Authors United? I Wish it Were So.
Douglas Preston is doubling down on his pressure for Amazon to capitulate to his publisher, Hachette. He has written a letter proclaiming that his group, known as “Authors United,” is full of “the finest writers in English language,” the sellers of “billions of books,” that their readers “listen when they speak,” and that this “represents power.”
The problem is, Douglas Preston doesn’t seem to understand what Hachette is fighting for. It isn’t a secret; Hachette is fighting for higher prices for readers. They’ve said as much to their investors. We also know from this slide from HarperCollins that publishers are now making better margins on ebooks than on their hardbacks, a fact that agent Brian DeFlore says publishers have been lying to agents about for years.
The collusion and price-fixing case in 2010 was so much about the $9.99 price point, that when Publishers Weekly wrote an ebook about the trial, they entitled the book THE BATTLE OF $9.99. Amazon wants ebooks to cost no more than $9.99. I can see this very clearly in my own self-publishing contracts with them. If I price my ebooks over $9.99, they reduce my royalty from 70% to 35%. The reason Hachette colluded with its competitors a few years ago was to put an end to this price point and force Amazon to sell ebooks at $14.99 or even higher. Part of that reason is simply to retard the growth of ebooks and protect print.
The irony here is that Douglas Preston has been on the wrong side of this maneuvering in the past. In 2010, Hachette delayed the release of Douglas’s ebooks in order to protect their print sales, which angered his readers. They also priced his ebooks at $14.99, and Douglas heard from fifty or so readers who said they’d never read his books again. Preston lashed out at these readers, saying that they were acting entitled:
“The sense of entitlement of the American consumer is absolutely astonishing…. It’s the Wal-Mart mentality, which in my view is very unhealthy for our country. It’s this notion of not wanting to pay the real price of something…. It gives me pause when I get 50 e-mails saying ‘I’m never buying one of your books ever again. I’m moving on, you greedy, greedy author.'”
So, what’s a bigger sense of entitlement? The one where your customers tell you that you’ve priced something too high and that they’re going to spend their money with others who are offering something at a price point they like? Or the one where you insist that books have to be priced high because you want them to be priced high? I’d argue it’s the latter… Along those lines, $9.99 is areal price. Just because you don’t like what the market decides a book is worth, doesn’t mean that it’s not a real price.
Io9 covered the fallout, as did some bloggers. Preston, to his credit, apologized and pointed out that he has no control over the price of his ebooks. He also seemed to eventually concede that $9.99 was a fair price for digital books.
I spoke with Douglas a few weeks ago, and stressed to him that these negotiations between Amazon and Hachette are over the price of ebooks, and that by urging Amazon to stand down and by emboldening his publisher with his PR moves, he is in fact fighting for a return to $14.99 ebooks. That’s not the solution we should want for ourselves or our readers. All it would take for Hachette to see the light and embrace sensible pricing for digital books would be for their readers and authors to express their disdain for the $14.99 ebook. Douglas Preston’s readers have done this in the past. I wish he and his handful of authors would unite with the rest of us in denouncing these unfair prices today.
All it might take for this terrible situation to be resolved is for both sides to hear our opinions on these prices. All it takes is five minutes out of your day. Preston and his united authors are going to spend around $70,000 on a NYT ad pressuring Amazon to cave to higher prices. Their campaign is bad for books, bad for authors, and bad for readers. We don’t have wasteful NYT ads at our disposal. All we have is social media, each other, and our passion for a vibrant book culture. If you believe in $9.99 over $14.99, let your voice be heard. Let these negotiating corporations and their authors know how you feel. You can make a difference.
Douglas Preston welcomes emails at his website. Here’s a link if you want to reach out to him directly and let him know how you feel about $14.99 ebooks. I have already sent him a copy of this blog post. I’m also forwarding every signature of this petition to folks at Hachette. You can email Hachette directly as well. I urge you to be respectful. And feel free to disagree with me and to send them your support for higher ebook prices.
But all authors are not united for $14.99 ebooks. $9.99 is a fair price for a digital book that publishers don’t have to print, warehouse, ship, and have returned to them. It’s a fair price for readers who can’t pass that ebook along to a friend or sell it to a used bookstore. $14.99 is NOT a fair price for these very reasons. Let your voice be heard. Let’s put an end to these negotiations by letting Hachette and its authors know that we won’t buy their expensive ebooks.
Edited to add: After this post went live, I read that Amazon has again offered a way to support Hachette’s authors during these negotiations. This time, the offer stipulates that all profits would go to literacy charities until both parties get to the table and agree to terms. Let’s urge Hachette to take this deal, to support their authors, and to stop harming the book trade with their stubborn fight for higher ebook prices.