The Talk Of BEA: Amazon Blogs The Hachette Hoopla

Photo by Porter Anderson
Close quarters: Amazon’s pavilion, left, is being readied for BookExpo America, as is Hachette’s installation, at New York City’s Jacob Javits Convention Center. Photos: Porter Anderson

Diversity In Corporate Communications Channels

We’ve offered to Hachette to fund 50% of an author pool – to be allocated by Hachette – to mitigate the impact of this dispute on author royalties, if Hachette funds the other 50%. We did this with the publisher Macmillan some years ago. We hope Hachette takes us up on it.

Those phrases of good hope for authors who are caught in bookish crossfire come from a highly articulate statement by an unnamed “Amazon Official.” It’s on the Kindle Forum blog under the header  Announcement: Hachette/Amazon Business Interruption.

And nobody can make a “business interruption” rock like the controversy-loving folks of publishing.

As I write this at the sprawling glassed Jacob Javits Convention Center on Eleventh Avenue, the Big Five publisher Hachette’s round marquis floats above the BookExpo America (BEA)  floor. That floor is strewn with wooden crates and crawling with forklifts. BEA opens to the throngs Thursday.

About half a city block away from Hachette’s installation, the Amazon BEA compound is also being constructed. It will house the booths for KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing); CreateSpace (Amazon’s self-publishing print-on-demand service);  and ACX (Amazon’s Audiobook Creation Exchange, which lets self-publishers produce their own audiobooks).

The Hachette and Amazon locations are not quite visible to each other. It’s unlikely that the slings and arrows of retail estrangement will fly here. The banners of Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Harlequin are between the French and the Seattlites: a branding DMZ is in place.

The Staring Match Newly Focused

As you may know, Amazon and the Big Five publisher Hachette have been in a standoff over contractual negotiations. It all has been much-discussed and achingly escalated, with Amazon removing pre-order capabilities, most recently, of new titles in the Hachettian catalog.

If you need background on the chilly stoush, I wrote about some views of the dispute at  The FutureBook in London: BEA on Ice!

As for the venue of this new statement from Amazon, it’s not unheard-of for a company to use one of its consumer blog outlets to do some messaging, of course. But with the biggest US annual trade show sitting down today for the IDPF Digital Book 2014 Conference (close to 1,000 attendees), the conversation in the seats has turned, at times, to just how much was said in this unattributed post.

In fact, I have confirmed with Amazon that the statement is authentic. Personally, I’d have chosen a different mode for company policy statements addressing inter-corporate strain and contractual contretemps.

But, they didn’t ask me, did they?

Until now, the Seattle retailer has remained mum on the issue — and Hachette has had its PR folks out and talking. Just for the record, the latter part is unusual — if anything, it’s normally quite hard to get a major publishing house to speak about issues. More than once, I’ve written that our biggest firms need to speak up for themselves when all around them are yakking.

And after its own weeks of silence, we then have this comment in the Kindle Forum from Amazon:

Though we remain hopeful and are working hard to come to a resolution as soon as possible, we are not optimistic that this will be resolved soon.

That could be characterized in diplomatic corps terms as a “relatively negative outlook” on the speed of resolution. And such characterizations — as you may know from similar instances involving labor negotiations — are sometimes warning signals thrown by one party to another: Amazon may be flashing a “we can outwait you” message here to Hachette. I’m guessing, mind you.

Drumbeats Near Tacoma

Past the realm of tactical semaphore, the statement goes to offer something very helpful: It’s what sensible readers will understand as explanatory, if purposeful, rhetoric. For example, there’s this well-parsed viewpoint, emphasis mine:

Negotiating with suppliers for equitable terms and making stocking and assortment decisions based on those terms is one of a bookseller’s, or any retailer’s, most important jobs. Suppliers get to decide the terms under which they are willing to sell to a retailer. It’s reciprocally the right of a retailer to determine whether the terms on offer are acceptable and to stock items accordingly. A retailer can feature a supplier’s items in its advertising and promotional circulars, “stack it high” in the front of the store, keep small quantities on hand in the back aisle, or not carry the item at all, and bookstores and other retailers do these every day. When we negotiate with suppliers, we are doing so on behalf of customers. Negotiating for acceptable terms is an essential business practice that is critical to keeping service and value high for customers in the medium and long term.

Are you catching that? Amazon has been gleefully criticized for seeming to be willing to compromise its famous consumer-service priority in the Hachette affair. Here’s the company now anchoring the fracas squarely in the realm of exactly that, consumer service, and bowing to some short-term pain for long-term gain. What’s going on now, the Amazonian company line goes, is for “the medium and long term.”

The embedded message for our friends on the quai de Grenelle in Paris: yes, Amazon is willing to make it impossible for its  consumers to order the hardcover of The Silkworm  by J.K. Rowling (Jo as the pseudonymous Robert Galbraith). However, Amazon will gladly send interested customers an email when the book becomes available (i.e. when the dispute is resolved). But, as that earlier note in the statement told us, don’t hold your breath. Seattle understands that you may avail yourself of some other emporium’s services if you need your Rowling-Galbraith fix quickly.

Now, here’s a passage that got some lips flapping at today’s pre-BEA digi-dance at the Javits:

We…take seriously the impact it has when, however infrequently, such a business interruption affects authors.

This is remedial PR at its best. In case you’ve never noticed, Seattle is damned good at this.

Putting One’s Money Where Votre Bouche Is

The retailer, not the publisher, is taking the lead on setting up some financial relief for the Hachette authors who find themselves suddenly unable to sell their print books on Amazon because their publisher is in a contractual showdown. Both parties, mind you, are doing the modern thing — speaking of “our authors” as the very heart and soul of all things in publishing.

I wish I’d counted how many times today at Digital Book 2014, someone on the conference stage said words to the effect of, “Our authors, of course, are the most important thing of all.” Publishing has learned that this is the thing to say, always.

And lest we be uncharitable and inaccurate, let’s be quick to note that many, many people in publishing absolutely mean it when they say this: many, many of them do revere authors and do understand the creators of the stories to be the single indispensable element of the entire enterprise. No irony here, I mean it: A lot of people in publishing are very clear on the centricity of the author, they get it.

But only in the past year or so have traditional publishing figures made such an adamant point of talking about the primacy of authors. If it’s an old (and obvious) value, it’s a new (and omnipresent) talking point.

We’re left, then, with the very interesting fact that it’s the retailer, not the publisher, who in this instance appears to be taking the actionable lead on protecting the authors. The 50-50 offer of a pool to help authors whose incomes are being impacted comes not from Manhattan (or the Seine) but from Washington State. Seattle says it hopes Hachette “takes us up on it.”

From our Author Hub here at BEA (come by and see us, we look like a sunflower pasture with furniture) we can gaze up at the peacefully floating Hachette Book Group marquis where it rides the breezes of the Javits Thunderdome air-conditioning.

If everyone is so concerned for authors, then let’s see the publisher join the retailer in chipping in for those writers of whom we’re all so fond. Maybe Hachette will let us know its thinking…in a blog post.

At BookExpo America this week: Find the Author Hub (near Hachette!) on the southerly end of the trade-show floor at the Javits Center in New York City near the Downtown Stage. Our headliners are authors Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, Hugh Howey, C.J. Lyons, and H.M. Ward. “Don’t Sit Down!” programming runs all day. Join us! Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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