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Can Douglas Preston, et al. loosen Amazon’s stranglehold on authors and publishers?

As the ongoing war between Amazon and Hachette drags on, it seems almost comical to add yet another blog post to the mass of material that has already been written analyzing the farrago – especially given the fact that no one outside of the principal players in the dispute really knows what the specific areas of contention are. Media reports suggest that ebook pricing is at the heart of the disagreement, with Amazon demanding a larger slice of the pie and Hachette refusing to budge. Whatever its motivation, Amazon has manifested its displeasure by slowing down the pace of fulfillment for orders of Hachette books and by removing the pre-order buttons from upcoming Hachette titles.

All of this has naturally displeased Hachette authors, including a number of powerful players and big names such as J.K. Rowling, Stephen Colbert, and Malcolm Gladwell.

Indeed, battle lines have been fairly decisively drawn, with established authors (those associated with Hachette and others) on one side, and so-called “independent” authors who feel supported by Amazon’s reach and self-publishing platform, on the other. The former camp is led by Douglas Preston, who has written an open letter decrying Amazon’s bullying tactics. “[W]e encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business,” the letter reads. “None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.”

So far, Preston’s letter has amassed several hundred signatures, including such notable names as Stephen King, Donna Tartt, Scott Turow, James Patterson, and Nora Roberts, all international best-selling authors whose work has been instrumental in building Amazon into the behemoth it is today.

Most startling is the degree of support Preston has been given, and the apparent unwillingness of authors, including those affected by the current dispute, to capitulate to Amazon’s demands. Earlier this month, Amazon offered Hachette authors 100 per cent of the revenue from ebook sales as long as the battle drags on; Hachette rejected the offer, claiming it would be tantamount to “suicide.” As if that rhetoric weren’t hyperbolic enough, Amazon recently shot back by claiming that Hachette was using its authors as “human shields.”

What is remarkable here is that, for the first time in memory, Amazon seems authentically nervous. The general swagger with which the company, and its increasingly bellicose CEO, Jeff “Your Margin Is My Opportunity” Bezos, tends to conduct itself has been largely absent of late. Perhaps this has to do with the recent news from The New York Times that Amazon’s “second-quarter losses [are] nearly double what Wall Street predicted,” and that the third quarter would be “much worse.” Although the NYT points out that Amazon’s second-quarter revenue was US$19.34 billion, the International Business Times wrote at the end of last year that “the net result of nearly two decades in business is that Amazon’s trailing 12-month price-to-earnings ratio stands at an alarmingly high 550,” and that the company “barely ekes out a profit.”

All of which must make the degree of support Preston has seen nettlesome for Bezos and Co. The Guardian quotes an Amazon spokeswoman as saying that Preston “is completely missing the point. It’s not readers who should be listening to Mr. Preston, but Mr. Preston who should be listening to readers. And they have clearly expressed a preference for ebooks priced less than $10.” Of course, this also misses the point, or is wilfully blind to it. It’s not that publishers have been artificially hiking prices on books and ebooks; Amazon artificially lowers them, then sells those products as loss leaders to induce customers to buy other, more lucrative goods. Problem being, someone has to pony up for the shortfall.

The myth that publishers are all fat cats sitting atop towers of money smoking cigars and swilling cognac is one of the most pernicious weapons Amazon has been able to wield to this point. The fact that Random House was so flush with the profits from Fifty Shades of Grey that it was able to give its North American employees a $5,000 bonus in 2012 was an anomaly; most publishers are struggling just to keep the lights on. In such a situation, it is difficult to negotiate good-faith terms with an Internet giant that is monopolistic in its approach and ambitions. Thanks to Preston and his growing cadre of co-signers, Amazon might just be getting a taste of its own medicine for the first time in 20 years.