What Fresh Hell Is This?

Josie Leavitt - January 26, 2012

Elizabeth and I were having lunch yesterday and we were talking about the latest Amazon assault of having Houghton Mifflin Harcourt be the publisher and distributor for their New Harvest line of adult books. I think Elizabeth summed it up best when she said, “What fresh Hell is this?”
It’s funny how quickly a happy mood that is largely because I’m focused at work and working on my budgets and trying to make this year more profitable than last year, came crashing down when I read the news about Amazon’s latest deal. I feel attacked by Amazon every time I turn around. If it’s not the ridiculous discounts, the Kindle ereader that drives folks away from bookstores, it’s the constant feeling that Jeff Bezos won’t rest until all the Amazon competitors are out of business. Now it’s the co-opting of one my favorite publishers. This move by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt underscores that the publishing playing field is shifting away from indies. Amazon is turning into the Walmart of the book world who dictates prices with threats of Buy Now buttons being removed, the insidious price checker app, etc.
Of course it might make sense for HMH to team up with Amazon, who knows how many more books they’ll sell through this deal. They have a bottom line they need to attend to. I’m sure Amazon sells more books a year than all the indies combined. I wonder if there will be a time that publisher backlists will only be available to Amazon customers or the lucky few bookstores that can afford an Espresso Book Machine. The book world is changing very fast and all the indies are doing their best to keep up with the changes, but when a favorite publisher gets into bed with Amazon, it’s hard not to take it personally.
I am tired. I’m tired of publishers I’ve supported wholeheartedly for the entire time I’ve been open, now forcing me to choose between buying some of their books and supporting the very company that seeks to put me out of business, or buy not buying the books at all and potentially losing those sales to the company that seeks to put me out of business. On dreary winter days this dilemma almost feels overwhelming. I love HMH books, but this new deal really makes me view the whole company differently. I know they’re just looking out for themselves, but it sure doesn’t feel good right now.
So, rather than lament and stew endlessly, I will have a drink as Ms. Parker would recommend and I will keep doing what I know how to do best: sell books and recommend unique  books and offer the kind of personal service that Amazon will never be able to. I will be proud to be an indie, and will fight for my bookstore with my purchasing dollars and continue to create a space that makes all readers feel welcome as I continue to point out the differences between Amazon and the Flying Pig.
I just hope that’s enough.

17 thoughts on “What Fresh Hell Is This?

  1. Dave

    This is such a shame. Reminds me of one of my wife’s favorite Tom Hanks movies, “You’ve Got Mail!” That, in turn, was inspired by the Jimmy Stewart vehicle “The Shop Around the Corner.” A small independent trying to stay true and fill a need in the face of overwhelming competition by an industry giant.
    Kudos to you for your determination to “keep doing what I know how to do best: sell books and recommend unique books and offer the kind of personal service that Amazon will never be able to.” We need more stalwart individuals like you.

  2. Andrew Karre

    If I had to bet on a big publisher that Amazon would buy (if they were going to buy a major publisher), it would probably be HMH. Is this based on any deep knowledge? No. Do I have a great reason to believe Amazon feels the need to own a truly big publishing company? No. Still, this feels like a step in that direction. (For some reason, I think Bezos would like to own Lord of the Rings. He’d get that with HMH.)

  3. Teresa Rolfe Kravtin

    Josie, I had the same reaction. It does seem like craziness to be faced with a choice have having to draw the line somewhere in the sand. Rest assured that Amazon is not losing any sleep over it. In the Businessweek article going around today, it becomes quite clear that Mr. Bezos has long been at the tactic of deception and petulant bullying in pursuing what is best for HIS company. Like any entrepreneur, you should endeavor to make the choices that are best for your business. Hopefully, those will be the ones that let you sleep at night.

  4. Stacy Alesi

    My inner librarian is screaming to reveal the source of your quote, “What fresh hell is this!” It is from the inimitable Dorothy Parker. Rumor has it that was how she answered her phone.
    (See NY Times, October 20, 2011, Joseph Berger, “To Fan Fearing Wrecking Ball, the City Is Dorothy Parker’s”)

  5. Meredith Greene

    I read your article with copious nodding. My husband and I write for and operate an indie eBook company. There is no way we’d even consider dealing in physical copies of our books these days, simply because of stories just like yours. Small bookstores have been disappearing around Northern California with alarming speed, and several large chain bookstores have closed in the last 3 years. Yes, the economy has a large share of the blame, but we keep hearing Amazon pricing dictates as part of the problem.
    Even the Kindle Store market is fraught with peril for the indie eBook seller; either you advertise the whereabouts of your books every hour of every day–via a borrowed budget King Midas would blush at–or your items are buried on page 1,769 of the store. The hinted equal billing of indies alongside best-seller author names is a myth.

  6. Amanda D.

    Actually, I saw this as Amazon admitting a weakness. They’re admitting that they need other people’s platforms to sell their books. Of course it’s up to you whether you want to carry them or not.
    My biggest fear for the future is that physical bookstores will disappear. But if even Amazon thinks this is a market they need to get into, then maybe there’s hope after all.

  7. Carol B. Chittenden

    Books and independent thinking are as irrepressible as the human spirit. Making a living, however, is more and more a different matter altogether. Bezos is the Ghadaffi of literature — and it took a long and painful time, but you know what happend to Ghadaffi.
    In the meantime I feel badly for all the wonderful and dedicated people at HMH who have the odor of collaboration clinging to their walls and garments.

  8. Monica

    They’re pulling shenanigans on libraries as well. I believe that new Harcourt ebooks will no longer be sold to libraries. Not sure about the physical books.

  9. Lynn Almer

    My first thoughts were greedy bastards (the title of a book I heard about yesterday when I caught the tail-end of The View), and another example of someone’s desire to have power over others. I don’t connect to Amazon any more but I do wonder what Mr. Bezo’s plan is for building his empire and what he believes is his purpose in the book world. This is a big world. Is it really necessary to take down the little guy? If so, the human species is de-evolving.

    1. josie Leavitt

      Thanks so much for the kind thoughts, Erin. You know, we could arrange an indie group hug tour for you. 🙂

  10. Leah Browne

    Ask any HMH trade author (midlist ones especially) how they feel about their treatment by the company, and you’ll have your answer. Talk about fresh hells–

  11. Dianna Winget

    I find this whole conversation a bit disturbing. I love and support indies all the time. I’m also a HMH children’s author with my first book due out this fall. Working with them has so far been a wonderful experience. I guess I’m feeling confused by their agreement with Amazon and don’t fully understand how it works. Can someone shed a little more light?

    1. Becky

      it’s a licensing agreement. HMH is printing and distributing titles from amazon’s trade publishing division under the HMH New Harvest impring. Amazon retains the digital rights.

  12. Theresa M. Moore

    I think that it’s time to put the hammer down and stop dealing with Amazon. Period. Remember that if you keep feeding the beast, the beast will want more. You have to become as vicious and selfish as Amazon in order to survive. I appreciate indie bookstores and discussions about them is that they become “cultural centers” of their neighborhoods. People turn to Amazon to order books because their local bookstores have closed thanks to Amazon. Ironic isn’t it? Yes, it is a fresh Hell. You want to make Bezos worry? Don’t buy anything from Amazon. Around Christmas time I wanted to buy some music. Guess where I went? Barnes & Noble. I published my ebooks on Amazon and I don’t expect to make any money at it thanks to Amazon, which has chosen to treat the ebooks like loss leaders for the devices. I am thinking about not posting the next one to Amazon. Anyone want to join me? We can call it Occupy Amazon.

  13. Linda Austin

    To me it looks like Amazon has decided it needs a way to get its print books into Ingrams via a big trad pub so libraries and real bookstores will order them (hopefully at a decent discount). It’s using HMH to launder its business. HMH must be taking a cut, though, so not sure how much discount will really be offered. And would you order a book, no matter if it’s discounted, if it’s Amazon tainted.

  14. mjacobs

    I was in Europe on business when I read this news and had to write to a friend who runs a West Coast based publishing company to crack a rather dirty joke about how subservient and degrading this move by HMH seemed. Yes, publishing companies have a bottom line and some have shareholders to whom they need to report results and profits, but there is no justification, in my view, for trying to make it seem that “sleeping with the enemy” (and, let’s face it, Amazon won’t even kiss them the morning after) is either good for your business or your integrity or your authors or your employees or your sense of self worth. Shame shame, I say.


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