If you like books and reading, the Amazon vs. Hachette war of 2014 has probably caught your eye. The shortest version: the two companies (Hachette being the umbrella term for one of the “big five publishers,” which includes imprints like Little, Brown and Company and Grand Central Publishing, among others) are locked in a battle over ebook pricing. While this negotiation is going on, Amazon is throwing its weight around by making upcoming books by Hachette authors difficult to order and receive: originally it was that books would take several weeks to ship, but now Amazon has deemed upcoming releases like Megan Abbott’s very good read The Fever “Currently Unavailable.” (You can buy it here.) The LA Times has a smart and succinct, 13-point summary of the fight, and name authors like Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson, and John Green have weighed in with their take on business and books.
Amazon has used tactics like this before. In 2010 they pulled their “buy now” buttons when they were in a fight with Macmillian, and fights like this have been more common in the book world since Amazon has been “disrupting” the industry and acting like a monopoly when it comes to pricing. (Amazon won a federal “antitrust” suit last year, and it’s playing out now.) Remember last summer, when Barnes and Noble cut their physical, in-store orders of Simon and Schuster’s books, again, over an ebook pricing dispute? (A fight that was in Amazon’s wake.) As Stephen Colbert explains, Amazon has 50 percent of the market, and their tactics — delaying delivery of books, taking away “buy now” buttons, and encouraging people to buy used books — are hurting his bottom line. In a cathartic segment on last night’s Colbert, he compared Jeff Bezos to Voldemort and gave Amazon the finger, twice.
That’s the problem in publishing as these big corporations negotiate and bully each other — the authors are losing sales and attention, and careers are being affected. Big authors like Jodi Picoult (who was affected by S&S vs. Barnes and Noble) saw their sales decline; debut authors sold no copies of their books, and they can’t sell another book to a big publisher with that black mark on their resumé. The publishing industry doesn’t notice an asterisk regarding an author’s sales, unfortunately.
So on last night’s The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert did a mitzvah for a young debut author, Edan Lepucki, whose apocalyptic novel, California, is “currently unavailable” on Amazon, ramping up to a July 8 release. As fellow Hachette author Sherman Alexie explained, bookstores order copies of books based on presales, pre-publicity, and pre-orders coming, most often, from Amazon. Lepucki’s book falls in that category. But Colbert is coming to the rescue, determined to try to “sell more books than Amazon.” When you go to his site, there’s a link to pre-order California through Colbert and the excellent Portland bookstore Powell’s.
This morning, the book is the #1 bestseller at Powell’s. It may be one small example of Colbert’s power and support helping Lepucki’s book, but it is meaningful, and even better, it will help the public realize who is being hurt — people writing books that you may want to read ten years from now — while giants fight to the very last breath. Last night, Alexie said that California is about the end of the world, and “Los Angeles goes.” Colbert replied, “So it has a happy ending.” And it may well be for one young author getting the “Colbert bump.”