Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Revolution? Or Civil War?

The Confederates are setting up camp here on the 4th of July.

No, really. I’m spending time with my mom in the mountains of North Carolina, and the annual Christmas in July celebration is kicking off in West Jefferson, within view of her front porch. Tents are going up everywhere to sell food and crafts. And in the field behind the library, a group of reenactors are firing off cannons and waving rebel flags. On the 4th of July.

This surreal juxtaposition is a reminder that wars within borders are considered “civil wars” if the rebels lose and “revolutionary wars” if they win.

From a distance, it’s hard to imagine (and of course impossible to remember) that not every colonial resident desired independence from British rule. It wasn’t Americans who fought for their freedom, it was British subjects. They became Americans only through victory (much to the chagrin of the peoples already settled here).

Today, a different sort of war is being waged: a war of ideas and ideals. On one side, you have people who think not everyone should be published and that readers need help knowing what to read. This group also thinks that the book is the thing, not the story. Confabulating their love of the written word with the vessel they are accustomed to receiving it in, any change in how stories are delivered is seen as a threat to their cherished way of life.

The other side believes the opposite. Every voice has a right to be heard, even if we can’t control how many people pay attention. Every reader should have the freedom to choose, including the choice to go to a curated source. This group believes that the story is the thing, whether it is spoken, on a screen, in a book, or on a website.

These sides have clashed before. The five major New York publishers have taken the war to Amazon in the past, agreeing amongst themselves to raise prices in an attempt to slow the adoption of e-books (or at least to maximize profits if the adoption was going to continue apace). They paid millions in fines for the attempt. And the publishers promised to resume their efforts as soon as they were able.

That time has come. Hachette has stated to investors that it wants control over how e-books are priced. Amazon has broken its vow of silence to say the same thing. All the smoke and thunder from this battle is over who should set the final price of the object you enjoy: the manufacturer or the retailer.

Most retail works on a wholesale model. The retailer pays a percentage of the suggested list price, and then they can choose to discount and reduce their margins if they want. This is why you can walk into a bookstore and see a hardback marked 20% off. Publishers do not want Amazon to be able to sell e-books where they might compete with paperbacks. This, despite the incredible margins they make from each sale (partly because they pay their authors a laughable share).

The tension over these negotiations is near a breaking point. After Hachette, there are four other major publishers due to negotiate retail terms with Amazon. Lurking in the woods is the combined armies of Penguin and Random House. Generals on all sides are watching the battle with Hachette, because it could signal which way goes the war.

Picking a side is not necessary, of course. Both of these companies are large corporations with the potential to do both good and ill. It is far better to say “I love books,” or “I love readers,” or “I just want to write,” and hope the noise over the hill sorts itself out. Who wants to say they fought for one of two generals whose interests were largely their own and did not perfectly align with ours? If you suit up, you are a traitor or a shill. Better to sit it out.

There was a lot of that during the Revolutionary War. Remember that it was a civil war before the outcome was determined. Subject against subject. There’s no glory in that.

But one side will have to relent in this struggle. We will wake up one day and e-books will be nearly twice what we paid for the mass market paperback equivalent, or we will wake up and find stories we love at reasonable prices. You don’t have to pick a side—no one should have to pick a side—and I’m not here to ask you to. I’m here because I have decided to suit up. And some of my brothers and sisters will disagree with me. But I fight for them as well.

The borders around us will be redrawn, no matter what. And this war will turn out to have been a revolution or a quelled uprising. Right now, it’s too early to tell. It’s a little confusing when I see Confederates camping out on the 4th of July.

22 replies to “Revolution? Or Civil War?”

I’m still not convinced the wholesale model should extend to digital products. It makes sense with physical products, as they actually have to be moved around and all, but I just don’t see the reasoning with digital products.

With that said, will Amazon ever convince publishers to lower their prices? I certainly don’t think so. It’s readers, the end consumer, who will have to demand lower prices. Let me propose a scenario.

Give publishers the agency model and let them set their own prices. Let indies and publishers set their own prices and make no distinction between them on distribution platforms. When readers see how some books are less expensive than others, yet are of the same quality, they will buy those books instead of the more expensive ones. Their purchases will speak louder than anything else, and when there are books they actually want from the Big 5 (the Harry Potters, Dan Brown books, etc), they’ll speak up to demand lower prices because they won’t be used to paying so much for books any longer. Publishers will have to lower prices, or they’ll see readers move to indies.

No company or government entity can force publishers into lower prices and make them accept it, but readers can, because if they stop buying their books, they’ll have to respond, even of it takes them a while.

I can understand Amazon’s holding out against higher prices or allowing unchecked price control in the hands of the publishers, because Amazon has got a firm ethos of lower book prices in their bookstore. Having overpriced book stock is in opposition to their self-definition as a company. (But lest we assume they are pure as the driven snow, these negotiations also reputedly involve Amazon wanting a bigger share of the earnings. And NOT so that they can turn that additional share over to the authors.)

But from a practical market perspective, yes, readers will vote with their wallets, and if stock is overpriced which seems identical in all relevant ways with lower-priced book stock (i.e. qualiyy writing, good packaging, slick formatting), the overpriced stock could certainly suffer sagging sales–which may or may not lead to publishers reevaluating their pricing decisions.

As a traditionally published writer, I’m among the writers whose sales could be hurt by this. But since I have alternatives (nothing prevents me from switching to self-publishing full-time and controlling my own prices, for example, if I decide publisher pricing is hurting me), and since publishers could (at least in theory) rethink over-pricing and adjust their strategy, I don’t see a need to panic.

Or, the traditionalists are fighting so hard because they’ve already lost. To use the war metaphor, they’re desperately trying to secure their lines while their troops are deserting and slipping away and while their political support rapidly erodes. Readers aren’t stupid. They instinctively understand that an ebook should cost less than a paper book because they don’t have the same ownership rights to it. If Hachette wins, it still loses because what it wants from Amazon will just drive readers to indie authors. At an even faster pace than is currently happening.

Granted; as a potential SP author who has been reading the blogs for over two years (and writing at the same time), I know more than the average reader.

But I keep having this experience: book is recommended on a blog. I go to Amazon to check it out, read the sample. I decide to buy. I check the prices – and I see that 1) the price is higher than I usually pay (by a little or a lot) for good reading these days, and 2) the author has a bona fide publisher.

I then decide NOT to buy.

Too bad – they almost had me – but I can’t see paying non-competitive prices. I have too much to read already.

It is also too bad, because if I’ve gotten to the ‘buy’ choice, the book was likely well-written and interesting. But I want the author to stop feeding old publishing MY money. I know it’s a partly-irrational attitude – but it seems to be the way my mind works now.

I do the same thing all the time. There have been books I’ve read before release and offered blurbs for. The publisher puts the book out and asks if I’ll support the launch. I look at the price, and I can’t do it. How can I ask hardworking people to part with $14.99 for an e-book?

I agree with you on this, Hugh. There are a number of traditionally-published books I want to read, but since the ebook is over $10 (a price which I still find quite steep), I won’t buy them. It’s sad really.

Alicia, I find myself following that same progression: book recommended, find book on Amazon, look inside, decide to buy book, notice price, decide not to buy book.

I’m a little less principled than you. I’ve been scooping up trad-pubbed Georgette Heyer ebooks every time I see one on sale for $2.99. I re-read her constantly (re-reading Cotillion right now), and my paperback copies are all falling apart!

Great point, Alicia, I’ve been feeling the same way more and more lately. My Kindle is just bursting with wonderful new books and new voices. I have a terribly hard time paying double or more for a Big Five title, then having to put up with generally inferior formatting, editing, cover design, and too often storytelling. I would have to be VERY interested in that book to want to feed that machine when the alternatives are plentiful.

All it takes is reading one great indie book at a lower price to make you a convert and have you digging for gems. This trend is only going to go one direction. We really are watching a monumental shift take place.

I’m developing a cynical suspicion, no doubt naive and uninformed… that Amazon needs or prefers for the trad pubs to survive (to avoid a monopoly situation) and has studied what the trads need to do and is strongly encouraging them to do it… and the trads are balking. When the trads collapse and the feds are doing post-mortems, Amazon shrugs and says, in complete honesty, “we tried to help… they wouldn’t listen… here’s the proof”.

I could be wrong… but the suspicion keeps resurfacing….

“Who wants to say they fought for one of two generals whose interests were largely their own and did not perfectly align with ours? ”

Or: Who wants to go along with your framing it that way? Not me.

I see this much more along the lines of a pimp and a dealer he owes, both arguing over which of them gets the lion’s share of the money I spent the night earning the hard way. Neither of them is thinking about what’s best for ME or planning to cut me in on whatever deal they finally make. They’re both arguing strictly for themselves.

So I’ll wait to take sides in a situation where someone’s actually on MY side, thanks.

And speaking as a traditionally published author with a little self-publishing experience via my backlist, I’m also disinclined to scatter energy and focus by taking sides in this dispute because the more I think about it, the less important I actually think its outcome is (though I currently seem to be a minority of one in this respect) to writers or readers. Because:

If trad pub ebook prices go up, that’s GOOD for indies (or, at least, certainly not bad for them), who will continue to engage in price competition. Readers can express their opinion of over-pricing with their buying choices. When tradpub ebooks were priced too high 2011-2012 my friends and I bought indie writers, used libraries to read new releases, explored the classics (free or cheap), read backlist, etc. Buying patterns change when books you want are overpriced, but there’s no deprivation. And if trad pub writers find that their sales and/or incomes are hurt by overpricing of ebooks and/or by Amazon taking a bigger distributor ut of the earnings, they can alway focus more on indie publishing. We no longer work in an era when you have to have a publisher in order to earn income or make a living from your books. Even people who currently still believe that they NEED a publisher in order to be earning writers will presumably loosen their deathgrip on that mythology if circumstances force them to.

So the longer this mess drags on and the more there is around it, the less reason I see for all the passionate side-taking. Side-taking would be rational, by contrast, if the Big 5 were trying to make deals which influence or control how Amazon deals with -other- publishers and with indie writers. If Hachette were trying to affect the 70% royalty offered by KDP, for example, THAT would be well worth taking sides over. (But all Hachette or any other publisher has the power to do is keep saying in a sinister voice to writers, “You think they won’t cut that rate down to 50% or 30% the moment they get a chance? Hah!” And so on.)

Yes, I dislike fact-free, logic-deficient proganda, and there’s a lot of it surrounding the Amazon-Hachette dispute, jsut as there’s a lot of it surrounding the whole subject of publishing these days. But the side I’m on is still that of facts, reason, and business sense. Not this pimp or that dealer.

On one side, you have people who think not everyone should be published and that readers need help knowing what to read.

And on the other side you have readers and writers who have the power to ignore all that. Power has shifted. Market share follows power. Money follows market share.

Ain’t this a great country?

Sorry but your way of thinking *also* puts focus on method of delivery. You say books should be cheaper because they’re digital? You’re not focusing on the story. Who cares about the form they’re in, we need to remember that the stories are worth so much more than their delivery system. You seem to want to devalue authors (trad and self pub). Instead of this misguided focus on telling pub houses how to price their items, why aren’t we banding together to educate the reading public on the value of storytelling? You’re telling me, as a self pub author, that my story that I’ve put my heart and soul into is worth less than a candy bar? Than a cup of coffee? We need to be changing the social consciousness with regard to the value of artists and their art, not telling them that their work is worth nothing. That’s just my opinion, though.

If I may….

You’re ignoring the business side. As a self-published author, you run your own business.

I have no survey to back this claim but I suspect that out of 10 readers, at least 6 would buy the $2.99 – $4.99 ebook AND NOT buy the >$9.99 ebook. Listening to readers and my wallet, the cap is usually $6.99 and even then it has to be their “must-read-author”. So from the financial side, it would actually serve you better to price your books at a more reasonable and affordable price.

Your story is not worth the unit price but the unit price will determine how many will read your book. And isn’t this the reason you write – to have people read your stories? And even if you write just for the money – you’ll make more money with a cheaper book.

Regardless of the price, when a reader buys a book it means that the reader values the story.

” Instead of this misguided focus on telling pub houses how to price their items, why aren’t we banding together to educate the reading public on the value of storytelling?”

Nobody its telling publishers how to price their goods. They can sell them to the retailers for whatever price they want.

What we see is a retailer refusing to let a misguided publisher tell him the retail price he will sell to the public.

And the value of story telling? What is it? How much?

First up, I hope you enjoy your holiday weekend and don’t spend too much time working (though I saw your extensive comments on Chuck Wendig’s blog, so you’re clearly keeping your eye on the cyber world).

This Amazon/Hachette dispute is definitely a pivotal moment in publishing. It will set the course for what will happen in years to come. Picking sides is never easy, and for those who have picked already, they’ve tended to dance with the one they came with (traditionally pubbed authors picking Hachette and indies picking Amazon).

I tend to root for Amazon, as it has championed lower prices and better author royalties. But I’m not sure I agree with your battle analogy, in terms of writers taking up arms. We can agree with the general principles Amazon has supported, but we’re not part of the negotiations. I’ll support the principles of higher author royalties and cheaper (than print) ebook prices any day. But I’m not sure I can influence how this shakes out, even by declaring a support for the principles Amazon seems to want (again, I have no idea what’s going on in negotiations).

Perhaps the most important thing, if picking sides and going into battle (as you suggest) is answering the question: if your team wins, how likely they are to continue the practices/principles they said they were fighting for?

What was amazing about the American revolution was not that the revolutionaries won, but that they maintained the ideas they set forth at the beginning. Too many revolutions in nations around the world have led to dictatorships, rather than better circumstances. That the founding fathers fought against monarchs and then endeavored (and succeeded) in creating a nation without them, is magnificent. What happens after this publishing battle is over, especially if Amazon wins, will give us a chance to see if this was truly a revolution or merely a dictatorial power grab. Though I would hope for the former.

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