Goliath vs. Goliath: Why the Amazon-Hachette Debate Is Really a War Between Traditional and Self-Publishing

Like anyone who's tuned into the raging debate going on in publishing right now between Amazon vs. Hachette, I've been doing a lot of reading online. I've seen people coming down hard on Amazon, and down harder on publishers. Because of the space I stand in, pretty solidly between traditional publishing and self-publishing, I've found myself feeling like a child torn between two parents she loves, fears, and reveres.

Though this dispute is over contract negotiations and pricing, the commentary over it online belies so so much more. Like any war, it's showcasing where people's allegiances lie. On the one hand you have James Patterson running a full-page ad in the New York Times that was received about as well as anything Big Five publishers put out bemoaning the ways in which Amazon is undercutting their business, and on the other you have Barry Eisler, described in a recent Publishers Weekly article on the topic as a self-publishing activist, making it clear that the industry is pretty much freaking out about the wrong thing: Amazon is not the problem; it's technology. And then there are folks on the far end of the self-publishing spectrum, like David Gaughran, who has made some measured points about the Amazon v. Hachette dispute, but who's pretty black and white about who the wrongful party is: publishers. In a recent post about the pros of underpricing ebooks on Amazon, he wrote: "Worrying about the 'industry' is pointless because the industry does not care about you."

As someone who came up in publishing working for small presses (very much left out of this conversation about the Big Five), it's sad to see how polarized publishing has become. I've called myself an equal advocate for traditional publishing and self-publishing for years, ever since I worked with a successfully self-published author in 2007. I worked for 14 years for small presses, and I now run a press that's "third-way" publishing, and I'm proud of the ways in which She Writes Press is more self-publishing than traditional. But I also value the ways in which we're more traditional than self-publishing. And this is why I can see both sides of the debate -- and why it's so clear that the larger debate that's happening is one of hearts and minds. It's not a debate between Amazon and Hachette, but rather between those who are more intellectually and/or emotionally aligned with self-publishing or traditional publishing.

To give you a bit of perspective from the industry, Amazon is threatening. Bottom line. Bookstores are worried that Amazon will put them out of business. Publishers believe (and rightly so in my opinion, despite Gaughran's good logic to convince me otherwise) that Amazon is devaluing content. (Note: It depends on the genre!) (For the other perspective on this, read Mark Coker of Smashwords.) Many self-published authors don't understand the ways in which terms are forced upon publishers by Amazon. When I negotiated a distribution deal with Ingram Publisher Services, they told me not to bother taking issue with the terms from Amazon. They were non-negotiable. And what comes from Amazon, from my experience as a publisher, is a mixed bag. We have to pay a lot of fees, and a lot of co-op. There's a ton of competition to get our titles in front of viewers, and a lot of behavior that feels very controlling, and ultimately, for publishers who don't play by the rules, punitive. A lot of publishers see Amazon as thuggish in their negotiating style, and I understand why.

The punitive measures Amazon has taken with Hachette include things like not allowing customers to preorder and delaying shipping. It's been argued that perhaps Amazon has legitimate reasons for this -- like Hachette not being able to get Amazon the inventory it needs, and therefore being unreliable. But even if this claim were true (and I'm sure it's more nuanced than this), why shouldn't Hachette be cut a break for delayed shipping on a title or two? Why can't Amazon just fulfill the orders when the books arrive, like they would any of their self-published titles? Doesn't Hachette have a history with Amazon of delivering inventory on time? From the publisher's perspective, this just feels like bad business. It's good business to cut your best customers a little slack, to work with them rather than against them. But Amazon's clients are not publishers, and they're not even book buyers. Its customers are aspiring authors and publishers because their money doesn't come from selling books; it comes from publishing and printing books. Where their relationship with publishers is concerned, they act a lot like the kid in school who's popular with the masses for snubbing the elite. They're catering to the 99%. Meanwhile, the industry's big failure has been in its incapacity to see itself as elite, and allowing Amazon to scoop up major popularity points with the 99%, making publishers less and less relevant as the general public sees them as being completely out of touch. All the while the publishers have just sat back and done what they normally do: act slowly and inefficiently.

I've seen several articles offering solutions for how publishers can turn the tides on Amazon, basically by pulling their inventory and selling direct to readers. If any of these op-ed writers had ever spent one week working in a publishing house they'd realize how utterly ridiculous that proposition actually is. Amazon has a stronghold on publishers. Publishers' distributors have Amazon reps, paid positions that are exclusively dedicated to the Amazon relationship and negotiating presales and all sorts of other deals. Amazon pushes a lot of content, and can make up anywhere from 20% to 60% of a publisher's entire sales. Publishing houses (for the most part) do not have the resources, nor the inclination, to sell directly. And even if they did, it wouldn't replace the volume Amazon does. Part of the distribution solution for publishers has been the outsourcing of fulfillment. Even though big publishers do have their own warehouses, they rely on their distributors and wholesalers to get the books out to the masses. Going back to an old-school model of shipping out onesies and twosies would be laughable to any big publisher (and most small ones too), simply because publishers themselves don't want to be in the fulfillment business.

I find myself, like any child in a complicated family dynamic, feeling mad at both sides sometimes. I look at their worst offenses and think to myself, What the hell are you doing? I think Amazon acts like a bully, but only to publishers, not to authors or its customers. And I also see the ways in which the publishing industry is so slow to act, so archaic, so stuck in its ways and it's painful. They can't see the ground they're losing with readers. They fail to see how much they're reviled by aspiring authors, and how the barriers to entry being so high, coupled with publishers putting out utter crap (like Reality show titles galore -- and titles that are cringe-worthy, which you can find on a daily basis if you follow Publishers Lunch) make readers who used to be loyal fans feel as if the publishing industry has totally lost its head to the bottom line. While there are still such great books being put out, and many many small presses doing great work and doing right by their authors, the "industry" has made so many mistakes that they're past being able to do damage control at this point.

Traditional publishing's worst offense has been to publish bad books and then try to hold out the party line that they're the gold standard, and the guardians of what matters to our culture. They've lowered their own bars so low that many of their titles are worse than self-published titles. As a result, we have this brave new frontier in publishing, where it's anyone's game, and that's a good thing. Anyone can publish. Anyone can succeed. But the tragedy unfolding as the publishing world gets more polarized is that the long and good traditions of the industry (good design, editorial control, etc.) are not being adhered to by the masses. Self-published authors often generate books that are half-baked, that have poor design, that any self-respecting publisher wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. But Amazon champions those authors, and gives them legitimacy and makes them feel like they're part of the club.

I can't imagine that this divide will never be reconciled, and it's why we can anticipate that the separation between self-publishing and the industry will only get wider and wider. And because Amazon is clearly on the side of the self-publisher, the industry will never be happy with the role Amazon plays in publishing. This is an epic battle, to be sure, but it's between two giants -- Goliath vs. Goliath in this case. And from my place in the middle, looking at these Goliaths as two parental figures I've come of age with, I see them both as fallen angels. Both sides have had their failings exposed. And while I still do love and respect and revere both sides in a way, I also see them for what they both are -- limited, flawed, self-serving, and far from perfect.