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Amazon-Hachette’s Staying Power Shows Dispute’s Importance to Future of Books

As the standoff between Amazon and the publishing giant Hachette enters its sixth month in the spotlight, the conversation continues—and it continues to heat up.

In the wake of news that the Authors United group, in partnership with the Authors Guild, was preparing its third letter, this one asking for an antitrust investigation of Amazon, Authors Guild President Roxana Robinson appeared on the PBS program NewsHour on September 29, telling host Jeffrey Brown that Amazon’s targeting of Hachette writers’ incomes is “unacceptable.”

When asked if there’s a good guy in this dispute, Robinson elaborated:

The big difference is [Amazon’s] attitude towards books and towards writers. What publishers do is invest in books. They pay advances to writers. They recognize the fact that it may take years to write a good book—for a biographer, for a writer of history—and they invest in the book. Amazon doesn’t do that, Amazon doesn’t do editorial tasks, they don’t take a position on the intellectual merit of a book, so in terms of supporting our endeavor, and our intellectual property, there’s a big difference between these two companies.

Shortly after Robinson’s NewsHour appearance, pro-Amazon authors got their say when their complaints about the New York Times’ coverage of the publishing dust-up caught the ear of the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan. Sullivan’s October 4 column—“The Publishing Battle Should Be Covered, Not Joined”—echoed the pro-Amazon position. In the Times’ reporting on the matter, Sullivan wrote, “the literary establishment has received a great deal of sympathetic coverage,” though she fell short of endorsing claims that it was “propaganda.”

The reporter responsible for most of the Times’ coverage, David Streitfeld, responded that he’s taking no company’s side in his coverage. “I view my role as opening up these questions,” he told Sullivan. The next piece filed by Streitfeld addressed head-on the divide between pro- and anti-Amazon authors. Streitfeld reported on the pro-Amazon response to the writer Ursula K. LeGuin’s claim that Amazon’s treatment of Hachette books amounts to “censorship.” Among the “more printable” comments on an Amazon-friendly blog was a comment by Amazon cheerleader Hugh Howey, who wrote of Authors United’s efforts, “these authors signing these letters are being lied to.” Other writers on Amazon’s side used arguments that sounded remarkably like those of their opponents, Streitfeld reported: “‘the anti-Amazon crowd is trying to get people to stop shopping on Amazon by painting it as evil,’ commented a writer on the Passive Voice who goes by the name Nirmala. ‘This could directly harm my income.’”

Howey’s defense of Amazon invoked a spirited response in Salon from Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House, who exhorted pro-Amazon authors like Howey to temper their support of the retailer: “Think of all the bodies that have been trucked over along the way—the hundreds of bookstores and publishing houses, not to mention the tens of thousands of writers who have been squeezed by shrinking margins. In the end, you are judged by the company you keep.”

There were reports as long ago as July that it would be no surprise if Amazon and Hachette were to strike a deal shortly. The fact that the dispute has endured as long as it has—and has inflamed such passionate responses along the way—underscores the fact that its core issues are central to the future of American authorship.

As we’ve said before, we believe that a healthy publishing ecosystem—one that offers a wide variety of choice—is in the best interests of all authors. Unfortunately, there’s very little in Amazon’s history that shows us it shares a remotely similar goal.