I’m a nobody. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I don’t have a contract with you or any of your peer companies. But I’ve known and listened to writers and editors for the last twenty years, and many of those conversations would never be placed in writing for fear of repercussions. I’ve learned a thing or three. And when I read through the latest round of open letters telling Amazon what they ought to do to support Hachette writers during your negotiations, I thought it exceedingly odd no one had written to you. Since I tend to be my own boss rather than await someone else’s action, and since no professional writers’ organization seems interested in stepping up, I’ve opted to write you myself.
You see, your writers are contracted directly with you, and not at all with Amazon, even though many target Amazon with their urging to settle disputes. I get the impression you prefer it that way, which is an odd preference as it assumes you, Hachette, have no ability to support your writers and fulfill your contractual obligations without Amazon’s approval. That’s an odd negotiating position for a competent company to desire.
When ethical businesses in your position struggle — with negotiations, with collections, or with other cash flow problems — they don’t send their contractors out to solve the problem for them. Instead, they take care of their obligations to their employees and contractors while making every effort possible to resolve the issue.
You have an opportunity to forge new ground.
First, your response to Amazon’s offer to participate in a royalty fund for impacted writers is puzzling if your desire is to care for your writers. Requiring a total resolution be reached with Amazon before discussion on royalties takes place might feel like a powerful move, but exposes the priority you place upon your writers. True, few people will ever know you refused to discuss the option, but far more people would hear about your willingness should you change your mind and decide to support your writers rather than leave them floundering.
Second, disclose precisely how you are fulfilling the just-in-time orders Amazon is placing with you. I assume your distribution centers aren’t set up for small and swift shipments, but surely a multinational company such as yours has someone in its distribution department able to cobble together a temporary remedy. Were it my business, I’d eat the extra cost of expedited shipping in order to support my writers, please my readers, and gain a public relations edge. I’m sure you could slip an extra book or ten into each shipment as well, giving Amazon a little unanticipated stock on hand. Certainly the standard reserve against returns would cover the expense.
Third, put some effort into promoting your writers who aren’t your top sellers since they are the ones who stand to lose the most—and most fear that loss—as your negotiations with Amazon continue. Publicize and utilize the newsletter sign-up you already have as an alternative to pre-ordering. True, it would require some effort to establish individual mailing lists for each affected writer, not to mention the trouble of composing an individual email that includes links to sellers, but the effort isn’t excessive. I set up a mailing list sign-up link for my own webpage in about five minutes, after all. Admittedly, the window for successful implementation might have closed since it wasn’t publicized when your top-selling writers where appearing on national media platforms, but some of your titles have a months-long lead time. You might get another opportunity.
And if you’re concerned, as many of your writers seem to think you are, over not having pre-order data to help you determine print runs, I can recommend what others businesses do: examine the pattern of past sales, make an educated estimate, and be prepared for nimble updating as new information becomes available. It seems presumptuous to hand out such basic advice—I do apologize—but the information publicly available indicated you might not be familiar with the practice.
Lastly—and most importantly—publicly and firmly assure your writers that their future contract negotiations will not be based upon (presumably) lower sales numbers that result from your prolonged negotiations. This is their biggest fear, and it is founded on past collective experience. I’m certain you understand this. In fact, I’m certain you count on it. Over those twenty years I mentioned in the first paragraph, I’ve heard writer after writer tell how the publisher dropped them due to factors beyond their control, and those same writers were always careful to say they’d never discuss the unfairness with the publisher for fear of losing all contract possibilities.
I don’t have contracts to be concerned with, so I’ll say it clearly. Leaving your writers with the belief their careers will be ruined—if not by poor sales numbers, then by their objection to being judged by them—is not ethical, even if it is expected.
Participate in royalty reimbursement.
Support your writers.
Negotiate future contracts fairly.
These are quite simple requests. So simple, in fact, I am amazed no one has yet made them. It’s almost as if no one believes you’d consider it in your best interest to mitigate the damage writers believe will be done to them. It’s almost as if all those urging Amazon to act are far more confident in Amazon’s likelihood of listening than they are in yours. After all, none of them have yet asked you to do… well, much of anything, really. For a company certain of its critical role and longevity in publishing, that would seem to be an unwanted reputation.
I’d love to be pleasantly surprised by your willingness to change your reputation. And I’m not the only one.
So that’s it, I suppose. This letter won’t be endorsed by big names, or by small names. Only me.
Just This Little Nobody, Blair MacGregor