A publisher at last week's Book Expo America joked that “we're all Hachette now.” With the publishing house locked in a very public battle with Amazon, there’s a notion that it represents all publishers who sell their books on the online marketplace. But “we’re all Hachette” is a bit more complicated for small presses.
Amazon’s official blog post explaining the interruption to their sales of Hachette titles closed with a link to one publisher/blogger’s praise of the company. According to the blogger, Amazon leveled the playing field for independent publishers. Amazon cited the argument as offering a “wider perspective” on the debate. Is there any basis to the claim underlying this "wider perspective?"
The first complication of an assumed alliance between Hachette and the rest of the publishing universe is that the smaller publishing houses often define themselves as places that publish the kind of thing that the larger houses would not. As Chris Fischbach, publisher at Coffee House Press, a nonprofit publishing house in Minneapolis, wrote in an e-mail, “We identify with [Hachette] in that we are also a publisher who participates in a market where Amazon is by far the largest player, and has the most power.” But, he continued, “Hachette itself controls a significant portion of the publishing landscape.”
The second complication is that the small publishing houses don’t have anything like the negotiating power that Hachette has. “A little bitty publisher like us wouldn't be able to negotiate terms with Amazon at all,” said Nanci McCloskey, Director of Sales and Marketing at Tin House Books. (Tin House, which is based in Portland, Oregon, uses Publishers Group West, a sales and distribution company that serves upwards of 100 independent publishers, to market its books and negotiate its terms with retailers.)
Some small publishers even see an unlikely ally in Amazon. Take Adam Robinson, founding publisher of Publishing Genius in Baltimore—as his operation grew, he began to see the online company as a collaborator in selling independently published books. (His endorsement was qualified—he understands the likely possibility that Amazon is out for its own bottom line.)
Still, despite these differences, small publishers are generally enthused by Hachette’s fight. This is primarily because it is virtually impossible for independent presses to come out against Amazon in any kind of meaningful way. Hachette may be a publishing company that is vastly different from their own, but the larger company is the smaller companies’ best chance at representation in a fight that almost all agree will have great implications for the future of their own work.
And some are skeptical of the idea that Amazon has helped small publishers at all. As Giancarlo DiTrapano of Tyrant Books in New York says, “Just because your book's available on Amazon doesn't mean anyone will be able to find it.” And according to Fischbach, “the playing field might be more level between publishers [as a result of the rise of Amazon], but for the ecosystem as a whole—publishers, retailers, and most importantly, readers and writers—it’s only gotten worse.”
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Amy Weiss-Meyer is an intern at The New Republic. Follow @AmyWeissMeyer.