Who is David?

The negotiations between Amazon and the Big 5 publishers is often framed as a war between David and Goliath. What’s strange is that who gets to play David depends on who you’re talking to. Both sides claim him. The rare moments when people equivocate between the two parties, they state that this is really a case of Goliath vs. Goliath, which is far closer to the truth. We’re talking about multi-billion dollar corporations on either side.

But I’m still interested in how people who normally agree on a wide range of social issues find themselves on opposing sides when it comes to Amazon/Big 5. Of course, it’s not uncommon for people to agree on a lot of ideas and then hit a snag on some major topic. What is strange is when they use the same language to buttress diametrically opposing viewpoints. Both sides in this case say they’re trying to protect the little guy against the big bully. It’s like we’re on opposite sides of a valley, and we can barely see the two people duking it out down below on our army’s behalf, but our guy is definitely the underdog. Both sides think that ours is the champion of the little people.

And we both think we’re right. Where I might be a little crazy is that I believe the people I disagree with are sincere. I’ve had a number of exchanges with outspoken people from the anti-Amazon side, and I think these are good people who believe they are on the right side of history for taking their stance. I have some very close friends who vehemently disagree with me. So how do I square what I know of these people with how wrong I think they are?

It starts with questioning my own beliefs and positions, of course. I’m open to being the fault in this paradox. But as I look at the entire scope of this debate, and what is being said on either side, I think I’ve finally hit upon how both sides think they are championing David. It all has to do with how we frame our view of both Amazon and the major publishing houses. And I think we all get this incredibly wrong.

When I think of Amazon going up against the Big 5, I think of the publishing divisions of Amazon going up against the combined might of Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. That is, I don’t think of Amazon Web Services playing any role in this fight. Nor do I think of Amazon Fire TV or the Amazon Fire Phone divisions as playing a role. I don’t even think of the distribution centers and the sale of physical goods, including media. I think of the people at Kindle Direct Publishing, Createspace, Audible/ACX, and Amazon’s publishing imprints. The book people.

I’ll get into why this is a mistake on my part in a minute. But first, let’s look at a mistake made by those on the other side. When these people think of Simon & Schuster, they don’t think of CBS, which owns the publisher. When they think of HarperCollins, they don’t think of Rupert Murdoch, Fox News, and NewsCorp. They just single out the book-publishing division that they love, and they compare that to the entire Amazon empire. They think of diapers, TVs, and how un-fun warehouse work sounds. They take everything that isn’t books out of their David’s army and forget all about that. And then they pit what’s left against the entirety of their foe.

Those of us who work with Amazon’s publishing divisions — either as self-published authors or as authors with their imprints — don’t think of the same “Amazon” when we’re talking books. What we’re thinking about are the men and women who work at Amazon who love literature. Many of them came from New York publishing. We think about what they’re up against compared to just the publishing component of NewsCorp or the American book wing of Lagardère Group, which owns Hachette.

In practically every way, Amazon is the clear underdog here. The upstart. The newcomer. They’ve published roughly 5,000 titles across their imprints to date, which is the number that the Big 5 might publish in a year. Meanwhile, the Big 5 have banded together to establish price floors with other retailers in what the DOJ found to be illegal collusion. And bookstores have refused to carry Amazon’s works, banning these titles from a large sector of the marketplace. For many of us, this is bullying far more severe than removing pre-order buttons.

When it comes to size, the publishing divisions at Amazon represent a tiny sliver of Amazon’s overall revenue. It’s quite possible that all of these divisions combined earn less than each of the Big 5 publishers do individually. The David from this point of view — not only in earnings but also in marketplace challenges that are either illegal or a result of book banning at retail — would seem obvious.

Compound this with the fact that Amazon pays authors more than publishers (anywhere from double at their imprints to nearly six times as much with their self-publishing platforms). Or the fact that they charge less to the consumer, where publishers have banded together to artificially raise prices, and the David is not only clear, but so is the side who is fighting for the little people. At least, from one perspective.

Publishers, meanwhile, are fighting for the health of large bookstore chains and for the top 1% of writers who benefit from massive distribution. They also benefit from a system that bars 99% of applicants from even entering. Again, this is the way those who support Amazon and other digital disruptors see these parties as David and the combined might of the Big 5 as Goliath.

But this view is just as wrong as the view that sees Amazon as Goliath and the publishing division of NewsCorp as David. Simon & Schuster proved this view to be false last month, when they agreed to a multi-year distribution deal with Amazon for both ebooks and print works. The major publishers have operated lockstep in some ways (from boilerplate contracts to digital royalties), but they aren’t the cartel we accuse them of. They enter subscription services variably. Some of them work out terms with their distributors while others don’t. Some have dabbled in print-only deals and have embraced genre publishing and lower ebook prices to a greater degree.

The truth is that there are a lot of Davids, all fighting for a place on the battlefield. Various alliances have cropped up over the years, but just as often, these Davids compete. In my view, the smallest David of them all is without a doubt Amazon’s publishing wings. To harp on the support they have from the larger company, again, is to make the same mistake of ignoring NewsCorp or Bertelsmann.

None of this is meant to settle any of the disputes, of course. It just helps explain (to me, anyway) how both sides can claim to be fighting on behalf of the little people. It all depends on how you frame and clump the people, and it’s usually done — by both sides — in order to buttress previously-held beliefs.



42 responses to “Who is David?”

  1. The David v. Goliath metaphor has always seemed inapt to me in this instance.

    Better perhaps is Cain and Abel. Cain, the firstborn, whose offerings became unacceptable. He then sought to slay his younger brother, because his offerings were a sweeter aroma.

    1. Whoa! Good point.

    2. That’s a much more apt description, but it’s a dangerous one that’s bound to raise ire so it can’t be used much in public.

    3. James Scott Bell, you make me smile! You hit analogies and quotes out of the park, always!

  2. Protect the little guy? You can’t really think that the Douglas Prestons and James Pattersons of the world are trying to protect the little guy, do you? Or the little guy’s pocketbook?

    Jeff Bezos wants low prices for lots of consumers. The big publishers want a big pool of money for themselves; in exchange for which they’ll make sure we get ‘culture.’

    Sorry – don’t buy it.

    1. I personally don’t think their actions are helping the little guy, but I think they earnestly believe that they are. I think people like Douglas Preston think that mid-listers are getting hurt by Amazon’s negotiation tactics with Hachette, without considering the fact that most mid-listers don’t earn out, so they already made as much as they ever were going to by collecting their advance.

      So I think they’re wrong, but I think they are sincere in believing what they espouse.

      1. Also I think they are sincere when they say that books and culture need some kind of gatekeeping.

        1. I think they’re actually right about that belief – except that they’re going about it wrong – have been for a long time (because they controlled the means of distribution) – and we’ll find new ways of gatekeeping.

          Re Sturgeon’s law.

          The old system of gatekeeping – a single agent’s ability to divert the bed of the Colorado River – was seriously flawed. I MAY benefit from the new one; never from the old.

          At least I have a fighting chance – I have no idea what kept me writing during the plague years, especially after I had already gone through the gauntlet and had tucked myself into the recommended, ‘Write the next book.’

          A fighting chance is all I ask.

      2. Again, no. These one-percenters are the biggest examples of willful ignorance and unenlightened self-interest in our mutual publishing world.

        “I’m SURE they can eat cake!” is their cry.

        You and Konrath and Gaughran and others have allowed them their say – and it is STILL the biggest pile of BS I’ve ever seen.

        Fortunately, though they may believe it fervently that it is (‘la la la la la – I can’t hear you!’), the future is not in their hands.

        1. That may be true that they’re thoughts are like good old Headless Marie’s in terms of eating cake, but don’t forget that it’s widely thought that she genuinely didn’t understand that the peasants couldn’t just choose cake when there was no bread on a tray, like she and all her ilk did.

          Of course, that didn’t stop her head from rolling either. So, there’s that.

          Like Hugh, I genuinely believe that they have no idea how the mid-list income works. I truly–but sadly–think they don’t know that the mid-lister earned as much as they ever would with their 5K or 10K advance on a year or two of their lives.

          And like Marie….well, you get the idea.

          1. Exactly. I guess my point is that I see them as misinformed or just plain wrong, not evil or liars. So there shouldn’t be any hostility toward their wrongness. Just point out what you see as a better interpretation of facts and hope that your argument holds sway and they are open to questioning their beliefs.

      3. But just because they (Preston et al) believe it, does not mean it’s true.

        They could say they are “David,” but the facts speak for themselves, because the aligning trends in publishing prove it. Or, are at the very least, beginning to prove it.

    2. Preston et al seem to believe it in the sense that Milton Friedman believed in the free market: that it supposedly protects our shot at the big time while guaranteeing nothing. And once you succeed in either arena, you cease to believe in externalities or the effects of environments, and it’s only hard work and talent that can possibly make the difference.

  3. It’s the “Roosevelt’s” power struggle structure standing firm, it will always stand tall with the elite. They don’t WANT to give more to the people and will fight for it anyway they know how, no matter the cost.

    They want control to continue to be powerful and in today’s world they are starting to lose it,
    l i t t l e b y l i t t l e!

  4. You’re a great guy Hugh for trying to see both sides and always giving the other the benefit of the doubt and trying to understand their perspective.

    But I’m not such a great guy because I simply believe Preston and the others are lying about what is really going on. I think Clay Shirky hit it exactly right when he said this is about the literary elite being upset they don’t matter anymore.

    Sticking to the David and Goliath analogy, the little guy here is the New York Literary Scene. And they are hopelessly under assault, but not really from Amazon. Their entire lifestyle and measure of self-worth is being eroded by modern technology and world events. New York simply doesn’t matter as much in the global economy and their status at the top of the social, media and cultural food chain is going away, no matter what happens with Amazon. Specifically with books, you can’t just go to an Ivy League school, suck up to the right people in New York publishing, and become an “important” published writer. Maybe you never really could count on it, but now it’s not even a good dream. Readers are flocking to genre, genre writing is gaining credibility, and self-publishers are taking over genre. They can’t control what’s on the shelves anymore, and when people have choice they don’t pick the stuff that the literary scene wants to sell. Meanwhile, media is splintering and people don’t care as much if you get a nice write up in the NYTimes. And, now the final straw, the big publishers are cutting advances for these books that no one wants to buy.

    I think it’s the Goliath big publishers that put the squeeze on the David literary scene (particularly agents) and said, if you don’t do something about Amazon, we’re going to cut your beloved advances even more. And so literary David went off to fight another giant, Amazon for the real Goliath. They were being squeezed in the middle by both sides, but they won’t admit it is the big publishers that are really putting the hurt on.

    Now, perhaps they truly believe the big publishers when the big publishers blame Amazon for cutting advances. (Despite the illogic of that.) But at minimum, they aren’t being honest about the inside chatter, and the threats from publishing executives and are being dishonest about their ultimate goal, which is simply to preserve, for as long as possible, their fading special snowflake status.

    1. But James Patterson et al aren’t literary writers. It’s so weird. They’re scorned by literary writers. Their editors are scorned by literary editors. I hear James Patterson talking about himself as this protector of literary culture and I think, what? You make $90M a year. You could employ every literary novelist in the country, and they’d still think you were dirt under their sneakers.

      Now he makes huge money, and I guess in the US that means he can claim to be whatever he wants. But his level of cluelessness always impresses me.

  5. I’ll second Mackay’s comment: you’re kind to keep giving them the benefit of the doubt. At best, they seem motivated by panic and have clearly stepped beyond rational arguments, and that’s the charitable view. To me, it’s summed up by their basic position: that Amazon is a monopolistic bully that should probably be prosecuted for not acceding to our demands, but we really want it to keep selling our books, too.

    You hit it on the head the other day with Christensen, IMHO. This is how a fatcat industry always treats the upstart innovator that’s about to eat its lunch.

    Preston must have conniptions when he reads articles about the woman who wrote harry Styles fan fiction on her Samsung phone on the subway and has made a killing doing it. It’s a new world.

  6. Right and wrong don’t matter. Nor does sincerity. It’s impossible for the old ways to dominate in a world that has embraced the new technology. The technology will result in an abundance of available books at low prices. It will do that if Hachette wins. It will do it if Amazon wins. It will do it if both fall. It will do it if Ali Baba enters the arena. It will do it if some guy in a garage has a new idea.

    This fight is about who will get the profits from the inevitable change taking place. No matter who gets the benefits, we will see the same thing in the market. The only difference will be the path it takes to get to the same place.

    All the stuff about culture, literature, authors, and curating is a smokescreen designed to hide the race for dollars. And that race is what is giving both authors and consumers more opportunity than at any time in history..

  7. Once again, a complicated problem is clarified by Hugh Howey. I thank you for tirelessly work toward a resolution that will benefit so many.

  8. Smart Debut Author Avatar
    Smart Debut Author

    The traditional publishing industry is like the abusive drunk insisting he can walk just fine on his own, and Amazon is the fellow whose had a shoulder under his arm for the last few years, ignoring his incoherent insults and steering him away from stepping into traffic.

  9. Out of all the interesting things you said, the sentence that leaped out was “They also benefit from a system that bars 99% of applicants from even entering.”

    The publishing elite and working writers have subjective experiences that are are in conflict. Publishers benefit from a closed system, controlling who is published. Writers benefit from an open system allowing their work to be published.

    It’s a war of perception and I’m afraid it’s going to rage on.

  10. Making this into a morality play, which somehow requires that one champion an underdog, is incredibly irritating. The endless jockeying, usually of the anti-Amazon side, for public sympathy by portraying themselves as helpless victims of the behemoth who wants to devour them, is simply a ruse to distract us from the realities here.

    But then again, self-publishers tend to do this when criticizing the Big Publishing world also. Once again, it’s the helpless Davids fighting the mighty Goliaths. Also very irritating. All of this is just another example of resentment of the strong, and what Nietzsche called the “will to power”, which is what he saw as the basis of all moral systems of value.

    The real lesson in all these things is that sometimes it actually pays to be underestimated, to be small and quick and able to navigate and turn on a dime. Being a big, traditional industry has many advantages, but it also has many weaknesses that the small, smart and agile guys can exploit. That’s what’s going on right now in the industry. Trying to change the conversation into some kind of morality play about who is the underdog, and who “deserves” to win therefore, is just a distraction from these realities of the conflict we are witnessing. Even Amazon used to be the small, smart, agile guy exploiting the weaknesses of the industry giants. Now they are a giant themselves, and somehow this is supposed to change them into immoral bad buys rather than righteous underdogs? They are just employing the very strategies that got them here in the first place. At what point does an underdog hero become a villain? When they actually succeed? What a weird moral system that is.

    1. I agree. But it is a staple belief in this culture, going back to pretty much the dawn of history, that the person who slays the dragon, becomes the dragon.

  11. I’m new enough to all this that I’m really not certain on a of the aspects, on the surface, I agree with Hugh Howey, and my feeling is to trust his assessment. There’s one point I think is being missed, about the 1%ers. They’ve built long careers and large fortunes with the traditional model. If any of us tiny-timers had that kind of history with anything would we chuck it all for some system we’re not sure of?
    In terms that most can relate to, is it easier to walk away from a 1 year marriage or a thirty year marriage?
    On top of that can any of us imagine what the publishers are telling the 1%ers, about a move to independence, the threats of damage to decades of brand building. Or contracts that might not be as favorable if they don’t back their publishers.
    I honestly don’t believe any of the 1%ers that the traditional model does what they’re saying, I think they are trapped inside those ivory towers and want out, every bit as much as much as we want in those particular towers.

    1. Maybe I wouldn’t chuck the system that made me a millionaire, but I think I’d notice that it hadn’t made a whole lot of other writers millionaires. It’s possible to think that something is good for you but not good for others. And if you have that much money in the bank, I’d think it would be easy to say, okay, I made mine. Now let’s move on.

  12. Hugh–not specifically related to this thread–wish there a way to subscribe to threads by email here. Would like to keep up as new things are added to topics.

    1. Me, too! A subscribe button would be great!

  13. And then there is the speculation that Goliath was actually a lumbering, myopic, giant, plagued by double vision who brought a knife to a gunfight. I think that fits pretty well and definitely puts Amazon in the “David” category. The TED talk linked below it illuminating. :)


    1. R.E. McDermott – I have been waiting to see that speech linked. Always enjoyed that version.

      Very interesting read about the two sides playing a role in this major paradigm shift. As someone trying to break out onto the scene, I do love hearing about the underpinnings of the industry.

  14. In the latest installment of “The Trials of David, starring Hachette”, don’t miss the 1300 word cover story in today’s NYT:


    Hachette’s CEO, Michael Pietsch, wants us to know the “margin squeeze” imposed by Amazon and e-books motivated him to heroically abandon his corner-office-with-living-room in favor of a 6×7 foot cubicle (there are, of course, photos to reinforce the imagery). He says the notion of leaving Manhattan was “not an option”.

    Surely this will steel the hearts of Hachette authors everywhere to endure Gloiath’s hail of stones.

  15. The problem is that it’s a misuse of the metaphor. There’s a lot more to David vs. Goliath then simply “big vs. little”.

    Corporations are *always* Goliath’s: fictional monsters of legend, imbued without outsized attributes, and inhuman strength. Some are bigger, some are weaker, but none of them ar actually *human*, no matter how many rights the Supreme Court grants them.

    Davids are the individuals: ordinary individuals who face the mythical, praying that maybe, against all hope, that when they swing their sling we’ll hit some weakness that will let them walk away alive. History conveniently forgets the names of the thousands who failed…

  16. Hugh’s comments and Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath, made me think about the whole Amazon/Hachette issue as a parable.

    Up until recently, the Big 5’s control of commercial book distribution was near-monopolistic. So say they represent 5 Goliaths with a huge support system, the Philistine Army. They controlled what was sold, how it was sold, and prices. They stomped around and said that nothing was of value unless it went through them, and they took their massive cut for middle-manning. They justified this, because supplying such a huge empire and army was expensive.

    Thousands of lyrical shepherds wished to sell their stories and songs, but few could effectively challenge so powerful an army. Some select and lucky shepherds who went begging to the Philistines got paid off with the chance to get their stories in places where others could discover them, so that they might be sold.

    One day a caravan named for a river arrived and changed everything. They traveled to all ends of the earth, selling stories for any shepherd, for much more than the Philistines paid. No more begging was involved, and they even handed each shepherd a sling. And many shepherds sold stories which the people craved.

    Since the shepherds didn’t have grand armies to support, they could live by selling fewer stories, so many didn’t bother getting permission from the Philistines, who raged at losing control and their cut of profits. The Philistines demanded battle, and lumbered to the field with heavy armor and weapons.

    What happened was extraordinary. Whizzing stones peppered the Goliaths, as an army of speedy, lightly-clad Davids fired back in response. No slow Goliath could catch any of the nimble shepherds, they could only rail against the unfairness of it all. “That’s not how battles are fought!”

    The shepherds don’t need the Philistines around anymore, they just want to sell stories however they can. But the dismayed Philistines need to support their huge army, and keep demanding battle, saying the caravan that sells is evil, and will someday hurt the shepherds.

    The shepherds shrug and figure they’ll find another caravan if that happens. In the meantime, they’re doing rather well without any Philistine involvement.

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  18. […] Howey has a thoughtful and nuanced article on the war between Amazon (enabler of the self-publishing revolution) vs the Big 5 players […]

  19. Thanks for the great article. As a student of self-publishing for the past years, you’re one of the people who convinced me to pursue this and I’m currently following my dream, polishing my stuff for self-publication.

    Not only that, but I have instigated my father in back in Romania (who’s now writing edgy dark comedy that nobody ever knew had in him) and my wife, an ophthalmologist, who, on my encouragement, is writing her supernatural coming of age stories — something she’d always dreamed to do. I will be translating their stuff into English and publish it.

    They don’t know anything about the world of self-publishing and they are of course very skeptical about all this but they are still doing it so they must also feel that there’s something there…

    I don’t know how appropriate this is in your comment section, but I wrote a small post referencing your article, offering my two cents on the subject of Amazon vs the Big 5.


    Thanks for your inspiration

  20. I think this whole “David vs Goliath” argument misses a critical point, namely authors are best served by having a multitude of outlets for their writing.

    There are whole categories of writers who need “traditional publishing.” For example, if you write biographies that take years to research, you live off of advances. If, on the other hand, you can dash off a book in a few months during your lunch breaks, self-publishing may work great.

    What authors should really want is for nobody to “win” the war between Amazon and traditional publishers. We should want as many outlets as possible.

  21. […] Will Shock You.” For example, you have indie pub advocate Hugh Howey saying that indie pubs represent an underdog fighting a battle against the evil giants. On the other side, you’ve got folks suggesting that indie pub authors suffer from the […]

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