Last week I was in New York City for 3 days conferring with editors. 25 of them to be exact. I’m exhausted. I’ll write about this more in the next few days.
I frequently talk about how difficult it is to gauge editors’ reactions to submissions. It is all very subjective and editors have a pretty broad diversity of sensibilities. But there appears to be one subject that elicits strong feelings across the spectrum. That is a loathing for Amazon.com. This is a little puzzling since Amazon has surpassed Barnes and Noble as the largest purveyor of books in America. Usually publishers, who are no different from any other business, are pretty circumspect about criticizing their largest account. Not so with Amazon.com.
The newest Amazon indignity that is causing a huge uproar with authors, agents, and publishers is the free book lending policy that is offered as part of Amazon’s new “Prime” program. The cost of joining Amazon Prime is $79.95 per year. It’s a pretty good deal. You can get free shipping from Amazon on all orders and receive thousands of streaming videos at no extra cost. But the part of the package that is upsetting authors is the lending program that allows Prime members to borrow a book for free once a month.
There seems to be some question as to whether publishers can and will license their books to be read for free by Amazon, and authors are incensed that they have not, possibly will not be consulted in the event that the program takes off . First of all, the good news is that there are only 5000 books being offered and a lot of them will be of no interest to most readers. Amazon approached the 6 largest publishers: Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette, Penguin, and Simon and Schuster. All of them turned Amazon down. The next tier of mid-size publishers: Norton, Houghton Mifflin, and Bloomsbury apparently refused as well. But Amazon went ahead without their permission putting some few of their books on the list. Amazon claims that if they pay the publisher the cost of an e-book every time one is checked out (thus treating it like a sale), the publisher has no say in the matter. Publishers argue that they never intended that their books be used in this manner, essentially as premiums to induce customers to buy hardware or services.
Probably the heart of the problem is concern by authors and publishers that the new culture of “free” or, at any rate, “almost free” will further degrade the public’s sense of the inherent value of books and writing. Amazon has been cultivating this sensibility for a long time. The most extreme examples are the used books that are being offered for 1 cent all over the Amazon site. But Amazon has been attempting in other ways to dictate what the inherent value of e-books should be. They have been willing to sell e-books below cost. That is no problem for Amazon. Once customers gets on the site, they are more likely to buy other merchandise. For instance: cameras, computers, or condoms.
The Authors Guild, which is the largest organization representing authors, is practically apoplectic over this. They are particularly concerned that authors have no say in this matter, that there is no equitable formula for compensating authors if a publisher sells a license to Amazon for this use, and that the existing book contracts could only permit this use under a tortured interpretation.
I’m sure we will be hearing more about this soon. So stay tuned.