Douglas Preston: On Amazon, Hachette, and Indie Authors

Douglas Preston: On Amazon, Hachette, and Indie Authors

"We're not against Amazon. And we're not for Hachette at all."

Douglas Preston's new Gideon Crew novel with his longtime co-author Lincoln Child is titled The Lost Island. It's to be released Tuesday -- 5 August -- in both the UK and the States.

At Amazon.co.uk, you can pre-order the hardcover and audiobook for 5 August. You can also pre-order the paperback for its later release, March 31 of next year. No Kindle edition is listed.

In the US at Amazon.com, you can pre-order only the audiobook from Hachette Audio ($18.38 at this writing) or an audio CD edition produced by Blackstone Audio ($40.64). Neither the hardcover nor paperback can be found: for those, you're invited to request an email "when this item becomes available." No Kindle edition is listed.

Preston says he doesn't know why the Hachette Audio edition of The Lost Island may be available for pre-order in the States when other editions are being suppressed at Amazon.com.

"I've heard from other people that it's hard to figure out which books are being affected," he says. "I don't have an answer for that."

He notes that he isn't in nearly so vulnerable a position as other authors are.

"Unfortunately, Amazon's actions are hurting, most of all, the debut and midlist authors who haven't yet built up a loyal audience. I'm okay, and the bestselling authors, we have an audience and they're going to find our books one way or another.

The Lost Island cover"But for someone who's labored for years to produce a book and that first book is coming out, and then all of a sudden Amazon does this. It's crushing" for such authors to run into Amazon's suppression of Hachette pre-orders, delivery slowdowns of Hachette books, and removal of usual discounts.

"But we're not against Amazon. And we're not for Hachette at all. We're really trying not to take sides. We're just asking Amazon to resolve its issues with Hachette without affecting authors, without dragging us into it."

As he and the "Authors United" group of writers he leads in protest of Amazon's actions relative to Hachette products, he says that Amazon's Russ Grandinetti, VP for Kindle Content, has said to him that "he felt that every time our group took a step, that we were impeding a solution because we  were encouraging Hachette to hang tight and, quote, 'let their authors fight their battles for them.'"

"But we're not fighting anyone's battle for them," Preston says. "I'm not even in contact with Hachette. They have nothing to do with it. We're just fighting our own battle.

"We just want to be able to write our books, and have them sold fairly at the largest bookseller in the world and not have those sales blocked or impeded. "If Amazon were a small bookseller, it wouldn't be so concerning. But they have 41 percent of the entire book market and, like, 55 percent of the entire ebook market.  Amazon sells probably half the books I sell. So it's very concerning to me.

"These large corporations should be able to settle their differences without hurting authors."

"Books are different from toasters and wide-screen TV sets"

Good-humored, genial in conversation, careful in how he chooses his words, Douglas Preston breathes no fire during a 30-minute interview about the letter he wrote at the beginning of this month.

The Monster of Florence coverThe drama one might encounter in one of his and Child's Gideon Crew novels is nowhere to be found. Instead, you hear something closer to the calm precision you find on the pages of his 2008 nonfiction account of an actual, harrowing Italian serial-murder case, The Monster of Florence: A True Story.

His widely circulated commentary about Amazon and Hachette, he points out, was a letter "to our readers," not a petition, as it's sometimes called. Its full text is in this story of 3 July from The Bookseller's Philip Jones.

The actual request made in the letter was, indeed, directed to readers. And it asked that they contact Amazon's founding CEO Jeff Bezos "and tell him what you think."

"I think we have about 900 signers" now, Preston says, "maybe a few more."

Why now? Why this month?

"It was when the evidence emerged," he says, "that Amazon had been holding certain books  hostage and delaying delivery of other books as a negotiating tactic in a dispute with Hachette. I felt that was unfair. We [authors] had not done anything to Amazon and aren't party to the dispute. And I felt it was unfair of Amazon to target authors as a means of leverage. That's what gave me the idea that we should try to address the situation, to try to change Jeff Bezos' mind."

It might surprise some observers how highly this author speaks of Amazon. He hasn't paused yet:

"I think most of us think that Amazon is a good company," he says. "We're grateful to it for selling our books. We've been a partner to it, we've been supporting Amazon from the very beginning, from the time it was a start-up. And we've felt a little bit betrayed by this. I'm speaking to you now, not as an official spokesman for anybody. That's how I felt personally, and it's turned out a lot of other authors felt the same way.

"I didn't like what Barnes and Noble did" when it declined to sell certain Simon & Schuster titles in its stores last summer during a contract dispute. "And the Macmillan thing" -- when buy buttons were removed from Macmillan titles' Amazon pages in a separate dispute -- "that was difficult, too.

"I guess our feeling is that there are going to be disputes between Amazon and publishers forever. There are going to be negotiations...these are two large corporations," Hachette and Amazon. "Is this going to be Amazon's MO [mode of operation] from now on? -- to  hurt authors and inconvenience their own customers every time they run into a rough patch negotiating with a publisher? I guess our feeling is that that's not acceptable."

The full-page New York Times ad intended to follow Preston's initial letter, he says, is still on tap. Supporters of his protest are contributing to its cost and "we have a little way left to go" in raising the money, Preston says.

"The feeling we have is that books are different from toasters and wide-screen television sets. You can't outsource Lee Child to China. They should not be treated as if they're boxes of cereal occupying grocery store shelves. These are books and authors and writers whose livelihoods are affected by this."

The overtures that Amazon has floated and Hachette has rejected -- primarily proposing that Hachette-Amazon book-sale revenues go entirely to Hachette authors during the negotiating period, or to charity -- are each Preston says, "a lopsided proposal which would severely impact the publisher financially but wouldn't impact Amazon financially very much at all.

"It's almost like an attempt to ask authors to load Amazon's guns for them. And I don't think it's a serious attempt to bridge a gap, I think it's simply an attempt to divide authors from their publishers."

The gun-loading reference is interesting, as The Bookseller has reported an Amazon spokesperson telling Publishers Weekly: "You have to look at the parent company--Lagardère Group--rather than just the Hachette division. Kindle books are only 1 percent of Lagardère Group's sales. They can afford it, and should stop using their authors as human shields."

"Let's not fight. We're not against independent publishing at all."

"There's a lot of stuff going around the Web, and views  being imputed to us," Preston says, "views being imposed on us that are not accurate. People saying [for example] that we're for higher ebook prices. Well that's absurd. We haven't made any comments about ebook prices. I think if you looked at our list of signers, you'd probably find that most of us were in favor of lower ebook prices and discounted books."

Here may be common ground: Not long after our interview, Seattle posts an update to its Kindle Forum Amazon/Hachette Business Interruption memo, presented as an explication of its objectives. "A key objective is lower ebook prices...at $9.99, the total pie is bigger - how does Amazon propose to share that revenue pie? We believe 35 percent should go to the author, 35 percent to the publisher and 30 percent to Amazon." 

Meanwhile, Preston continues reacting to comments from detractors: "And then they say we're calling for a boycott of Amazon. Absolutely not. We're not calling for a boycott. I'm an Amazon Prime member and I'm still using the company. I guess I'd put it this way: you can be against a war and still be a patriotic citizen. I'm an Amazon customer, I'm just taking exception to this one thing they're doing."

"Amazon has done a great service for the cultural life of this country by creating and expanding the indie publishing model. I think it's one of the best things they've done. I'm totally in favor of it. I think it's absolutely fantastic.

"But I'll say this: there certainly should be room for both indie publishers and traditional publishers, for indie authors and traditional authors. I think we're all in the same leaky boat, and we should be bailing together. I think we should be friends.

"Most of the world doesn't give a damn about books and reading, frankly. Ninety percent of the world not only doesn't give a damn about books, they're actually hostile to books. So traditional authors and indie authors have a lot in common and should be friends."

Preston says the independent authors' petition of 4 July that followed his letter caught him by surprise. You can hear a certain tone of dismay in his voice on the point: "Let's not fight. We're not against independent publishing at all."

To the contrary, Preston says, as a founder of the International Thriller Writers (ITW) organization, he urged acceptance of non-traditionally published authors "six years ago -- and we were the first organization to do that. Previous to that, in order to get into these organizations, you had to demonstrate that you were published by a quote-unquote 'official' publisher. We said, 'You know, that publishing model is disappearing. And there are a lot of indie authors out there who are absolute 100-percent professional authors who have sold lots of books, they're writing fantastic work, we have to create a way for those authors to join ITW...So we did that.

"And I'm giving this to you because I want you and everyone else to understand how much we are in favor of self-publishing and indie publishing. I personally am and other authors [in his group are].

"So I say let's extend hands, let's shake hands, let's be friends, and not view ourselves in opposition to each other, because I don't think we should be."

When asked about the general tone that seems to pervade so much of the self-publishing community's rhetoric this summer, Preston says he thinks we hear from hotheads, but not from the wider community of authors who may not harbor hostility for the traditional publishing world.

"I think what you read online," he says, "is not necessarily how everyone feels. I think the most vociferous voices take over the online discussion. I know a lot of independent authors and self-publishing authors, they're friends of mine and colleagues of mine. And they're not mad."

He breaks into laughter, tension lifting as he goes on: "And also I know Hugh Howey quite well," Preston says, referring to the author-activist who led the co-writing with Joe Konrath of the independent author's petition that now has more than 7,500 signatures.

"I've known Hugh for a long time and I have tremendous affection for him and respect for him. And I don't think we're on different sides of the issue. But he feels very strongly about how publishing should be. And he's a person with integrity. He's a good guy. We just happen to disagree about this, that's all."

Indeed, Howey followed the independents' petition's release with his own commentary and a brief account of a conversation with Preston: Douglas Preston and I agree.

"There has to be a way we can settle this without a lot of bruises all around"

"Authors do tend to be independent in the way they think," Preston says. "Hugh is a nice person. And Hugh feels that Hachette forced Amazon to take these steps, that in order to get Hachette's attention, it had to do what it did."

In speaking with Amazon's Grandinetti -- "he's called me a couple of times" -- Preston says he's heard the same thing from him, as well, an assertion that Amazon, in Preston's take on Grandinetti's words, "had to do this to show Hachette that we were serious."

"But my response to that would be, 'Nobody forced you to do it. I mean, how old are we?' Look, we all have choices. And Amazon is a very powerful company...No one made it do anything."

As for the choice of the name "Authors United" for Preston's group, which some have said seems an insult at a time when there's division among authors, he says this was simply a spur-of-the-moment choice. He was opening an escrow account for the Times ad to come -- as supporters were making contributions to pay for it -- and he needed to call it something.

"It's just an expression that we're united in this one thing. There's really a great diversity of opinion among the letter signers about such things as the right price of an ebook, how should publishing look at the future...what kinds of royalties authors should get...but the one united thing we all share is asking Amazon, as simple as this: just settle your differences with Hachette without hurting authors. That's all."

Preston sounds weary but determined. And while there have been reports recently of a "long-term strategy" for his Authors United effort, he sounds as if he'd be all too happy to see things resolved sooner than later.

"There has to be a way we can settle this without a lot of bruises all around. I think Amazon is a fine company and I'd like to see it achieve profitabilty. I don't have anything against Amazon."

"I think we have a fairly simple goal, which is asking Amazon not to drag authors into the fight. Amazon's a big, powerful company and they have lots of negotiating tools at their disposal without actually hurting authors or inconveniencing their own customers.

"If Amazon were to say, 'Okay, we'll put the [pre-order] buttons back, we'll go ahead and sell the books the way we did before -- and we're not going to do this again' -- I think we'd close up shop" on the Authors United effort.


Join us Friday, 1st August, when our #FutureChat with The Bookseller's FutureBook community will focus on Authors United and the debate. We'll be live on Twitter from Writer's Digest's Annual Conference in Manhattan at 4 p.m. London time, 11 a.m. New York time, 8 a.m. Los Angeles, 5 p.m. Berlin, 3 p.m. GMT. 

Main image: Douglas Preston by Christine Preston