Forget the image you may have of a writer-as-loner, scribbling alone in some cabin with superglue blocking up the Ethernet cable and noise-cancelling headphones over his ears so as to avoid all contact with anyone in the world, save for the universe conjured by the writer’s imagination. Meet Authors United, an impressive, and impressively huge, pack of published scribes coming together for much the same reason as many disparate people wind up on the same team: to battle a common enemy.
All the guardians of the literary galaxy are joining forces — hundreds of writers, including a handful of heavyweights and plenty of non-Hachette authors — to fight Amazon. What do they want? As The New York Times reports, “they want the Justice Department to investigate Amazon for illegal monopoly tactics.”
As Ursula K. LeGuin, recipient of the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and Authors United signee, wrote to the Times in an email:
“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author. Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”
Amazon sells half the books in America. Everyone knows what comes with great power. Or, well, maybe not everyone? Maybe not Amazon?
Authors United is a self-described assembly of unprecedented influence and scale: “No group of authors as diverse or prominent as this has ever come together before in support of a single cause.” Led by horror and thriller writer Douglas Preston, the group, writes the Times, “is in the midst of two efforts — writing members of the Amazon board individually in the hope that they will sway Mr. Bezos to take Hachette books out of the line of fire while negotiations continue, and drafting a letter to the Justice Department asking it to examine Amazon for possible antitrust violations.”
If you are someone who likes to read, or even someone who maybe read one book one time, chances are an author you care about is on the list of signees, which includes: Cheryl Strayed, Megan Abbott, Sherman Alexie, Lois Lowry, Karen Joy Fowler, David Maraniss, Daniel Handler (who you likely know as Lemony Snickett), Ann Patchett, Robert A. Caro, Jonathan Tropper, Maxine Hong Kingston, and John Grishman. The Times story notes that literary agent Andrew Wylie is asking his entire 300-author client list to get in on the action, and has already gotten yeses from everyone he’s asked, be it the living or “the estates of Saul Bellow, Roberto Bolaño, Joseph Brodsky, William Burroughs, John Cheever, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Hunter S. Thompson.”
This is just the latest round of a fight between authors (and their publishers) and Amazon; you probably remember the last dust-up, in which Amazon deliberately made it difficult to order and obtain books by Hachette authors. In the Authors United letter, the group contends that these sanctions drove down Hachette authors’s sales “by at least 50 percent and in some cases as much as 90 percent. These sales drops are occurring across the board: in hardcovers, paperbacks, and e-books.”
Then came Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s entry into the ebook subscription service marketplace, which didn’t have deals with any of the “big five” publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon and Schuster, and Penguin Random House) and required all self-published authors who participated in the program to make their books exclusive to Amazon.
Still no word from Amazon on the threat by Authors United.