As this is being written, Amazon is involved in a dispute with the publisher Hachette. While the dispute has gotten considerable media attention, my main concern is not with the specific battle but with the general matter of the changing nature of publishing and selling books.
I, as shown by my Amazon author page, have published many books through Amazon’s Kindle and Create Space. While Amazon has been subject to some criticism, my experiences as an author have been positive. As I see it, Amazon (and similar open publishers such as Paizo and DriveThruRPG) has some important positive features. The first is that such publishers are open to everyone—this allows independent authors to bypass the elite circles of the self-proclaimed curators of culture and make their work available to the public at no cost to themselves. This sort of open publishing is revolutionary. Second, these publishers general pay very good royalties. For example, authors selling through Amazon can get as much as 70% of the cover price. However, arguments have been advanced in favor of the traditional publishers and these are worth considering.
One stock argument in favor of traditional publishing is the quality argument. This argument does have some appeal. Since Amazon and other such publishers do not put books through the sort of editorial process followed by the traditional publishers, the books published by independent authors will tend to be inferior. Thus, traditional publishers are needed to protect the quality of books.
There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that the traditional publishers publish significant numbers of books that are not good (such as 50 Shades of Gray and the Twilight series). The second is that independent authors do produce some excellent work. As such, the traditional publishers cannot claim a decisive advantage here. They do, after all, churn out a lot of crap.
Another stock argument in favor or traditional publishing is that it provides extra value to the author. This extra value includes such things as editorial review, layout & design, promotion and other such services. Of course, an independent author can pay for these things herself—after deciding whether or not they are worth the cost.
One thing that is not always mentioned but is of critical importance is that the top traditional publishers enjoy strong connections to the other curators of culture—those that review books, those that interview authors and so on. It is no accident that the authors who are part of the stable of an elite publisher get the media attention that is rather important to having a successful book. It is also no accident that I will never be interviewed on NPR by Diane Rehm or by Stephen Colbert on his show. After all, I am just an independent author with no connection to the curators of culture. This is not to say that an author cannot break through on her own—I have enjoyed surprisingly good sales and some independent authors enjoy amazing success. But, the support of the cultural elites provides a great advantage.
As a final point, I will consider one of the specific points of the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Amazon, obviously enough, wants to sell books at low prices. Hachette, and other publishers, also want to make money. So, the heart of the contention is over the money—if Amazon charges less for Hachette books, Hachette makes less money. If Hachette gets a larger percentage of the sale price, then Amazon gets less. One argument advanced in favor of the publisher getting more is that the publishers can then pay authors more and this is essential in order to keep the top writers writing. This is, of course, based on the assumption that authors are motivated primarily by money.
One obvious reply is that most authors do not make much money, yet they keep on writing. In some cases, the authors are not making much money because (to be honest) the books are not very good. In other cases, the authors are writing for a small audience: academics, gamers and other niches. Since these folks write for little (or no profit) it is clear that authors will write for little (or no profit).
Another obvious reply is that (as noted above) publishers like Amazon offer very generous royalties—so an author could do very well indeed selling through Amazon rather than working with a traditional publisher.
The obvious counter is that while “amateur” authors like myself will keep cranking out books regardless of the profits, the “elite” authors will cease to do so if they are denied large advances and fat paychecks. This would, one might argue, be a great loss to culture. As such, the traditional publishers serve a vital role and need to claim a significant portion of the sales price on books sold through Amazon and other merchants.
One obvious reply is that these authors would still presumably make rather good money even if their publishers made less. Another reply is that these authors could jump ship for Amazon and perhaps make even more money. A third response is that if the “elite” authors quit, there would still be a vast army of independent writers and from their numbers would emerge, as has always happened, a new “elite.”
In closing, I have worked with traditional publishers and with the new model, that of Amazon and other companies. While traditional publishers certainly still have a place, the landscape has been shifting and the traditional publisher might soon go the way of the manual typewriter.