BEA: Hachette/Amazon dispute ‘will change publishing’

BEA: Hachette/Amazon dispute ‘will change publishing’

“The French aristocracy never saw it coming, either.”

That sentence, plastered as part of an ad on a building above New York’s trendy High Line, was visible from the roof of the restaurant where HarperCollins held its BEA party Thursday (29th May) night. It had nothing directly to do with BEA or Harper or any book enterprise, yet seemed wonderfully apt at a juncture when most publishers at the fair see the struggle between Hachette and Amazon as a turning point that will profoundly affect the future of the industry.

Like those aristos, the Big Five (formerly Six) publishers didn’t see it coming, either. Yet they have wised up considerably since their early embrace of Amazon as saviour from the hegemony of B&N, supremo of yore. The first day that the exhibition floor was open was in many ways a good day – the hall was packed with people, many of them booksellers and librarians, as well as authors, media, agents, and foreign visitors (Chinese and French seemed much in evidence). There was real excitement over a number of titles. Publishers large and small expressed themselves pleased with the energy and books.

But it will be a long hot summer. By the end of it, as one senior player at a big house said with conviction, we shall know whether publishers or Amazon have won. Hachette is only the first; the others who settled with the Department of Justice (DoJ) all have their negotiating sessions with Seattle to look forward to in the coming months. Having spoken to highly placed people in a number of major houses, the strong feeling was that Hachette must stand its ground, until the next house does, and the next, and the next, and the next.  The fact that Hachette’s French owner is given to “long-term rather than American quarter-on-quarter thinking,” as a former employee put it, is encouraging.

“If Amazon wins, it will change publishing; if Amazon loses, it will change publishing. If publishers can get public opinion on their side, they will win,” a prominent executive put it starkly.

Courtesy of Attorney General Eric Holder’s Department of Justice, that is not something easy for them to do.  Publishers feel muzzled, and indeed they are. They have good reason to fear repercussions if they talk. Consequently, they have lost a major weapon: the ability to make their case directly in the press, to tell readers their side of the story. Amazon persuades implicitly every time a consumer clicks a buy button, or as one battle-scarred, somewhat jaded indie store owner put it: “Consumers don’t care – they only care about quick delivery and ease of purchase. Yet what’s going on is completely shocking.”

Some authors, like James Patterson, are speaking when their publisher cannot. But any number of people at the fair wondered aloud what, for instance, another Hachette author, Mr Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) makes of all this brouhaha; what Mr. Gladwell does; what many other boldface names do, too. They are the people who have the ears and eyes of the reader and might enlighten us by voicing an opinion. Others argue that major agents of major authors ought to speak in their stead.

Kobo president Michael Tamblyn, putting himself in an author’s shoes, posed several questions. “I’d ask myself: am I comfortable with the majority of sales being only through one retailer? Do I have confidence that I’ll be treated well for the long-term? Do I want to place all my bets on an entity that looks at authors and publishers simply as vendors of product?”

Quite a few publishers remarked on the odd silence from B&N; surely they should be “putting ads everywhere,” reminding readers that Hachette books are fully available through them. And yet, of course, that little matter of B&N’s own recent tussle with S&S might come into the picture.

“How do you protect the role of books in our culture?” Hachette’s Barbara Slavin asked rhetorically (and rather plaintively) during BISG’s half-day at BEA devoted to the “new subscription economy.” Later, an executive at a different house said that publishers are “doing deals with subscription start-ups precisely because they are a hedge against Amazon,” whose Prime, by the way, is in essence far and away currently the biggest trade book subscription engine of all.

ABA chief executive Oren Teicher, at the organisation’s general meeting late in the day, said unequivocally that the industry was “being held hostage by a company far more interested in selling flat-screen TVs, diapers and groceries…prepared to sacrifice a diverse publishing ecosystem to achieve retail dominance. That’s not good for anyone”.

The talk will no doubt continue to be the undercurrent of the fair. How things really play out will be clear long before next year’s BEA.