The world’s largest book retailer offers royalties to authors of self-published digital editions that traditional publishers can’t hope to match. But this is not the real reason that Amazon may be about to upend the publishing game as we know it. With 122 titles set for release this season, Amazon’s own imprints have the major New York houses in a panic. Who will the upheaval benefit?
By KEVIN BLOOM.
In August this year, an award-winning Hawaiian author of three internationally bestselling novels posted an item to her blog that shook the upper echelons of New York publishing to its core. It had been four weeks since her last posting, wrote Kiana Davenport, and in that time she had learned first-hand how deeply the digital revolution could affect her life. By way of explanation, she referred to a decision she’d made eight months previously, a course of action taken “in innocence and exuberance, and [out of] a need for income,” the consequences of which had ruined her credibility among book publishers. What had Davenport done? The unthinkable. She had self-published an e-book through Amazon.com.
Like most writers – including the successful ones – Davenport was debt-ridden and in January 2010 needed the cash that an advance from a “Big Six” house such as Penguin could provide. So she signed a contract with the group for a forthcoming novel, understanding full well that she was being “coerced” into giving away 75% of all future royalties on the electronic edition of that book (standard practice in author/publisher agreements nowadays). After the contract was concluded, Davenport packaged a collection of her short stories for Amazon, believing in her ignorance that since this collection had been rejected by Penguin and all the other major New York houses some years before, she was doing nothing wrong.
“To coin the Fanboys, they went ballistic,” she explained. “The editor shouted at me repeatedly on the phone. I was accused of breaching my contract (which I did not) but worse, of ‘blatantly betraying them with Amazon’, their biggest and most intimidating competitor. I was not trustworthy. I was sleeping with the enemy.”
And here, as a result of their rage, is what Penguin demanded of Davenport: “That I immediately and totally delete Cannibal Nights [the aforesaid collection] from Amazon, iNook, iPad, and all other e-platforms. Plus, that I delete all Google hits mentioning me and Cannibal Nights. Currently, that’s about 600,000 hits. (How does one even do that?) Plus that I guarantee in writing I would not self-publish another e-book of any of my backlog of works until my novel with them was published in hardback and paperback. In other words they were demanding that I agree to be muzzled for the next two years, to sit silent and impotent as a writer, in a state of acquiescence and, consequently, utter self-loathing.”
Way to go, Penguin. Especially since a précised version of Davenport’s blog entry appeared prominently in the 16 October edition of the New York Times. The bosses at Penguin’s plush offices in Manhattan would no doubt have noticed that while Davenport did not refer to them by name – her blog entry spoke only of a certain “Big Six publisher” – the reporter at the Times, David Streitfeld, wasn’t quite so respectful. He found out who the publisher was, and splashed it all over his piece. He also spoke to top executives at Amazon, one of whom said: “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”