Tuesday, August 12, 2014

SEEKING THE TRUTH


Imagine, seeing a page one story in The New York Times on Friday, August 8, written by David Streitfeld, announcing that there would be a $104,000 ad that would be placed in the paper on Sunday, two days later, signed by 909 writers and bankrolled  by the wealthiest of the several best-selling  novelists.  At least that’s what Streitfeld reported.  When the ad appeared on August 10 it was listed as paid for by “Authors United, P.O Box of 4799, Santa Fe, NM, 87502.” There is no way of identifying who, in fact paid for it, or even if one of the Big Five conglomerates (if so, most likely Hachette)—who are waging a splendid PR campaign against Amazon—actually financed the ad. In any event, leading the charge against Amazon is Mr. Streitfeld.
The last time I blogged about Streitfeld on May 27 (Whose Afraid of Amazon. Com?) and June 3 (The Amazon-Hachette Controversy, Part Two) I commended him for being relatively honest for acknowledging that his anti-Amazon “reporting” was based on “rumors and hypotheses” even though the overall effect was damaging to Amazon and intoxicating for the big five conglomerate publishing cartels.

This time Streitfeld writes about how a letter composed by best-selling thriller writer Douglas Preston, a Hachette author, “spread through the “literary community” leading to this ad.” But this time he doesn’t even talk about rumors and hypothesis, but simply spills out disinformation.  For instance, there is no “literary community” per se, but only the conglomerate community whose positions he echoes. Having established our own reputation over the past 35 years as a leading literary press and knowing other small and independent presses who share our contrarian position, we are simply unaccounted for or ridiculed.
Streitfeld reports how Amazon, is rapidly transforming itself “into an empire that not  only sells culture but promotes it, too, while two paragraphs later he  reports that, according to The Wall Street Journal, Amazon may  lose 800 million in this quarter, wiping out profits for the past three years. Does anyone other than Streitfeld believe that “Empires” lose three years of profits in four months’ time?  I’m not bothering to read the Journal for who knows the accuracy of Steitfeld’s quote. Nor can I do anything more than point out the contradictions in Streitfeld’s claims or expect to transform Streitfeld from being a propagandist into a balanced or fair-minded, serious reporter. As I said in my last blog, (No Expectations), what Is, Is, and I can’t imagine this will ever happen.

Having read the Times regularly for over 60 years, I’ve always considered them to  have high-standards for news reporting, yet I can’t recall a single news story based on a forthcoming ad—much less a page one story. It seems to me that Streitfeld damages the reputation the Times has for unbiased reporting.
I urge everyone reading this blog to also read Barry Eisler’s February 8th blog. Eisler, a highly respected and best- selling novelist himself, presents an even more damaging, gloves-off report on Streitfeld’s article. In it he deconstructs, with wit and constant examples, all the peculiar, biased, absurd and illogical constructs Streitfeld uses in order to make his case. He also suggests that readers write to Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at The New York Times to register their complaints.

What case does Streitfeld relentlessly try to make? That Amazon is a bully and the Big Five world-wide conglomerates are defenseless sheep, despite the fact that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. owns Harper Collins; that CBS owns Simon & Shuster; that Penguin/Random House is also a subsidiary of Bertelsmann, based in Germany; that MacMillan is owned by another German publisher, Holtzbrinck; and that Hachette is owned by the French company Lagardere, and that these corporations are all powerful global media companies who own radio and television stations, magazines, newspapers and offices not only in America, but  throughout the world. Plus he tries to make the case that Amazon should be compelled to order and showcase their books when no other bookstore in in this country is compelled to do this, nor are other on-line retailers. And he ignores the fact that any reader can order copies from any bookstore without difficulty. Doesn’t Streitfeld realize that if he had his way it would put additional pressure on the survival of independent bookstores?
If I were a reporter covering the book industry rather than a publisher, I’d want to balance things out, not only having All the News That’s Fit to Print, but also far less of All the News Unfit to Print, and here are two questions I’d like to see addressed:

What came first in this story, the $104,000 ad or Streitfeld’s page one story, and who bankrolled the Authors United ad (even Douglas Preston, who was chosen to head Authors United, says he has no idea how that happened)?  And will anyone at the Times be interested in investigating that?

I invite your comments,

Marty

7 comments:

  1. Amazon should be compelled to carry Hachette's books because Amazon and Hachette have a contract requiring Amazon to do so.

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    1. That is not true. The Department of Justice, after finding Hachette and the other conglomerates guilty of conspiring to raise E-book prices, told both parties to negotiate a new contract, And that's where things stand right now.

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  2. I hadn't even thought of the small bookstore issue. I've often thought of Amazon as hurting small stores by discounting books. But no-one can force a small (or big) store to stock my books, so it does seem odd to imagine Hachette should be allowed to force Amazon. To be fair, Amazon does stock my books; so does one small local store. So maybe I'm biased.

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  3. I believe the contract is up, which is why this controversy has come up. If the contract was still in force, Hachette could simply sue Amazon. What amazes me is how Amazon is put in the context of being a government entity. Being a "private company" they can do what they want---shutdown for a month in the summer and give everyone a vacation. They are not obligated to sell anyone a book. Being a private company, they are subject to buyout firms, etc, coming in and making trouble. If one of those firms gets a hold of Amazon while its profits are in negative territory, those publishers will be begging for Jeff Bezos to get back control. The first thing that a buyout firm would examine is whether the book sales as they are now on Amazon are worth the overhead expended compared to say selling electronics. This war with publishing could end with all but the top selling books and self published books being shutout in the cold abruptly. The people at Amazon know this, know how frequently proxy battles arise for seats on the boards of technology companies. That is why they are willing to simulate Armageddon before it really happens. With the percentage of US readers declining relative to the growing population, frankly from a business perspective, publishing as it was previously formulated, does not look like a growth industry. Being a small publisher, I look at publishing as a proving ground for the next potential book to movie deal. That's where the money is.

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  4. Marty,
    You are incredibly spot on, but seemingly out of touch with the Amazon business model. (Which is not really a new or original one.) That is, to dominate the market, bully and eliminate any competitors and be just a lousy partner with which to do business. Microsoft, Barnes & Noble, Google and News Corp. just to name a few, all pursued this version of doing business. The real malfesance here is in trying to set prices across the board. Just as Amazon has every right, to a legal point, to sell books at whatever price it wants, the publishers are free to establish any SRP they want. This not a new fight, it's just some new contestants. Wait 'till Amazon goes after UPS and FEDEX hammer and tong.

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    1. I appreciate your comments, but also have some different opinions when it comes to Amazon than you do. To begin with, I think the Big Five cartels dominate the market a lot more effectively than Amazon and they surely pose the greatest threat to anyone interested in truly literary fiction, for their standards are lower and their coffers and influence are immense. They publish for the widest possible audience and sell 85% of books purchased, and this business model has the effect of stifling many gifted and prize-winning writers from getting major review coverage in leading magazines and newspapers. Take for example, the Sunday New York Times Book Review (and I don't mean this as a critique of their reviewers at all). The Sunday Book Review is 32 pages long and generally has nine plus pages of ads and five pages devoted to Best-Seller lists, so that review space is at a minimum. As for the Weekly Times (Monday through Saturday) it features only one book review in each issue. Who can fault them if they decide to give their advertisers preference in what they cover? I surely can’t, for it’s not any easier running a newspaper or magazine these days than it is running a small press and these costly ads help support dwindling bottom lines.
      As for your contention that Amazon acts as a bully and a lousy partner, we’ve been publishing now for 35 years and have come to consider Amazon as the best partner by far that we’ve ever had. We set our own prices and give Amazon a standard discount, and they pay us the full amount of what we’ve billed them for and still give customers a well discounted price. As for Kindle sales, we set a fair price slightly above Amazon’s $9.99 suggestion, yet Amazon prices them at a discount, at $9.99, yet pays us on the basis that we suggested. They never return books themselves and wire funds to our bank weekly and do the same with Kindle sales monthly. Unheard of in this industry! So where’s the”lousy partner” concept coming from? Bad PR generated by the major conglomerates and by people like David Streitfeld, in my opinion, who seem to whistle the same tune.
      What’s funny here is that 909 writers signed the Authors United letter, yet I’m sure many of them don’t realize that their own publishers were found guilty of collusion and fined heavily by the Justice Department for conspiring to raise E-book prices. Not able to get away with that, these same publishers routinely only pay their authors 25% of what they collect from E-book sales. To me, authors should insist that these cartels offer the same 50:50 split for E-book sales as they offer on any other sub-right sales in their standard contracts, which most independents, including ourselves, routinely do.
      As for Amazon taking over FEDEX or UPS (which we use), this is not likely. But if they can provide a freight service that lowers shipping costs, this would be a bonanza to bookstores and readers alike, for these two delivery services cost four times more than Postal Service rates, and the gap is constantly widening.

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