Amazon vs. Hachette: not so much about the books

The Amazon-Hachette standoff sank to a new low yesterday with the email sent to Kindle Direct Publishing authors urging them to harass Hachette into conceding to lower book prices. The letter seemed to have been written by a young country lawyer, so awkward was its argument and so false several of its premises. David Streitfeld, in today’s New York Times, took care of the problem with using George Orwell: The history of mass-market books, something you would think Amazon’s team would be familiar with, also was misstated. In fact it was mid-19th century, with the advent of railroad travel, that books began to be printed up on cheap pulp paper (hence, of course, pulp fiction) for mass consumption. They contained serial, genre stories of such lurid attraction and predictability that they became known as “penny dreadfuls.” Publisher Alfred Harmsworth, by the end of the century, decided these stories of loose morals were ruining British youth, and issued morally uplifting stories for a half-penny instead. It worked, but the morally uplifting tales did not last.

You’d think that Amazon would be aware of all that, since it is in the book-history-making business. How books are published and how reading changes have been part of technological evolution since Gutenberg. We are in one of those sea changes now with the advent of self-publishing electronically, and it is fascinating to watch it develop. In November 2013, I self-published through Smashwords (all platforms) and Amazon (Kindle) a novel about how the French and the Americans have trouble communicating, because they’re hardly ever talking about the same thing.

Witness Amazon and Hachette. Amazon is arguing free market and increased profit to a French company, which is a waste of time. That is not what the French care about. The French government passed a law in the 1980s that books may not be discounted more than 5% below the publisher’s price, and e-books have not been exempted from that. Amazon tried to undercut that by offering free shipping, and the French Assembly voted that shipping fees had to be charged. Last month, Amazon started charging $0.01 for shipping. France considers that its actions are protection for a threatened culture; Amazon considers that its actions are protection for a free market.

I live in France, which means my Kindle is France-based, and all books I order on it have to go through, not So the books I buy, even from US publishers, cannot be discounted more than 5%. This means I pay probably twice what US residents do. But it is still far less than the bookstores of Paris that carry English-language books charge. Immediate access to English-language books has been a game-changer for me, and I love it. I regret as much as anyone watching Village Voice and Red Wheelbarrow go under (Sorry Odile! Sorry Penelope!), but I’m reading twice as much as I used to, because it no longer costs 25 to 35 euros to buy a book.

France, and Hachette is part of that, is all about the order of things and of people. The French state considers the free market to be a menace to its culture, and has set up a framework to guarantee that French cultural production does not have to compete in it. Books are a valuable part of French culture, and so must be protected by the state. The state, now, is a hierarchy of (mostly) men, each more important than the next, until you get to the president, who, polls aside, is still the most important man in France. The order of hierarchy is inviolable. Hence the French response to the Amazon letter was shock that it had given out the email address of the president of Hachette (see Michael Pietsch is an important person, a president! He cannot be written to by someone far below in the hierarchy.

Amazon and Hachette are not talking about the same issues. They are dug in their respective arguments, firing away wildly and to no avail. (It seems to be that kind of summer.) Amazon needs to consider the role of the book in French society, because it is not simply a product to be bought or sold, as it is treated in American society. Hachette needs to consider that lower-priced books might be welcomed by readers, and lighten up on the protectionism. At the least, they should try to negotiate on the same page. Otherwise, you’ve simply got A Playground for Misunderstanding.