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Authors United v Readers United (aka Amazon)

11 August 2014

The Amazon/Hachette dispute has now caused a large group of authors to band together to protest about how Amazon's actions are affecting their sales. Authors Unlimited printed a letter in Sunday's New York Times.

They have accused Amazon of boycotting their books by refusing to accept pre-orders, not discounting their books, slowing the delivery of their books (in some cases to several weeks) and suggesting on some Hachette authors' pages that they might prefer to buy something else.

The authors say:

‘As writers--most of us not published by Hachette--we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation. Moreover, by inconveniencing and misleading its own customers with unfair pricing and delayed delivery, Amazon is contradicting its own written promise to be "Earth's most customer-centric company."'

This kind of action is unprecedented on this scale but it's not surprising that the authors feel aggrieved. An argument with Hachette over terms of trade, widely assumed to be Amazon trying to improve its discounts (although the actual matters under dispute have not been publicised), is now impacting on a large number of authors. Book-buyers too are being affected, as this does not give them free access to these books, negating Amazon's claim to sell all books.

In the Comment columns on websites such as the Bookseller, where the story ran last week under the heading Authors United ramps up Amazon campaign | The Bookseller, indie authors have seen this as a last gasp of the corporate publisher which is trying to retain its power, but actually, as Authors United have recognised, it is a major strike against authors too.

The Authors Unlimited action really is new. Such activism by authors is unprecedented and goes far beyond the measured complaints which authors' associations such as the Authors' Guild and the Society of Authors have issued in the past.

In an extraordinary step, Amazon has now retaliated by setting up its own Readers United group, arguing amongst other things that George Orwell recognised that the birth of the paperback book should cause publishers to get together to counter them (in fact publishers have made millions out of selling paperbacks, but Orwell was a great writer, not a business guru).

No-one knows what will happen next. There has never been a book retailer with such global power as Amazon; disputes of this kind have never been so easy to pursue online and through social media as they are now. One thing looks certain - the authors who have been united by this action will not so easily lay down their cudgels again, and they may well become a major force going forward. And, as for the Hachette/Amazon dispute, no-one knows how this will end.