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Amazon finally attacks literature – not only the wealthy are at risk

by david.nunes


The well-publicized legal battle: Amazon vs. Hachette, has given a glimpse into Amazon’s effect on large publishing moguls as Amazon takes domination over the publishing industry, but their effect on the world of literature and culture as a whole is just becoming apparent as they begin damaging the lives of individual literary writers.

 Novelist Roman Payne lives the romantic—almost stereotypically romantic—life of a novelist: Born and raised in Seattle, he left home at 18 to travel the world.  After many years suffering the hardships of the road, he moved to Paris where he lived like the writer in the film “Moulin Rouge!”, penning novels while starving in a Parisian attic.  Although he experienced some success and occasional periods of good fortune along the way, his life was mostly that of the “struggling artist” of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

His books are poetic, they portray the lives of vagabonds who roam around Europe in search of life’s meaning.

Five of his books were published by a small American press, all with excellent reviews.  Now his sixth book has been released (according to readers, it is his greatest novel).  The book is a tremendous literary accomplishment titled “The Wanderess,” tracing the life of one young woman who, like Payne, is a wanderer.  The increasing popularity of “The Wanderess” has allowed Payne to finally live a relatively comfortable life in Paris, where he has lived for the past 12 years.  At present, he no longer starves, and is finally enjoying the fruits of his long years of hard literary struggle.  But today, the world’s largest retailer has threatened his career, and he fears to find himself back where he started.

“Amazon and I are both from Seattle,” he writes, “but they aren’t showing me any kinship.  They have blocked my new book from being distributed properly on the grounds that we aren’t paying them enough money.  I will go hungry as a result.”

Roman Payne’s publisher is Aesthete Press, a boutique literary press in America.

 As a small publisher in a world where Amazon is putting pressure on the “Big Five” (the five richest publishing houses in America, of which Hachette is a member) to where these publishers are scrambling to save millions of dollars, Aesthete Press, by comparison, is a little-guy having difficulties even finding bookstore shelf-space as the Big Five are reserving the space for themselves.  Payne’s income, therefore, is dependent on Amazon.com.  “They account for 90% of my literary salary,” he writes.  But today Amazon has put pressure on Payne to “comply or suffer.”  In order to increase their cut on the deal so they can better sell to consumers at lower prices, they have issued a demand for Payne and his publisher to increase their commission from the current 20%, up to 55%.  As Payne’s publisher cannot afford to take a smaller cut on sales of “The Wanderess” and still print the book, it is Payne who will suffer.  This increase in Amazon’s commission will drop his royalties from $7.50 per book, down to $1.87 per book.  It is a drop that will mean the livelihood of the literary-fiction novelist.  At $1.87 per book, he will “no longer be able to survive in Paris, and probably not anywhere else, either,” he says.

Amazon’s communications with the writer and his publisher were brief and to the point.  But they also apparently lied.  “In one email they told Roman that his book had been ordered to be stocked,” said his publisher, “In a later email they said they were waiting for a purchase receipt from us…  We never received a purchase order from them.  They have obviously no interest in stocking the book ever again.”

“It’s a pity,” Payne’s publisher continued, “Roman Payne is a beautiful writer.  He is one of the few novelists I know of who can bring the sophistication of classic literature into a style that appeals to the modern reader.  It is a style of literature that lovers of great novels want, but which our society holds back from offering them.  The big publishers would rather bet their money on authors whose books have mass-market appeal.  The mass-market doesn’t want real literature.  But there are plenty of you who do.  And by Amazon’s attack on small publishers, they are going to put literary authors in a position where they won’t be able to write.  This will suppress literature in our world today.”

The action against Payne isn’t an isolated case, as many literary-fiction writers for small publishers are starting to complain of Amazon’s treatment of them, which they claim is damaging their careers.  Unfortunately we are not hearing their voices, as the spotlight is now on wealthy publishers like Hachette who represent non-literary bestsellers.

 At an Amazon-Hachette crisis panel organized in New York recently, Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu called the situation a four-alarm fire, and compared Amazon to a group of adolescents:

“If adolescents don’t learn manners, they can be extremely dangerous creatures,” Wu warned. “Many tech companies congratulate themselves on efficiency,” but if Amazon cuts publishers “so close to the bone, you will see an undersupply of books.”  Wu didn’t mention whether cutting literary writers close to the bone will result in an undersupply of literature.  We can assume that that will be the case.

Aesthete Press’ note to literature lovers:  

“We are not encouraging you to boycott Amazon.  If you want to read ‘The Wanderess’ and you prefer buying from Amazon rather than from other retailers such as Barnes & Noble, please do so.  Just be expected to wait one to three weeks for delivery.  The truth should be told:  The book may soon not be available through Amazon—based on their recent threats to us, and based on their actions and words that are covered in the press, of which you must be fully aware.”

Above: Roman Payne on the bank of the Seine in Paris, December 2013.  Photo credit: Mimi Bildstein Photography.


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