Authors United may not want to admit it, but most books are consumer goods like any other

As my colleague Laura Owen has reported, Authors United — a group of writers who are upset at the tactics Amazon is using to negotiate with the French publisher Hachette — has posted a letter to the company’s board of directors, arguing that the online retailer is being unfair to authors. Among other things, the group says Amazon is making a mistake by treating books like any other consumer product.

In fact, in a somewhat bizarre turn of events for a group that is supposedly protesting Amazon’s methods — the refusal to allow advance orders of Hachette books, the removal of some books from the search index, and so on — Authors United makes an odd admission: it agrees Amazon “has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler.”

But wait — isn’t that exactly what Amazon is doing with Hachette, by using a variety of retailing tactics to send a message to the publisher that it is charging too much for its books and/or not giving Amazon enough of the proceeds? It sure is.

So then how could the authors’ group claim that Amazon shouldn’t be able to do the same thing with Hachette that it does with every other product? Simple: because Authors United argues that books are not a consumer good like any other. Books exist in a special category, and that category of products should not be open to traditional negotiating tactics used by retailers. As the letter says:

Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual.

Do books belong in a special category?

So that’s the case in a nutshell — books are not like razor blades or shoes, or toasters or televisions. They can’t be produced more cheaply, and therefore by extension prices for books must not fall but should only rise, because that’s what lonely and intense writers require for their livelihood. And authors are better than people who make toasters or televisions, or who work in China.

Old typewriter

As with most arguments related to Amazon’s behavior, the Authors United letter plays on a host of emotionally-loaded assumptions about the book business (and it is a business, although perhaps not a very good one). It implies that all authors are starving and intense loners, who write because their muse compels them to, and therefore shouldn’t be used as pawns in Amazon’s chess game with Hachette or any other publisher. Or as author JA Konrath puts it:

We’re special snowflakes, unique and quirky, and the lonely, intense struggle we endure for the sake of ART is much more difficult than coal mining or waitressing or mechanical engineering or brain surgery or conservationism or rocket science.

And yet, despite this image of writers as lonely, starving artists in a garret somewhere, huge quantities of books are sold every year that are clearly based on cold, calculated marketing decisions made by either authors or publishers. Most aren’t even remotely unique, quirky or created by intense individuals struggling to follow their inner voice. So maybe it should be okay for Amazon to fiddle with that supply chain, but not with the one that applies to “real” books.

Clearly, some books play a critical role in society — but then so does music, and no one got upset when Apple started dictating prices and terms to the major record labels, just as Amazon is doing to the big publishers. Here’s Konrath again: “I don’t believe I’m owed a living, or that what I do is particularly important. I’m not curing cancer. I’m not even saving whales. In fact, I’m a damn lucky son of a bitch who gets to make a living doing what I love.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Vasabii and Thinkstock / Worac