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Plot thickens as 900 writers battle Amazon

Out here in the woods, at the end of not one but two dirt roads, in a shack equipped with a picture of the Dalai Lama, a high-speed data line and a copy of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," Amazon's dream of dominating the publishing world has run into some trouble.

Douglas Preston, who summers in this coastal hamlet, is a best-selling writer — or was, until Amazon decided to discourage readers from buying books from his publisher, Hachette, as a way of pressuring it into giving Amazon a better deal on e-books. So he wrote an open letter to his readers asking them to contact Jeff Bezos, Amazon's chief executive, demanding that Amazon stop using writers as hostages in its negotiations.

Douglas Preston, a best-selling author with Hachette Publishing, at his writing shack in Maine.
Craig Dilger for The New York Times
Douglas Preston, a best-selling author with Hachette Publishing, at his writing shack in Maine.

The letter, composed in the shack, spread through the literary community. As of earlier this week 909 writers had signed on, including household names like John Grisham and Stephen King. It is scheduled to run as a full-page ad in The New York Times this Sunday.

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Amazon, unsettled by the actions of a group that used to be among its biggest fans, is responding by attacking Mr. Preston, calling the 58-year-old thriller writer "entitled" and "an opportunist," while simultaneously trying to woo him and his fellow dissenters into silence.

Mr. Preston is unswayed.

"Jeff Bezos used books as the cutting edge to help sell everything from computer cables to lawn mowers, and what a good idea that was," he said. "Now Amazon has turned its back on us. Don't they value us more than that? Don't they feel any loyalty? That's why authors are mad."

This latest uproar in Amazon's three-month public battle with Hachette comes at a vulnerable moment for the Internet giant, which is rapidly transforming itself into an empire that not only sells culture but creates it, too.

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Amazon does not want to be seen as hostile to content creators, one of the four groups it says on its investor relations web page it is expressly set up to serve. But it also has to price their creations cheaply enough to draw hordes of consumers, while at the same time making enough of a profit to satisfy investors.

It is a complicated balancing act. Some argue it is impossible. Amazon just surprised Wall Street by saying it may lose more than $800 million this quarter, potentially wiping out its profits for the last three years, partly because creating video content is expensive. The prospect of this unexpected loss has raised questions about whether Amazon's money-losing ways are finally catching up with it — and whether that is the real reason it is making new demands on publishers like Hachette.

Amazon has been forced by the controversy to shed its longtime practice of refusing to comment on anything. Asked about the writers' rebellion, it issued a statement that put the focus back on Hachette, bringing up the Justice Department's antitrust lawsuit against Hachette and other publishers in 2012: "First, Hachette was willing to break the law to get higher e-book prices, and now they're determined to keep their own authors in the line of fire in order to achieve that same end. Amazon has made three separate proposals to take authors out of the middle, all of which Hachette has quickly dismissed."

Mr. Preston pointed out it was Amazon that put the authors in the line of fire in the first place. Russell Grandinetti, Amazon's vice president for e-books, has called Mr. Preston twice in recent weeks, trying to get him to endorse the company's proposals to settle the dispute, as well as to pipe down. The most recent proposal would have Amazon selling Hachette books again, but with Hachette and Amazon giving their proceeds to charity.

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No thanks, Mr. Preston said. A proposal that weakens Hachette by cutting its profits was not in the interests of Hachette's authors. But he took the opportunity to ask Mr. Grandinetti why Amazon was squeezing the writers in the first place.

His response, according to Mr. Preston: "This was the only leverage we had." Amazon declined to comment.

"It's like talking to a 5-year-old," Mr. Preston said. " 'She made me hit her!' No one is making Amazon do anything."

No one is making Mr. Preston do anything, either. He dismisses Amazon's suggestions that he is a "human shield" for Hachette, one of the Big 5 publishers in the United States. He and the other writers say they are acting independently. Most, in any case, are not published by Hachette.

Mr. Preston is not sure how he has found himself in charge of a group calling itself Authors United. "I don't like fighting," he said. "I'm a wimp. When the bullies in seventh grade said they would meet me in the parking lot after school, I made sure I was nowhere near it."

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Other writers who signed the letter include Robert A. Caro, Junot Díaz, Malcolm Gladwell, Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler), Michael Chabon, Michael Lewis, Jon Krakauer, Scott Turow, George Saunders, Sebastian Junger, Philip Pullman and Nora Roberts.

"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," the letter states.

Some writers wholeheartedly supported the letter but were afraid to sign, Mr. Preston said. A few signed it and then backed out, citing the same reason. The Times ad, which cost $104,000, was paid for by a handful of the more successful writers.

Mr. Preston's longtime writing partner, Lincoln Child, is among those with qualms.

"I am very apprehensive," Mr. Child said. "Not all David and Goliath stories end happily for the little guy. But I think Doug did the right thing."

Amazon supporters point to a rival petition on Change.org. It is a rambling love song to the retailer. Signers sometimes append invective decrying the New York publishers for having the audacity to reject novels. "There is something wrong with a system that picks those who use their elitist ideas of art to choose who is published," reads a comment.

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The petition has 7,650 signatures. By comparison, a 2012 Change.org petition calling on Amazon to ban the sale of whale and dolphin meat drew over 200,000 signatures.

Mr. Preston is not one of those writers who checks his Amazon ranking on a regular basis, or even totes up his sales. He would rather be writing. But he recently thought he should get some numbers from Hachette. They came in the other morning, and they seemed worth sharing with his wife, Christine.

About half his book sales used to come from Amazon. But since the retailer started discouraging orders, his paperback sales are down 61 percent and his e-book sales are down 62 percent. His last novel, written with Mr. Child and published by Hachette in November, was "White Fire." A week before publication, 25,000 Amazon customers had ordered a copy.

Their new novel, "The Lost Island," came out Tuesday. It had only a few thousand pre-orders, all made before Amazon lowered the boom on Hachette and stopped selling forthcoming Hachette books.

Mrs. Preston, a photographer, studied the bleak sheet.

"It's gotten personal," she said. "I knew you were going to take a hit, but I had no idea it would be like this."

"Are you worried?" Mr. Preston asked. "Because you should be. What if Amazon says, 'Why should we sell Doug Preston's books? He's a thorn in our sides.' Guess what? All this goes away."

There is a lot to go. The shack itself is negligible, but the house a few steps away is spacious and splendid. It is set on 300 acres that have been owned by the Preston family for much of the last 100 years. Amazon has tried to use Mr. Preston's success against him, dismissing him as "rich" and thus not in touch with the masses of struggling writers.

"It makes me laugh," he said. "Tech company billionaires are calling a mere writer 'rich.' I think they're rattled."

— By David Streitfeld, The New York Times