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Navigating the Amazon-Hachette Dispute

It has been a lively week in the book world. Many of our members have been asking what we’re doing and how we feel about the ongoing dispute between Amazon and Hachette, in which Amazon has played a tough game of hardball, slowing or blocking the delivery of thousands of titles.

This weekend a group of some 900 authors published a two-page ad in the New York Times criticizing these tactics. The organizer, Douglas Preston, is a member of our board, and several of his fellow Council members, along with many members of the Authors Guild, signed the letter, which you can read here. It said: “As writers—most of us not published by Hachette—we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.” That’s something we all agree with. And it’s not right for Amazon to claim that they were forced to do this: no one made them do this.

Amazon has framed the issue as a battle between an innovative ebook retailer and a traditional print publisher. “Ebooks can and should be less expensive,” it says. “If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.” Amazon’s full response can be found here. Their letter also urges people to email Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch directly with their complaints; Pietsch is answering those emails with a detailed statement outlining the company’s methods of setting ebook prices.

We are loath to take sides in a dispute between a retailer and a publisher, both of whom we, as authors, have worked closely with in the past and hope to work with in the future. That’s particularly true because—and we want to emphasize this—no one actually knows the facts of the dispute between Amazon and Hachette. The details of the negotiation remain secret.

That said, we have already weighed in here and elsewhere with criticisms of Amazon’s bullying negotiating tactics, which rely on threats and intimidation. We have also emphasized that we are a big tent, with room for authors who favor both traditional and newer forms of publishing. Our President, Roxana Robinson, spoke about the dispute and its attendant issues on NPR and Vice President Richard Russo elaborated here.

We still don’t know everything that Amazon and Hachette disagree about. But we don’t think the issue is whether to support or oppose ebooks—we support ebooks wholeheartedly. Books are books.

And we don’t think the issue is whether ebooks should be cheap or expensive. No one is stopping Amazon from selling books as cheaply as they want.

Amazon says they should be free to sell books at any price they like. But they already are. We suspect that what they mean is, “We should be able to force publishers to sell us their books at any price we like.” That would not be good for authors, or for readers, either.

We welcome comments from both members and non-members. Non-civil or anonymous posts or those containing links will not be allowed.