Throughout the months-long dispute between Amazon and Hachette over e-book sales terms, Douglas Preston was one of the most outspoken authors on the matter. He went so far as to form a group to give authors a voice in the stalemate: Authors United. Just before Thanksgiving, PW spoke with Preston at his home in Round Pond, Me., about the genesis of the organization, how his own views changed over the course of the disagreement (which finally ended late last month), and what he sees ahead for Author United.
“I came into this a loyal Amazon customer, grateful to Amazon for selling my books,” said Preston. During the dispute, his then-forthcoming novel Blue Labyrinth (Nov., HBG), cowritten with Lincoln Child, looked like it could suffer collateral damage when Amazon removed the buy buttons for preorders and slowed shipping for Hachette titles—but he said that wasn’t his concern for starting Authors United.
“I wasn’t doing this for myself,” said Preston. “I have an audience already who want my books. But for debut and midlist authors, this was devastating. The whole key is connecting with your audience. There were authors who went back to waiting tables or bartending. For debut authors, it’s hard to find an audience, and this caused permanent damage to the careers of those writers.”
Preston said he was “shocked” by the decline in sales overall for Hachette titles through Amazon. To convey the scale of Amazon’s so-called shenanigans, Preston said that Amazon had to order more than one million copies of Hachette titles to restock after the two companies settled their differences. More than 3,000 authors and 8,000 titles were affected, and it took two weeks, from November 12 to November 26, the day before Thanksgiving, for Amazon to bring its inventory back to pre-sanction levels, he said.
Preston’s disillusionment with Amazon dates back to his first phone call with Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s senior v-p of Kindle content, when Preston thought that if Amazon understood how bad they were hurting authors they would change their tactics. Preston said that authors tend to think of their books like children, so Amazon’s actions struck especially close to the bone and felt, to many, like a personal attack. It wasn’t until the end of the conversation that Preston realized, to Amazon, books are a commodity like TV sets and diapers. “Amazon started with the assumption that all the authors wanted was money,” said Preston. “What we really want is an audience and to get people to read our books.”
To those critics of Authors United who said all it did was produce letters—the first one published in the New York Times, and then a second one that went to the members of the Amazon board—Preston replied, “That’s what we do. We’re writers, and we write.” He is convinced that Authors United and their letters played a significant role in Amazon reaching a settlement with Hachette.
As to the length of the negotiations, Preston said, “Hachette really pissed off Amazon because [HBG CEO] Michael Pietsch so relentlessly opposed them and we did, too. They settled with Simon & Schuster, and they could have settled with Hachette the next day. They didn’t so they could send a message, letting a body hang at the city gates longer.”
Although Preston is eager to go back to writing full time, he will see at least one more Authors United project through. He still intends to send the information packet the organization put together about Amazon to the Department of Justice in hopes of getting the government to look at possible antitrust issues. That packet is currently being vetted by lawyers, and Preston plans to make the submission next month. Preston also stands ready to revive Authors United if necessary, noting that even with the end of the dispute important issues remain. “The main problem hasn’t gone away,” he said. “When one company controls 50% of the market, and it has proven itself to be ruthless and uncaring with authors, that’s a problem. We don’t want this to happen again.”