Open Letter to Amazon Gains Support of Best-Selling Authors

While this year’s Fourth of July fireworks displays around the country were bold and beautiful, the fireworks between online retail giant Amazon.com and long-standing book publisher Hachette were anything but. Over the holiday weekend, support for Authors Guild Council Member Douglas Preston’s open letter to Amazon hit 300 signatures, with big names like Stephen King, Scott Turow, Nora Roberts, and James Patterson as signers. The open letter calls on Amazon “to resolve its dispute with Hachette without hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers,” among other things. “No bookseller,” Preston writes, “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.”

The letter lists three main issues that he and other authors have with Amazon:

  1. Boycotting Hachette authors, claiming their titles are “unavailable.”
  2. Refusing to discount many of Hachette’s books.
  3. Slowing the delivery to “several weeks” on many of Hachette’s titles.

According to a July 4, 2014, article in The Guardian, the “negotiations became public knowledge after Amazon began raising estimated delivery times for what Hachette claims are thousands of its titles. Amazon said earlier this week that its stance was ‘in the long-term interest of our customers’; Hachette has said that it is looking for ‘terms that value appropriately for the years ahead the author’s unique role in creating books, and the publisher’s role in editing, marketing, and distributing them.’”

Amazon’s response was short and sweet: “We take seriously and regret the impact it has when, however infrequently, a terms dispute with a publisher affects authors,” the statement continued. “We look forward to resolving this issue with Hachette as soon as possible.”

Not all authors support Hachette in this dispute, though. Self-published authors have created their own petition, with more than 7,000 signatures, asking Hachette for better royalty rates for authors—in essence, asking for a living wage. The last few decades have seen the reworking of creative industries, usually to the detriment of the artist. Record companies are squeezing the life-blood out of musicians for a higher production rate, galleries rarely take chances on new artists anymore because of the current state of the economy, and the movie industry has been creatively bankrupt for years. It’s become almost impossible to get noticed through traditional channels of promotion. The possibility for self-promotion in publishing is one of the only ways some authors can get in the game, and many self-published authors will continue to support Amazon during their tug-o-war with Hachette.

How much would Hachette lose if Amazon remains unmoved? Conversely, how much does Amazon stand to lose if giants like King, Roberts and Patterson decide to pull their works from the site? At the end of the day, there are no real winners in this dispute. It’s safe to say that authors—and readers—are the ones most likely to lose.

What time is it? It’s NaNoWriMo Time!

Every fall, I contemplate whether or not I should attempt NaNoWriMo. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days is a manageable challenge, though not an easy one.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world attempt to write a novel—by NaNoWriMo’s definition, 50,000 words—within that 30-day timespan. That’s 1,667 words a day. Over the course of the month, participants are encouraged to track their progress on NaNoWriMo’s website, make friends at regional “write-ins,” and consume unhealthy amounts of caffeine. Published authors such as James Patterson, Malinda Lo, and Bella Andre often give pep talks to participants on the NaNoWriMo forums. In fact, more than 250 novels that began as NaNoWriMo projects have been traditionally published, such as Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.

Although many companies offer incentives like product discounts or free ebooks to people who complete the challenge, there is no traditional prize to be won. NaNoWriMo is an exercise in creativity, self- discipline, and silencing one’s inner editor; the only true prize is self-satisfaction.

This year, there are several NaNoWriMo kickoff parties for Portland-area participants, and I attended one at the Central Library downtown. More than 60 people were present, introducing themselves and describing the plots of their novels in great detail. Last year, I had my novel thoroughly plotted out and completed the challenge with 10 days to spare. This year, I have yet to decide what my story will be, but thankfully I wasn’t the only one without an idea. Many attendees declared they will write by the seat of their pants this year, and these “pantsers” will learn the story of their hearts once November is upon them.

As a newly minted publishing student, NaNoWriMo invites a change in perspective I hadn’t expected. I recognize the value of self-publishing for authors whose stories don’t fit neatly into a market, but now that I work for Ooligan, I’m more curious as to why people forgo the traditional route, which a lot of NaNo-ers intend to do. A seasoned NaNoWriMo participant I spoke to believes traditional publishing requires time he simply does not have, that it “seems like an awful lot of networking and a lot of stuff that I really don’t want to get into.” A winner of ten NaNoWriMos (that’s approximately 500,000 words in 10 years), he will look into self-publishing this year, but ultimately he writes for the love of writing. “It’s okay to write and not publish,” he says, “. . .because I’m a writer, and that’s my creative outlet.”

I’m more curious still about participants who don’t wish to publish their stories at all. One high school student said she doesn’t plan to publish her story because she “will be the only one who understands it, and that’s okay.” As someone who’s dabbled in grandiose fantasies about landing on The New York Times Best Sellers list since high school, hers is a maturity and confidence I wish I’d possessed at that age.

As the kickoff party dispersed, I spoke with another participant who works for an online publishing company and runs an editing service for self publishers. She admits that publishing is very trend focused, and self-publishing allows writers to not “feel so bound by the market the way publishers do.” However, she advises Nano-ers seeking to publish their novels to edit their work first: “When books go through traditional publishing houses, even small ones, they get at least two, sometimes many more rounds of editing, and if you want to self-publish, and if you want to stand next to the books coming out of the houses, you need to be able to do the same thing, and you can’t do it yourself.”

NaNoWriMo begins at 12 a.m. on Nov. 1. I don’t know if I will want to publish whatever I write, nor do I know if I will even complete the challenge. It’s quite possible I may not get past 1,000 words. But I appreciate that such challenges exist. More than anything, NaNoWriMo motivates people to tell the stories burning inside them. Though not everyone will get published, anyone can be a writer.

Authors Lend a Helping Hand

It is common knowledge that independent bookstores have been struggling to stay in business. Studies have shown that fewer and fewer people are actually finding books in bookstores. With the rise of e-books and bookselling websites, readers are finding it more convenient to order books from the comfort of their own homes than to browse a bookstore’s shelves. However, some major names in the writing world are taking action and attempting to increase sales in these independent bookstores.
In the beginning of September, Sherman Alexie sent a letter to some of his fellow authors, asking them to take part in what he calls Indies First by working at one of their local bookstores on Small Business Saturday. Authors such as Richard Russo and James Patterson will be taking part in Indies First come November. On top of these efforts, Stephen King published his new novel solely in a print format with no current plans of making it into a digital format. In his blog, Neil Gaiman asked his fans to order presigned books from their local bookstore.
All of these efforts by well-known authors have helped these bookstores’ sales, and have made these stores more popular amongst local readers. While this attention obviously helps small independent bookstores, they are not the only ones that can benefit from author attention—this growing interest in small bookstores could also help independent publishers. Since publishers produce the books that bookstores sell, it follows that the success of one will lead to the success of the other.
With the rise of bookselling sites like Amazon, some small publishers have begun to suffer along with independent bookstores. The profits they once made selling their books in stores has gone down with the decrease in bookstore patronship, and e-books are not always as profitable for publishers as print versions. On top of the cut that sellers like Amazon take out of an e-book sale, plus the cut that goes to the author, there is much to be desired in terms of profit. Add the fact that in order for people shopping on Amazon to come across a small publisher’s book, the publisher has to pay the site for advertising and recommendation space, web sales get expensive for small publishers fast.
With all of these obstacles in place, anything that can boost the business of independent bookstores is a major help for small publishers. An increase in customers may lead to more advertising opportunities in local bookstores. Small publishers would be able to work with these bookstores to increase sales, perhaps by building a “recommended reads” section when an author comes to a store. That way customers who are drawn to the bookstore because of an author will see more books similar to the ones they like, and be more likely to buy them.
Thanks to the interest of major authors in the independent bookstore business, small publishers may be able to see an increase in profits due to the rising popularity of bookstores over online shopping. Providing customers with the personal experience they long to have with their favorite authors allows bookstores to offer a service that online bookstores cannot, which in the end will help the independent bookstore business stay alive, as well as help the small publisher.