The Hachette vs. Amazon Battle: Quality vs. Quantity

book-and-firecrackersIn the battle between Hachette and Amazon, Hachette and those who support it have based their argument upon two simple “facts”. The first is that Amazon is too big. A retailer that large is dangerously close to being a monopoly (or so they say). The second is that Amazon, with their (evil) devotion to pleasing the costumer will destroy the quality of books.

Before we talk about those two issues though let’s first look at something that amounts to much ado about nothing.

Tactics: Many are lamenting the “strong arm” (some have used the term scorched earth, others have actually compared them to Putin) tactics that Amazon is using on Hachette by refusing to carry their titles until the issues between the two companies are resolved. The implication seems to be that Amazon is the first and only company to ever use this maneuver in a dispute with a publisher. Not true. As author Neil Gaiman advises in Salon: They’re (Amazon) doing the equivalent of what Barnes and Noble did a couple years ago to me, when they were arguing that they were having one of these, again, corporation-to-corporation arguments with DC Comics, and they said, “Well, the Sandman books aren’t for sale, you can no longer buy them at Barnes and Noble.

Others may remember the kerfuffle that occurred when Wal-Mart refused to carry several different romance novels. Most refusals to sell were based on the cover art not being family friendly but in one notable case it was based on content – Susan Grant’s Contact. Wal-Mart wanted changes made to a scene in the book, the publisher refused, Wal-Mart refused to sell.

The important point here is that Amazon is not alone in this tactic. While publishers were once the big corporations in the book industry the shift toward purchasing reading material through large retailers has meant that publishers are no longer the largest company at the table. Where they could – and did – easily undercut the small independent store, that is not an option when they are facing the large retailers.

Quantity: Perhaps the largest complaint made against Amazon is that their size means that anything they do has big results since they themselves are so large. Just how much of a share of the book market Amazon has is hard to say because sales figures are disclosed by the publishers, not retailers.

One thing we know for sure is that people are doing more and more of their book shopping online. Digital Book World :In 2012 (through Nov.), 43.8% of books bought by consumers were sold online versus 31.6% sold in large retail chains, independent bookstores, other mass merchandisers and supermarkets. This is nearly a direct reversal of the situation in 2011, when 35.1% of books were sold online and 41.7% were sold in stores.

A factor driving the above growth is undoubtedly e-books, which Amazon sells a great many of. According to Forbes: E-books now make up around 30% of all book sales, and Amazon has a 65% share within that category, with Apple and Barnes & Noble accounting for most of the balance.

And a few more sales figures. According to Publishers Weekly: Research conducted in March by the Codex Group found that in the month Amazon’s share of new book unit purchases was 41%, dominating 65% of all online new book units, print and digital. The company achieved that percentage by not only being the largest channel for e-books, where it had a 67% market share in March, but also by having a commanding slice of the sale of print books online, where its share in March was estimated at 64%.

According to the The NY Times all of this means: Amazon controls about a third of the book business, which means big publishers cannot live without it.

This tells us what Amazon looks like from a publisher’s perspective. What could be crucial though is that Amazon doesn’t just sell books published by the Big Five. This is a departure from most indie or chain bookstores. As one writer put it in Inc.: The bottom line: It is hard persuading stores (whether they’re B&N or indie) to stock your book, if you’re not published by one of the “big five” publishers: Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House. But I tell you where you can always find my novel and Morgan’s: On Amazon.

On authorearnings.com Hugh Howey tells us how Amazon is different: Indie and small-press books account for half of the e-book sales in the most popular and bestselling genres on Amazon.

This figure is mind boggling given the fact that Amazon/Hachette are battling over e-book prices: You may have heard from other reports that e-books account for roughly 25% of overall book sales. But this figure is based only on sales reported by major publishers. E-book distributors like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, the iBookstore, and Google Play don’t reveal their sales data. That means that self-published e-books are not counted in that 25%.

To sum up our findings above, Amazon sells a lot of books. Amazon sells most e-books. And according to what little data can be gleaned without Amazon talking numbers, many of the e-books it sells are self-published or small press published books. If you, like I, have wondered just why the Big Five and their authors are so heated over this battle I think this might be a big factor. Amazon is putting the Big Five out of business – not by negotiating them to death but by offering their competition opportunities to compete.

Quality: Just this week I got suckered into reading a bad book. Fortunately, I had borrowed it but still, it was a prime example of why many people complain about quality in books. It’s not the worst thing in the world that can happen (far from it) but a bad book can to readers be a real irritant. George Packer wrote a very lengthy piece in The New Yorker assuring us that Amazon is likely to ensure that we see a lot more bad books. Here’s how he sums it up: Gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?

Others agree with him. As Goodereader puts it: One thing indie authors have done is devalue the work of legitimate published authors. You know the type that write for a living, who have an editor and are considered accomplished, or at least well-read. The average indie title is $0.99 to $2.99, and the average publisher price is $7.99 – $12.99. Book buyers have been so conditioned to pay as little as possible that often they will not even consider a more expensive book.

Here is how The Nation put it: Take the issue of choice: when it comes to the books it stocks, Amazon makes no pretense of selectivity. Provided it carries an ISBN and isn’t offensive, Amazon is happy to sell any book Joe Schmo cares to publish.

Putting all this together, before Amazon Big Brother Publishers took care that we only received quality choices. As someone who was reading back in the dark ages of print paperbacks, I can assure you this was not the case. In fact, for me, the opposite was true. That’s because before the internet it was hard to find honest reviews on genre fiction. I now read far fewer bad books. The reasons for this are simple:

  1. Review Sites: Places like AAR offer honest reviews of the books I am thinking of reading and lead me to the books I hadn’t yet considered.
  2. Connection to Readers: AAR and other review sites tend to have message boards where I can connect with other readers who give me their honest opinions of yet more books.
  3. Sample chapters: Author websites and online bookstores often give me sample chapters which are probably the single most influential factor in selling me a book.

I love how Slate described this: Quality matters, to the extent that it matters, not because retailers care about quality but because (some) readers care about quality and various media institutions try to give people information about which new books are good.

The idea that New York Publishers bucked trends to give us unique, interesting and most importantly quality reads is frankly ridiculous. Driven by the almighty dollar they played it safe and sold us only what they knew would sell. Yes, every once in a while when a trend was dying they would throw a few new ideas out to see which one would be the next trend they could ride but once that trend was discovered we had best fall in love with it or do without. Perhaps Amazon does just sell any old book but many of those books – such as Helen Bryan’s War Brides – clearly connect enough with readers to sell well.

Summing things up, according to Hachette and its supporters:

  1. Amazon is evil because they use the same tactics other companies have for decades.
  2. Amazon is evil because they are big.
  3. Amazon is evil because they don’t protect readers from “bad” books.

My feelings are quite simple. I like to read. I like to read a lot. I am a member of the 99% so I can’t buy every last book that looks interesting to me. Relying on publishers to steer me towards good books has, in the past, been like letting a snake oil salesmen steer me towards good medicine. I now purchase based upon reviews; some formal like those at AAR, some informal like those on message boards, blogs or Goodreads. That has worked much better than browsing bookstores and hoping for the best. I use Amazon because I like books that publishers won’t touch (such as romantic suspense) and I need an easy place to access independently published books. That’s my take on all this.

What is your take? Do you feel that Amazon is guilty of what it is accused of or is it simply a business practicing business as usual? Do you think if Amazon fails things will go back to how they were or will someone(s) simply rise up in their place? Do you think big publishing is right and that the old ways were the best ways or are independent writers correct and the open markets better for us as readers?

Maggie Boyd

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