. The reviewers and chains had perfect excuses for having nothing to do with POD books. Blocking the marketplace would bring a quick end to the foolishness of this POD fad.

Thankfully there were two exceptions of vital importance to authors.

Amazon continued to feature POD books on their website just like every other published book. Someone explained to the Big Publishers’ big wheels that to do otherwise would be contrary to Jeff Bezos announced mission to build Amazon into the world’s largest bookstore offering customers every book in print—POD never goes out of print. There’s no profit from books not offered for sale.

Thankfully, indie bookstore owners loved stocking POD books because these were books their customers couldn’t buy at the competing chains. One innovative POD publisher offered bookstores standard industry discounts with a liberal return policy that wasn’t a financial noose around the publisher’s neck.

Motivated authors directed interested folks to purchase their POD books from Amazon or indie bookstores. In spite of being shutout of the chains, POD books sold steadily in ever increasing numbers. The digital publishing branch evolved and produced sweet fruit for authors—naturally watered by Amazon because that’s where the most money flows from product enhanced pages on the website with heaviest customer traffic.

The publishers’ power-play to control ebook pricing is easy to understand—the greatest future profits will come from the digital rights to the author’s content. The playing field has changed. Major newspapers have discontinued or reduced column inches devoted to book reviews—readership is dwindling. Likewise, brick and mortar bookstores continue to close—my guess, the indie stores will be the survivors.

Most likely there are authors feeling they sold out too soon for a modest advance and low royalties. Other authors are mumbling about getting fleeced by greedy “publishing services.” Many authors with contracted ties to a “mainstream house” or under agreement with a “publishing service” are bemoaning the lack of promotional efforts—especially ebook editions.

A side note, B&N bookstore buyers weren’t ordering POD books, but bn.com continued to display and sell POD books from their website. Also, some mainstream publishers covertly added all titles in-print into POD publishing systems. The books would never go out of print, thusly rights to the content would never revert back to the author. Authors and agents cried foul and forced a major modification.

Authors have discovered they have voices beyond the printed pages.

The mega publishers have attempted to block or control aspects of digital publishing. Amazon has stayed the course of Jeff’s mission statement and amassed the world’s largest bookstore, which is supported by a vast consumer marketplace where every book has a display window.

Enjoy often… John

Deborah Smith

Your conspiracy theories are interesting, but there’s a simple explanation for why POD books don’t get into bookstores — most of them aren’t designated as “returnable”. Booksellers will not take copious risks on books they can’t sell and can’t return, without penalty, to the wholesaler.


Amazon is using its muscle to work over a publisher and its authors. Dare I bring up what they did to Diapers.com and other businesses they have conquered. In their zeal to gain control, they act immorally, are disingenuous, and abuse their power in the shades of Microsoft and Apple. Consequently, shopping at Amazon is a last resort as I’m perfectly happy spending a little more with someone else to avoid contributing to the unholy beast Amazon has become. And from reading The Everything Store Amazon isn’t a pleasant place to work for either.


I’ve read this twice and I’ve started to think it is satire.

Mark Coker

Hi Laura, this is great post. I think all sides of the debate would do well to consider the negative implications a debate charged with class warfare language.

All movements risk being hijacked by extremists. The Tea Party movement offers many examples of that. The Koch brothers were early string-pullers – http://www.nationaljournal.com/politics/david-koch-seeded-major-tea-party-group-private-donor-list-reveals-20130924 – and although the Koch brothers’ views share strong philosophical alignment with Tea Party views, Koch companies stand to benefit enormously from less government. I hope indies who are adopting class warfare terminology (calling publishers ‘elites’ or attacking hachette’s author supporters as out of touch millionaires or attacking “mainstream media” for biases that are more often imagined than real) pause to consider how such messaging leads to destructive polarization that helps no one. Although many Americans of all political parties sympathized with many of the early tea party ideals (who can argue with such gems as less government, lower taxes and more personal freedom?), it’s a useful reminder to observe how republicans embraced the tea party in a way the democrats did not, and now the republican party is itself being ripped apart by the fissures created by new extremist wing.

Extremism gets people’s attention, but it’s also dangerous.

I’m a staunch pro-indie, but I’ve been dismayed by the recent radicalization of elements of the indie movement. At times I feel like a lone moderate. Neither Hachette nor Amazon are all-good or all-bad. Both companies care about their authors in their own way. Neither is the evil villain. They’re just two companies who share different views about what’s best for the future of authors, books and their businesses. It’s unfortunate that some in the indie debate paint this as a “you’re either with us or you’re against us” view, where “us” = has come to mean the pro-Amazon indies.

There are many indies who don’t have a voice in this public debate because they’re not yelling and screaming, and they don’t buy into this false choice of either being with Amazon or against Amazon. They appreciate Amazon but want what Hachette wants – 70% list on ebooks, and even within this group there are some that want pricing control and others who don’t mind discounting as long as they get their 70%.

I have no doubt that the power center in publishing is irreversibly shifting to indies, but I don’t see this as a global holy war. Indie vs. traditional is a false choice, and neither approach must fail for the other to succeed. I think this nuance is often lost when language gravitates to the extreme.

The indie movement is an author-centric movement. I tried to capture the ethos of the movement in the Manifesto, and I realize that capturing the ethos 100% is a near-impossibility because the movement is as diverse as humans are diverse. The statement in #6 of the Manifesto, “I shall not bow beholden or subservient to any publisher” is often quoted standalone as you do here but when quoted standalone it gives an incorrect, anti-publisher message. It’s meant to be paired with the second sentence, which completes the message of #6: “In my business relationships, I seek partnership, fairness, equity and mutually aligned interests.” I think in a future version of the Manifesto I’ll remove the period and make it a comma so these thoughts are properly connected. This statement taken in total provides the framework by which authors and publishers can work together in productive harmony toward mutually aligned objectives. The power is with the author to partner with publishers who can execute with aligned interests. I know some people have taken my #6 as anti-publisher. It’s not. It’s pro-fairness, pro-equity, pro-partnership and pro-alignment.

All authors now enjoy independent options they never enjoyed before. Therefore, the future I see is that all authors become indie authors, including authors who choose *not* to self publish. It’s up to the author to choose their business partners and make their own business decisions, and these business decisions can be made with pride, professionalism and respect. Authors who choose or aspire to traditionally publish aren’t brainwashed, they’re not suffering Stockholm Syndrome, and they’re not ignorant idiots – no more so that authors who aspire to indie publish.

Laura Hazard Owen

Thanks so much for the comment, Mark. I totally agree with you lots of this, including/especially “indie vs. traditional is a false choice, and neither approach must fail for the other to succeed.”


Amazon does not offer a 70% royalty. They take a 30% cut of the sale. There is a world of difference between the two.

Robert Gregory Browne

The point he’s making is that it’s not a royalty. Amazon is not the publisher of the books. The author is the publisher and is paying Amazon 30% for use of their retail space. I suspect Amazon’s use of the term is aimed at writers, because “royalty” is what they understand.


I believe the term is “distributor”. Amazon is your distributor when you self-publish… but that doesn’t sound as jazzy as saying you get a royalty.

Playing with words is also an indication of Amazon trying to throw up smoke and mirrors – 30% royalty sounds very cool when you want to put down publishers when it’s really the FEE they charge for distributing your work.

But then why confuse the issue with facts?


Laura Hazard Owen

Thanks, all – Alex, Robert, Sheryl. Fee is a good way of looking at it – just another example of how language matters here, I guess :)


So, you use Mark Coker’s manifesto to draw a parallel between the Tea Party and self-publishing authors who support Amazon.

But did you know that Coker actually came out on Hachette’s side just a few days ago?

The divide might not necessarily be as clear-cut as you think.

Robert Gregory Browne

“Hachette would notionally divide the $7 as $5.25 to Hachette and $1.75 to the author.”

I think this is the crux of it all. In traditional publishing, the people who create the content that makes this business even possible get the smaller slice of the pie. There’s something odd about that, and the fact that we accept it so readily is disheartening.

But indie authors are far from being Tea Partiers. In politics, the Tea Partiers are on the weak side of the argument, twisting or ignoring facts to fit their agenda.

Just the opposite is true in this case.


The reason for the is probably because publishers have to pay production costs and a whole bunch of people: editors, designers, typesetter, proofreaders, marketeers, publicists, sales people (and that’s just the ones who work on books themselves). Plus they’re like any other business, they need to make profit.

There’s something odd about the fact that we think publishers just take the money without doing any work.


And yet the cut that publishers take from a paper book is much closer to 50/50. It is only with ebooks, where their costs have gone down that publishers are taking such an unbalanced cut. All the money saved from not having to print and distribute a physical product goes straight into the publisher’s pocket. Yet all of the costs you listed are the same for print and ebook.

You’re also making some assumptions that self published authors don’t used typesetters, editors, or proofreaders. Many do, and for far less than the publishers “charge” them. They have access to this “value” without going through a publisher. So what does a publisher provide that the author can’t get on their own? Marketing and Advances.

But in the case of marketing many big publishers actually do very little for the average author. Most of the marketing budget is spent on big names that are already established. And the same goes for the advances.

No one is saying that they don’t offer SOME value. But the world has changed and it seems pretty clear that what they offer is over priced. And rather than adjust their business model to offer more value for the money they are fighting for protection and price fixing under the guise of “protecting books”. Well I love books. But I think the publishers are hurting them more than helping them.


Ebooks still have production costs that are separate from the paper version. Especially since there’s no universal format and you have to do different versions for different platforms. It is cheaper than printing, but maybe not as cheap as you might think.

In terms of advances, you’re right, big names get more money. But a small advance is better than none, no? Plus they pay the advances according to what they think the book will sell. They can’t give you thousands if you only sell a couple of hundred copies.

Publishing needs to update itself, you’re absolutely right about that. I just don’t think that what Amazon is doing is helping with that. Quite the contrary. It’s less publicised, but they’re using the same tactics against independent publishers too. The agile publishers who are more likely to implement the needed changes to the industry than the big giants. Look at what’s going on in UK: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-27994314

Deborah Smith

Amazon is brutal towards its “vendors” and that means all publishers. Small presses are getting squeezed to the wall to give up all their profits to Amazon. I’m beginning to suspect that the Big A’s ultimate goal is to drive small presses out of existence so that most authors have no alternative but to go to Amazon. TinFoil Hat Theory? Read up on Amazon’s track record.

Robert Gregory Browne

Well, after publishing several books with the Big 5, I’d say that I worked a heck of a lot harder on them than they did.

But I’m not saying they don’t do anything. I’m saying that what they do does not warrant the largest slice of the pie. That should go first to the people who make the business possible. The content creators.

Deborah Smith

Thank you egglescake. This bizarre vox populi arithmetic that says “publishers get xx” as if Publisher is a lazy oaf on a couch somewhere is ludicrous. I’ve sat with editors going back twenty years and listened to conversations about P and L statements and how little profit each book actually makes. And as a small press owner I can tell you we ain’t getting rich.

Mark Thornton

This is a nice summary of the situation Laura. For years I’ve been telling people that Amazon are genuinely revolutionary (unlike what marketing people usually mean by revolutionary, e.g. a new type of hair colouring or chocolate coating), because by being the ‘last man standing’ in terms of pure-play web retailers, they ARE the Internet. Ecommerce on the Internet (from the early days of widespread ecommerce in the late 90s) was always about smashing the status-quo, but thanks to punctuated equilibrium (Google it) it has taken a while to ‘flip’ the guys at the top. The DNA of the Internet is now Amazon’s DNA – and because they have evolved from the hyper-competitive Darwinian world of early-stage start-up, they are deadly. That’s why they are so good at PR. Bezos constantly tells his troops ‘we are at war’. For them this is a struggle for survival – for the publishers, it’s an annoying ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘solved’. This is not going to end well for publishers – Amazon have rapidly evolved in a global marketplace largely free of competition, tax and labour laws, they have massive momentum. It will take many years before we have the global structures in place similar to national structures that foster healthy competition and nation states. I’d admire them if I wasn’t an indie bookseller :-)

Deborah Smith

Amazon uses books to sell toasters. Publishers sell books. Just books.
That’s the difference. Case the “survival” talk any way you want, but when a 100 billion $ global merchandiser (Amazon) ruthlessly undercuts prices on much smaller competitors to usurp their markets, claim their products, and cheapen their brand, then sneers at them for complaining, and the “product” is the lifeline of ideas, conversations and democratic exchanges of debates (warts and all) then you have a tyranny in the making.


You mention what the publisher value proposition isn’t (“a way to get books into bookstores”) in an increasingly digital marketplace, but could somebody help explain what the publisher value proposition is today? I’m guessing it would be access to promotional relationships with other media outlets (junkets and the like), but what else? And why couldn’t Amazon or some other self-publishing focused entity build similar relationships (aside from media outlet prejudice against democratized, open media)? And why couldn’t authors create a crowd funding site to generate their own advances?


Getting books into stores remains a key value proposition for publishers. The author of this piece is seriously mistaken about that. Supporting bookstores, which remain an essential and primary means of promoting non-formulaic and nonfiction books to a sizable readership, is one of the big reasons why all these prominent authors are challenging Amazon. Market research has demonstrated that Amazon and other online retailers suck at discovery — that is, they are not where book buyers go to find out about new books and authors, only the place they go to buy books once they’ve discovered them. Good booksellers, on the other hand, have proven their power in this department over and over again.

Chain bookstores are definitely foundering, but indie book selling has seen a resurgence and most established authors are acutely aware that booksellers like these played a crucial role in getting them established in the first place. The inability of Amazon to get books into bricks and mortar bookstores is also a major reason why NO established bestselling author has defected to Amazon and self-publishing despite all the predictions of the imminence of such a defection we’ve been hearing for ages now.

As a reader, the value proposition for me is the curation. I have no interested in wading into the self-pub swamp and fishing around in that goo for the rare lump of gold. Who’s got the time? When the “indie” author scene produces novelists as good as Donna Tartt, David Mitchell and Gillian Flynn, maybe I’ll reconsider that, but even so, I value well-researched, well-written nonfiction, and the indie publishing model makes no provision for such books and the advances required to produce them. Joking about the invocation of Robert Caro is lame. There are many nonfiction authors of Caro’s calibre or close to it whose books would not exist without the traditional publishing model. The fact that indie authors shrug off that point totally seals the deal for me: They only care about themselves. I have no doubt that any single nonfiction book by Caro, Katherine Boo, Walter Isaacson, etc. is worth more than 100 middle-of-the-road thrillers by the likes of Konrath and Eisler.

Sure, all authors are entitled to publish even if no one wants to read their books. Fine. But in no way are all books equal. Some are much better than others.


Once upon a time “Tea Party” wasn’t an insult.

The reference is really just little guys (indie authors) standing up to an establishment (publishers).


I BEG your pardon but there are one heck of a lot of references to the Declaration of Independence in the course of American history than the Tea Party and trying to smear Indy Authors with that connection is not appreciated.

Laura Hazard Owen

In the course of American history, sure, but I can’t think of another movement so publicly using that language right now. I actually can’t see how this post smears indie authors, though.


Elizabeth Warren in many of her speeches about the corruption of Wall street leans heavily on concepts of democracy, and the “little guy” standing up to the “elites”. Net neutrality advocates rely heavily on populist rhetoric as well. That you chose to use the Tea Party as your sole example says a bit about your sympathies here, even if you don’t view it as a slur. Populist language is all over the political spectrum and the indie authors could just as easily be compared to the rhetoric of the Occupy movement as the Tea Party.

Speaking as a reader and lover of books: I became interested because of the Colbert segment, and I was very sympathetic initially to Hachette. And then I read some alternate points of view. The nail in the coffin was actually the NYPL “panel” that was convened on the subject and the irony is that this heavily slanted panel did far more to convince me that these people were wrong than the one pro-amazon guy on the panel. In fact he barely spoke because the fraud of a “moderator” kept interrupting him. I think she spent more time talking about the “crisis” than all the other panel members combined.

I highly recommend you watch it if you have not. The rhetoric about “freedom” “free speech” and the “threat to democracy” that is being tossed around was actually from the anti-amazon members of the panel. They made it completely clear that it is necessary to force prices up and pay non-blockbuster authors less or there will be no “good” books left and our entire culture will collapse. All this from a panel that included a blockbuster author who freely admits that most of his stuff is heavily ghostwritten, and an agent who represents the biggest “names” in publishing. Not a single indie author represented, but that didn’t stop them from discussing how indie authors “feel” about all this.

In the end I feel like Amazon is 100% transparent about being a for profit business and what their aims are. The publishers though? Give me a break. They want to be able to claim to be lone the defenders of culture, the patrons of the arts, the nurturers of writers while simultaneously raking in large profits, funneling the majority of advance money to celebrity non-writers, taking larger and larger percentages of ebooks while giving the average author less, forcing ebook customers to subsidize paper books, forcing increasingly draconian non-compete clauses on authors, crippling the ability of the author to make a living…. the list goes on and on.

If the big publishing proponents are having trouble not sounding like elitists, it may just be that they actually ARE elitists. Perhaps their agenda isn’t entirely driven by anything so crass as money, but there are plenty of other drivers, such as cultural and social standing and superiority. Their own personal politics might make it hard for them to realize it, but their cognitive dissonance doesn’t make it any less true.

Deborah Smith

Laura, thanks for one of the most comprehensive overviews of the debate I’ve seen so far. I think you did a great job covering a complex topic.


Isn’t sopping up bad PR also a function of the publisher?

They’re like lawyers and sports agents.

Retailers and authors need to be likeable- otherwise noone would want to shop there or read their work.

Publishers, not so much. They have exclusive distribution rights for a particular work so it doesn’t matter what the customer thinks of them.

So the publishers and agents end up being the dogs that get (publicly) blamed for farting. That’s normal. That’s why the MSRP is always higher than the actual sales price.

I think the problem for Amazon is that the books aren’t available on their site but they are available at the competition. It doesn’t really matter who gets blamed.

Laura Hazard Owen

Interesting comment. Do you think authors actually have to be likeable for people to read them, though, or does the book stand for itself? Regardless, it does seem as if publisher PR has become more important, at least in this debate.


I suppose it depends on the author, and the book. Irritating people could certainly be a marketing strategy.

But even if it doesn’t hurt sales, I doubt that many people want to be the personal target of public outrage. Most authors write books to gratify their egos, not their pocketbooks.

I suppose Amazon is trying to tempt authors into self-publishing, but that sounds like a crazy plan.

J.A. Konrath et. al. claim they’re making a fortune from self-pubbing, but I tried writing a self-published book. It sold perhaps 13 copies. Plus, I only charged a buck because I didn’t want anyone to think I was greedy. A publisher advance is $5,000 to $10,000, minimum.

Don’t get me wrong; that’s what I expected. I wrote the book for my daughters, not for money.

But if ANY publisher contacted me with any sort of deal whatsoever, that would be really hard to turn down.

Hachette may need to start making unsolicited offers, but they won’t ever have an author shortage.

Laura Hazard Owen

Peter, I agree with you. I think that some people are going to continue to want to traditionally publish and some will want to self-publish. Or do a combination of both. I think it makes sense for it to be an individual choice.

John F. Harnish

Peter wrote, “Most authors write books to gratify their egos, not their pocketbooks.”

I’ve been involved in some aspect of publishing for more than half a century and, except for pro bono work for non-profits, I’ve always written for money. Ego strokes don’t put food on the table.

Decades ago I was represented by an agent and published traditionally. I also established a publishing venture to produce and distribute my work in 1972—back then it wasn’t called “self-publishing.” My venture attracted the attention of agents and opened the doors of mainstream houses. Frankly I liked being in control of my wordsmithing efforts and I dare say my financial rewards were far greater beyond the trappings of traditional houses.

Enjoy often… John

Deborah Smith

Out here in the trenches I assure you small publishers have no shortage of quality projects coming in from authors, many of them excellent newcomers as well as veterans from traditional publishing careers. My anecdotal evidence says most authors aren’t interested in acting as their own publisher.

Deborah Smith

I didn’t know I qualified for the 1 percent. I thought I was just a NYT bestselling career professional who has worked for big houses, started self publishing in 2000, and now runs a small press, sharing what I think is actually valid information.

Stephen Moffitt

A number of years ago, I wrote about the use of resistance and rebellion by all sides of the copyright debate. [Moffitt, R. (2009), Resistance is Futile. The Journal of World Intellectual Property, 12: 75–87.] Cloaking one’s self in the banner of ‘freedom fighter’ or resisting ‘evil’ is a useful rhetorical tactic in the effort to define the new paradigm.

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