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Who's afraid of Amazon.com?

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Marty Shepard is the co-founder and senior editor of The Permanent Press in Sag Harbor, New York. The Permanent Press is committed "to publishing works of social and literary merit, and has gained a reputation as one of the finest independent presses in America." The following piece originally appeared on Marty's blog, The Cockeyed Pessimist.

On May 24, The New York Times ran a page-one story “As Publishers Fight Amazon, Books Vanish.”  In their alarmist zeal, reporters David Streitfeld and Melissa Eddy conjure the dreadful threat that Amazon has inflicted upon the “literary world,” causing a kerfuffle of rage and fear as exemplified by a dispute between the electronic superstore and one of the most robust publishers in the Western World. Their first paragraph states “Amazon’s power over the publishing and bookselling industries is unrivaled in the modern era. Now it has started wielding its might in a more brazen way than ever before.” Their second paragraph states that “the literary community is fearful and outraged — and practically begging for government intervention.” They then cite three publishers, none of which I would consider great examples of the “literary” community, or even the larger community of book publishers — to prove their thesis. 

As far as this literary publisher is concerned, this article is poppycock. It starts with the assumption that Amazon is bad and gathers meagre material to prove its point. The last time I checked, Literary Market Place listed over 2,000 book publishers in the United States. Yet Streitfeld and Eddy quote only one independent publisher in paragraph three (Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House) saying, about Amazon, “How is this not extortion? You know, the thing that is illegal when the Mafia does it?“

[See related: Book lovers should side with Amazon over publishers]

Who are the other publishers that are crying out? Hachette, the fourth-largest of the five conglomerate publishers (who together, through all their more than a hundred imprints, sell 85% of the books sold to the general public in America). Eddy and Streitfeld then make passing reference to a third publisher, Bonnier, based in Germany, known primarily for publishing magazines throughout the Western world, and far fewer books. As for the outpouring of social media they cite two of Hachette’s best-selling writers: James Patterson, a writing factory, who, in 2013, “wrote” 13 Alex Cross thrillers alone, using numerous co-writers, which is why one out of five hardcover books sold bears his name. Though he reportedly earned $80 million last year, he described the confrontation between Amazon and Hachette as “a war.“ The other social media complaint about Amazon came from Nina Laden, who writes and illustrates children’s books.

And what is this all about? Disagreements between Amazon and Hachette plus one independent press over Amazon’s electronic pricing of their books, this dispute resulting in Amazon’s not posting hardcover books coming out by their leading authors this summer and fall. Even Eddy and Streitfeld concede that it has nothing to do with actual books being sold, but that Hachette and Melville want more of the electronic pie, and, if they can’t get it, they'll howl and rage about it.

Hats off to a PR coup for the people who managed to get the Times reporters to serve up this poorly researched and badly distorted piece. From my point of view, Amazon is the very best thing any small independent press could ask for, while the scariest thing is how The New York Times allowed this unchecked article to appear. Mistakes happen, I suppose, for this is one news story not “Fit to Print” — just a one-sided expose that only exposes poor journalism.

In truth, everyone wants more of the pie. We’ve been publishing literary fiction for 35 years, and in the past found that the chain bookstores took few if any of our titles, that distributors like Ingram demanded bigger discounts from us than they charged the conglomerates, or that, despite winning more literary awards per title than any other publisher in America, we could not match the print review coverage afforded to authors of the five big conglomerates. But we’re not calling these other organizations Mafia-inspired or asking for government intervention. Surely one must come to recognize that all these companies are — and should be — free to set their own terms based on their bottom lines, and publishers like Hachette might consider tempering their  complaints about Amazon’s discrimination or restraint of trade. Jeff Bezos didn’t create Amazon for Hachette, and Hachette isn’t forced to use Amazon for distribution. What is Amazon anyway, other than an incredibly successful online store that sells almost every product one can think of?

I give Amazon a four-star review for not only their efficiency and work they do, but for leveling the playing field, and here are the four reasons why.

1) When you send orders to a store, distributor or wholesaler, publishers can count on returns of 20% to 80%. If Amazon orders books (which they do in increasingly larger numbers) it’s rare to get more than one percent or two percent returned. They are masters at this and consequently enable us to cut down on our print runs.

2) Amazon makes it easy to post reviews of our books, whether they are online or print reviews. Nor is there any discrimination, space-wise, between the coverage we get for individual titles or Hachette gets. Additionally, when one of our books is ordered, they list other titles of ours that might be of interest, proving themselves to be great marketers.

3) Earnings from Kindle sales are excellent, as both publisher and author find more profit (especially when we, as publishers, split eBook income on a 50:50 basis with our writers) with virtually no production costs. I’ve heard that most of the bigger houses don’t do this, writing contracts giving most authors only 25% of electronic income. Perhaps some of the authors complaining about Amazon on social media would be better served if they complained to their publishers, like Melville or Hachette, if they are not getting 50% of this pie.

4) Amazon generally pays us within 30 days, with wire transfers to our bank.  Nobody else in the industry come anywhere close to them and enables us to keep up with printing costs and salaries.

I always have a lingering suspicion that when one of the large publishing cartels complains they are being treated unfairly by Amazon, it’s probably good for most all of the smaller, independent presses. When the Times allows a poorly researched, inaccurate anti-Amazon screed to appear, it makes me want to stand up for Jeff Bezos and Amazon, and present a very different point of view, which I hope will balance out what I consider blatant propaganda. And I would encourage other publishers who feel similarly to email me and speak out as well.