The Debate in a Nutshell
Stay with me as I sort through this in my own mind. I have skimmed through a few articles and blog posts on this dispute, but have not paid close attention. After watching/reading the above link, I decide it was time I dived in, if only to satisfy my own curiosity.
In the United States, a guild of best selling authors has taken Amazon to task over its contractual dispute with Amazon.
Let me set the scene: Amazon began in business by selling books which it obtained under contract from different publishers. I recall watching a 60 Minutes piece many years ago when Amazon began, showing how it received, sorted, and packaged books in a vast operation to send to customers who had purchased these online. Amazon was a giant online retailer, with a huge warehouse operation to distribute books using courier services to customers who browsed virtual bookshelves on their home computers (or work computers too, I imagine). Now, books are a small percentage of Amazon's business as they operate as a retailer of all sorts of products - they are a giant, online department store now, with a book department. In order to sell these products, they have contracts with each producer, obviously. You buy at wholesale and sell at retail, but as any retailer can and often does, you may sell at a loss, or break even or at a profit per item, depending on your best business sense.
One of these suppliers is a publishing company called Hachette. Hachette has been portrayed sometimes as a small publisher being assaulted by that business behemoth Amazon. Make no mistake, however, Hachette is not a David battling Goliath. The publishing company is part of a French media conglomerate called Lagardère. There is a huge difference in revenue, but Hachette is not poor by any means - it has annual revenues of around 9 billion U.S. dollars compared to Amazon's $74 billion. This is a vast difference, but is clearly not some struggling hand-to-mouth company headed by dreamy book lovers fighting hard nosed business operators.
Recently, Amazon entered into negotiations with Hachette over the cut Amazon gets from sales of books published by Hachette. They, at this point in time, have no contract. This, of course, means that Amazon is under no obligation to stock Hachette books in its warehouses or to sell them to customers. This would be a silly move on Amazon's part as negotiations continue and revenue and profits are earned from Hachette's stable of best-selling authors. Instead, Amazon continues to stock and sell books published by Hachette, but is employing negotiating ploys such as no longer taking pre-orders for Hachette books that are about to be published. As one of the debaters in the link I posted at the top here states, that with no contract in place, Amazon has no obligation to sell or stock any Hacehtte book.
As an indie author whose published work is way under the radar - the books from which I have earned good money (well, good as defined by my average income!) were published by small historical associations or museums or are that unsaleable commodity, poetry - I am merely an interested bystander in all this. On one side you have a corporation with $74 billion in annual sales, and on the other big shot authors like Stephen King. On the Amazon side you also have two of the most successful indie authors in the world: Joe Konrath, who publishes exclusively with Amazon, and Hugh Howey who publishes both as an indie and has contracts with traditional publishers.
Two things stood out for me from the video. Firstly, the President of the Author's Guild vehemently denied that books are a product, but a special category for which she had no word. She seemed to regard books as a cultural artifact living in a rarified place above the mere grubbiness of business. The business commentator saw books as a product like any other and Amazon as one retailer of this product. I am undecided. Books are a product, but they are also a cultural artifact. Are paintings and sculpture and music merely products? Or are they something more? I think, that despite the elitism inherent in Roxanne Robinson's position, they are. Even the worst sort of fiction or polemic are cultural artifacts as well as products. But they are cultural artifacts only to the writer - and not all writers see them as such - many, perhaps most see writing as a business. A few years back, I was engaged in a discussion site where the question was asked: If you knew for a certainty you would never sell anything you wrote, would you still write. There were maybe three or four dozen writers on this list, and of them only two, myself and one other said yes. The remainder said no - what was the point of writing if you didn't make money from it? While the Authors' Guild might be correct in some academic sense, the reality is for most writers, books are a product. Secondly, the Authors' Guild only represents old line writers who have lucrative book deals with legacy publishers - like many others, it does not understand indie writing or publishing. Likely it will perish as a result of this lack.
I think the problem here is a clash of civilizations to steal from Samuel Huntington. On the one hand, you have legacy publishing and the authors still doing well from that system - a solitary author writing the great novel, query letter sent to agent, agent finds a publisher after submitting to anywhere from one to 20 or so, editors assigned, final manuscript, printing, placement in book stores, book signings, interviews, and finally sales - and in this the author got an advance against sales. Most advances are never covered by sales, but the few that are make huge sums and keep the publisher in business.
Something fundamental occurred about 30 years ago when personal computers were created. Next came the world wide web in the early 1990s. Then eBooks about 10 years ago. Suddenly anyone can write and put their work up for anyone to read, peruse, even buy. Since that time a struggle has ensued between the old print book ecosystem and this new, free and flexible universe. This struggle is part of the battle between those who have done very well, thank you, in the old and the new freedoms. You might say that this has unleaded a torrent of bad writing. Perhaps, but no one has to buy or read that poor writing. The market now consists of writers and readers and those between these are becoming less relevant. Agents and companies who see the new universe have altered to work in it - authors often still need and more importantly, want technical help in terms of the producing their product for the internet; or as self published print books. Amazon, Lulu, Kobo, Smashwords are some of the groups and corporations that have arisen to support writers. Writers still need editors and designers. Editors and designers have always been available on a freelance basis and still are. What we have is an unleashing of creative talent, not its demise.