Wronged writers grind their axes

The warehouse floor at Amazon's distribution centre in Phoenix, Arizona. (Reuters)

The warehouse floor at Amazon's distribution centre in Phoenix, Arizona. (Reuters)

In one corner stands the old guard: established, prize-winning, bestselling writers such as Stephen King and Donna Tartt. On the other, the new: the hottest names in self-publishing, from Hugh Howey to Barry Eisler.

As the battle widens between Amazon – one of the world’s largest online retailers – and Hachette – one of the world’s largest publishers – hundreds of authors are stepping into the ring, putting their names to rival petitions in support of the duelling combatants.

The spat follows the ongoing negotiations between Hachette and Amazon over new terms for the sale of books. Their negotiations became public knowledge after Amazon began raising estimated delivery times for what Hachette claims are thousands of its titles.
Amazon said earlier that its stance was “in the long-term interest of our customers”; Hachette has said that it is looking for “terms that value appropriately for the years ahead the author’s unique role in creating books, and the publisher’s role in editing, marketing, and distributing them”.

After the bestselling writer Douglas Preston began circulating an open letter criticising Amazon’s actions – and quickly garnered support from more than 100 names, including Paul Auster, Tartt, King, John Grisham and Anita Shreve – self-published authors fought back with their own petition, which now boasts almost 3?000 signatures.

Launched by Howey – author of the hit dystopian novel Wool – the letter urges readers not to boycott Amazon, arguing that the online giant has liberated authors and readers alike from the clutches of “New York Publishing”.

Long history
“Major publishers like Hachette have a long history of treating authors and readers poorly,” the petition states. “Amazon, on the other hand, has built its reputation on valuing authors and readers dearly. The two companies didn’t simultaneously change directions overnight.

“Amazon has done more to liberate readers and writers than any other entity since ... Gutenberg refined the movable-type printing press”, the petition continues, adding that “Amazon is growing overall readership while liberating the voices of countless writers, adding to the diversity of literature.

“A large percentage of the e-books sold on Amazon are from independent authors. You have validated our decision to write and to publish. Don’t let the wealthiest of writers convince you to turn away.”

Adding that “Amazon didn’t ask us to write this letter, or sign it. Amazon isn’t aware that we’re doing this”, the writers urge their readers to “support the company that supports readers and authors”, saying that “all the complaints about Amazon should be directed at Hachette, [which] wants to charge you more while paying their authors less”.

Preston’s letter, meanwhile, whose supporters also include Harold Evans, Siri Hustvedt, Barbara Kingsolver, Sara Paretsky, George Saunders and Antony Beevor, asks readers to email Amazon’s chief executive Jeff Bezos in an attempt to change his mind about the negotiations.

“Without taking sides on the contractual dispute ... we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business. None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage,” it says.

“We feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.

“Moreover, by inconveniencing and misleading its own customers with unfair pricing and delayed delivery, Amazon is contradicting its own written promise to be ‘Earth’s most customer centric company’.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014