Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

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

The Reason for the Delays

I think we can now confirm that the reason for the delays for Hachette titles was that Amazon wasn’t stocking the books in their warehouses. It has been said over and over again that the delays during this dispute were due to Hachette’s inefficiencies, which I saw firsthand as a bookseller. Direct orders placed with a major publisher took 2-3 weeks to arrive. I can’t remember them ever arriving as fast as in a week.

I’ve seen two news outlets express confusion over why some of Hachette’s titles still show a delay of 2-3 weeks. Well, it’s because Amazon just created those orders yesterday when the deal was reached. It’ll now take 2-3 weeks to get those books to Amazon’s distribution center. Only then will the efficiencies of those distribution centers allow 1-2 day delivery. (Hachette might choose to “rush” these orders, which costs bookstores a pretty penny and probably involves unpleasant warehouse conditions.)

The way this has been portrayed in the anti-Amazon media and by Hachette authors made it sound like Amazon set Hachette books aside and said “Don’t ship those for another week!” and then rubbed their hands together and cackled. Which is ludicrous. The truth is far more banal and speaks more to publishers’ weak infrastructure and customer service, something they should work on if they don’t want to be beholden to retailers like Amazon.

Of course, how could they possibly compete in this area? Amazon has decided to take its profits and spend it on acquisitions and infrastructure, notably these distribution centers. They spend billions of dollars every year building these things. I think this pointless standoff showed publishers one thing: they rely on that infrastructure. Don’t forget that we used to go into bookstores, special order a book, and get a call in a couple of weeks. Or we’d put a book on hold at the library and wait weeks or even months.

Now we either get the book on our device in five seconds, or it shows up at our stoop in two days. Not only did the complaints of the last few months seem to forget the delays in the old way of doing things, they never once paused to appreciate the new world that tech companies have ushered in. They naively think that every company can simply do these things, that Hachette can also send books to customers in two days. They can’t. And Amazon is their biggest customer.

19 replies to “The Reason for the Delays”

Wow, Laura. I don’t normally laugh like that at a comment – I consider myself more restrained – but I did when I read what you wrote. Bravo! Sometimes the best lines rely on the harshest truth.

Another thing that troubles me, which probably deserves a blog post, but it’s so embarrassing for those who suffer from this disorder that I am loathe to call them out publicly:

The people who secretly pined for Amazon to pull all Hachette books and the people who secretly hoped that Hachette would never work with Amazon ever again should all look hard and deep inside themselves. Wishing that kind of animosity is bad for those who do and contributes nothing to nowhere. At that point, it’s just about spite.

The winners here are the readers and the writers. Plain and simple. Writers have access to a wider market, and readers get lower prices. The reason many of us were on the side of Amazon throughout this was that they were fighting for readers and writers. Because lower prices and higher selection are what drive their bottom line. Publishers thrive on higher prices and a more curated selection. Why anyone roots for them, I have no idea. I’m published with two of the Big 5, and I root for retailers to pressure the hell out of them to get prices down. That drives up readership.

Again, anyone who is disappointed that Amazon and Hachette have reached an agreement (and I sense that a lot of people fall into this trap) have screws loose. Tighten them.

Another point you won’t see major media make is the quick turnaround for this deal. Simon and Schuster announced their deal in late October after stating it only took them a few weeks to hammer out final details. Less than a month later Hachette and Amazon came to terms. Amazing how much could be accomplished in a short time when Hachette finally decided to sit down and negotiate.

Oh, I was definitely one of those people. Not because of schadenfreude though. Okay fine, not only because of schadenfreude. I wanted the Big X to realize that they’re being idiots with this War on the Zon.

Amazon is not a competitor for publishers. They’re a marketplace. If you’re smart, they can be a fantastic business partner. They’ve created an unparalleled ability to put books in hands, and yet the biggest book companies are trying to destroy them.

Madness!

This sums up my confusion. If I were a CEO of one of these companies, I’d go to Amazon and say, “Hey, we’re all in. Let’s sell some books together. Tell us what you need, how you need it, and we’ll deliver.”

I also got to the point where I wanted Amazon to take down all Hachette titles. For one simple reason: They kept saying Amazon was delaying shipments and Amazon was “disappearing” authors and Amazon was being punitive. I thought a month of ACTUAL punitive might give them perspective. “You wanna see what ‘disappearing’ looks like. Behold.”

Shows Amazon is not petty. :) But I did, indeed, pine for a few weeks of REAL Amazon hardball.

Yes! And Amazon would probably be willing to share some of that digital gold with them – information that could be used to help them decide which books to contract. Instead, Amazon has to keep them all a few paces away, where it can keep an eye on them all at once.

I remember working at a Barnes & Noble in the 1990s and all the special order books stuffed into the shelves behind the register, waiting to be picked up. We spent the day calling the people who ordered them. Took 14 days for a book to arrive at the store, if I remember correctly. Looked up books on microfiche and enormous hardcover publisher lists to find titles. I get the impression, and B&N booksellers please correct me if I’m wrong, that the ordering mechanism has changed–it’s done with a PC–but the delivery system hasn’t. Still distant warehouses and trucks. That will kill the traditional houses in the end because if you have to order a book, by definition you already know what you want and are committed to buy, you can just go to Amazon. We all do it, even the Amazon-haters.

I wanted to repeat my facebook post here. Although i was one of those who said ‘screw Hachette’ it was to make a point, that Amazon had the upper hand, as they should have. But the point I wanted to repeat was that so many people are calling Amazon the killer of traditional publishing, but i do not see it that way. Although they might kill publishing as we know it, that was never their goal, all they ever wanted was to provide faster access and better prices. They are destroying traditional publishing the same way auto manufacturers killed the horse and buggy trade. The same way that dvd’s killed vhs. They replaced the old way because they were better.
The point here is also that there were many horse and buggy dealers and many vhs sellers who survived, and they survived because they adapted and joined the modern ways. Hachette was the polar opposite, they wanted to keep selling horse and buggies and called Amazon bad for selling cars. Hachette needs to catch up, or they will go the way of the vhs tape.

I think it’s worth pointing out that the full absurdity of the argument is that it was supposed to be Amazon’s shame that they weren’t keeping Hachette’s titles in stock.

it shows a fundamental ignorance about the value of the audience that Amazon has worked hard to create, grow, and manage over the last 20 years.

Amazon stocks books based on advanced “just in time” date that they generate with their software, based on user data. Understanding who their audience is, what they want, and when they want it the reason that Amazon has grown and grown without generating profits: there ar a “just in time” business down to the bones.

As we learned over the last year, it would take a tremendous amount of damage to undo the trust that they’ve built up with consumers.

The publishers, on the other hand, remain contemptuous and suspicious of everyone at every level of their supply chain. Amazon “owes it to them” to wherehouse their books (for free), even as they demand control of the retail prices, even though only Amazon understands how those numbers effect how many books they should keep on hand to fulfill demand. If they were smart they would have demanded access to that data, although I suppose they’d have had no idea what to do with it.

Somehow I don’t think the subtleties of this argument will penetrate, but it’s worth explaining it in more detail for the few who might be swayed by (non-whale) math.

Agreed. I’m convinced that the people who supported Hachette in this debacle fall into one of two camps:

1) They don’t understand anything about this business or business in general.

2) They hate that shopping takes place online.

I can’t make sense of their words any other way.

Amazon is to be commended for its behavior throughout, because it’s Amazon that’s been at risk while “negotiations” were underway. Imagine the Lincoln-Mercury dealer who takes orders for Fords even though it’s not a Ford dealership and to its customers cannot guarantee the order will be filled. The dealer is at risk, not the manufacturer. What is at risk is the dealer’s goodwill with its customers (inter alia) and that is the risk Amazon, in a show of amazing restraint and fair-dealing, has been willing to shoulder. It is time for the media to print what the real commercial dynamics are that have been in play and give credit where credit is due.

I think it’s a good lesson for all of us on making judgements. Streitfeld, et al looked at the surface details with their biases and saw shipping delays = evil Amazon. The truth below those shallow surface details was very different.

I think Hachette got just what they deserved, really, now that I think about it… only Hachette doesn’t realize just how bad it is for THEM.

Sure, set your own too-high prices, Hachette. Feel free to run yourself out of the ebook business, all at your own hand… if the perceived value isn’t there, most customers won’t buy. There’s no way to justify hardcover prices on a digital file that can’t be resold.

Yeah, but I feel bad for the authors who did a deal with Hachette expecting them to operate in their best interest. Sadly, authors are treated like widgets at publishing houses. You’re dropped like a hot potato if one book doesn’t perform. It would be like benching a baseball player the first time they got an out at the plate.

The big lesson for me with this snafu (and having been through this with S&S and B&N) is that you take a massive risk when you sign the rights to your work over to another party. Now you’re beholden to their pricing philosophy, their ability to do business with retailers, their marketing platform, their shipping efficiencies.

Most writers/agents are desperate enough to do a deal that they’ll continue to sign with companies with poor track records, because there are only 5 left with access to wide physical store distribution, but self-publishing’s benefits just became soaringly obvious. Own your art. Partner with retailers directly. Don’t let someone hold your career hostage.

Comments are closed.