It's a little counterintuitive that one of the five largest publishing houses in the United States would ever be considered "the little guy" in a fight, but that really does seem to be the case in the dispute between Hachette and Amazon. Because if Hachette is a giant, Amazon is a behemoth — they control 50 percent of all U.S. book sales. And now that their feud is spilling outside the negotiations room and affecting consumers, everyone is weighing in, from the New York Times to authors like James Patterson.
But what's this feud really about, and should we care? Well, the short answer to that second part is "yes." And so I'm here to give you the rundown on everything you need to know about this fight.
What Is Even Going On?
This is the boring stuff, so hang with me for a second. Basically, Amazon and Hachette are in negotiations regarding Hachette books sold by Amazon. Both sides are keeping the details secret, but in the publishing industry it's assumed that price is a big issue, namely the price of ebooks, which can get pretty complicated.
Obviously when Amazon or any other retailer orders hard copy books from a publisher, the books are then theirs and whatever discounted amount they might sell them for afterwards is their business. But with ebooks it isn't that simple — and publishers still have a large amount of input into the price of ebooks, which often conflicts with Amazon's love of slashing prices.
The assumption in the industry is that Amazon wants the power to discount Hachette ebooks whenever they want — essentially setting the price for these books at whatever number it wants — which Hachette doesn't want for obvious reasons. Amazon probably also wants Hachette to pay more for "co-op," which is like advertising money that publishers pay to retailers so that the retailers will spotlight a book on their website or in their store. Hachette, naturally, doesn't want to pay more.
How Does This Affect Consumers?
This is where it gets interesting. Since February, Amazon has been making changes to the way books published by Hachette are sold on their site — and not ebooks, either. Hard copy books. Amazon has basically stopped offering any discounts on Hachette's books — and that's a big deal, since Amazon's low prices are mostly the result of their fondness for discounts. Additionally, shipping time on Hachette books has changed quite a bit, and some books say that shipping will take a minimum of 2-3 weeks to arrive. And for some books, the site lists them as out of stock and therefore unavailable at all.
Wait, Which Books Can't I Order?
Right now it seems like most of Hachette's bestselling books are largely unaffected — Amazon doesn't want to piss off customers too much. But this can change.
And Hachette publishes a lot of popular books, including classics like The Catcher in the Rye and Little Women. Their more recent titles include J.K. Rowling's Cormorant Strike Novels, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight saga, the works of David Foster Wallace, and this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. (Wow, I never thought I'd ever put all of those in a sentence together). If you're into YA, they handle authors like Libba Bray and Holly Black, and did I already mention Stephanie Meyer? If you're into sci-fi and fantasy, they handle people like Orson Scott Card and Jim Butcher.
And there are tons more. Like I said, this is one of the five biggest publishing houses in the country.
A Book I Want Is Unavailable/Really Expensive/Won't Ship For a Month on Amazon. What Do I Do?
I recommend hitting up your local independent bookstore, because I love indie bookstores and they could use the business. But if you want things shipped, check out Barnes and Noble's website. A lot of their prices on Hachette books are currently less than Amazon, and they'll ship to you without making you wait. (There's Powell's, too, if you want to go indie.)
Wait, Why Would Amazon Do That?
Well, it does make an impressive bargaining strategy. Amazon is such a huge retailer that if your books aren't moving on Amazon, you are definitely losing revenue. The move has been widely criticized, though — author James Patterson recently slammed them at BookExpo America. And plenty of people have pointed out that this massively undercuts Amazon's claim that their consumers are their first priority. After all, the people most inconvenienced by this are the consumers — and the authors who are losing money.
How Did This Even Start?
Well, the negotiations have been kept secret — if Amazon hadn't started monkeying around with book prices and shipping times, we probably wouldn't know anything about them. So it's unclear exactly how things got to this point, but it's worth pointing out that publishing companies have been trying for a while now to figure out how to remain profitable in light of the changing market. Recently, Hachette and four other companies were found guilty of colluding with Apple to fix ebook prices in an effort to uncut Amazon's hold on the market. So this new showdown is really part of a struggle that's been going on for years now.
If Hachette Wins, What Happens?
Well, it would be a major blow to Amazon's power, especially in terms of perception. Right now Amazon is considered to be unstoppable, so if Hachette comes out on top, that will be huge. It also sets the precedent for publishers being able to control the price of their own ebooks, even when they're sold through retailers, which is something that will definitely affect the books landscape for years.
On the other hand, everything Amazon wants Hachette to do would most likely result in lower prices for the consumer. So a Hachette victory means we don't get our books quite so super cheap.
If Amazon Wins, What Happens?
Prices for the consumer would probably drop some, though we can't say for sure since we don't have concrete details.
It also sets its own precedent and would make publishing houses much less likely to try taking Amazon on in the future. While this could result in even lower prices for the consumer, it could be very, very bad for publishing houses, which are already struggling. The books industry is massive, but publishing companies themselves don't reap outrageous profits, and their profit margins have been eroded over the years. If Amazon cuts into that with further discounts, it could spell doom for some companies.
And no matter who wins, its possible the reputations of both companies will be damaged.
So Who Should I Be Rooting For?
It's ultimately up to you. Lots of people want Amazon to win because it would theoretically mean better prices for the rest of us, or they think publishing houses have too much power. However, Amazon has been trying to gain total control over the book publishing industry for a long time now, and that just doesn't sit well with lots of people (including me; God help us if they ever get the monopoly they want). Your call on this one.
Update: Colbert's mind is made up, just in case you were wondering: