What Does It Mean to Protect Authors’ Interests? [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I share three smart pieces worth reading about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams

More Fights About Terms by Brian O’Leary

Publishing consultant and analyst Brian O’Leary discusses the decisions that publishers, physical bookstores, and online retailers make—every single day—about acquiring, shelving, displaying, or marketing books. His post is obliquely about the Amazon-Hachette dispute that continues to rage, but he’s making a much larger point:

Parties are not required to take deals they feel are not in their best interests. Otherwise, book publishers should be explaining the titles they rejected, bricks-and-mortar stores should be talking about the books they don’t stock and Amazon should be regulated as a utility. …

While the jury is still out on whether [Amazon’s] dominance can be challenged, the verdict is in on what happens to publishers, wholesalers and retailers who argue about terms to solve a business model problem. Check out this year’s collapse of single-copy sales of magazines when Time Inc. and Source Interlink reached an impasse and Source Interlink closed up shop.

That’s the absurdity of “protecting authors interests.” We act as if reading were a preferred activity in this country. Look again. There’s an oversupply of content and a relatively small base of demand. 

Read the full post.

Thoughts & questions:

  • Envision a big-picture strategy for a smart, forward-thinking author who observes these struggles, and wants a viable writing career over the next 20 years. What does it look like? What does it consist of?
  • What exactly ARE authors’ interests? I think that’s a very difficult (impossible?) question to answer. (No two authors are alike, for starters.)

Making Sense of Amazon-Hachette by Jake Kerr

This is the most original thing I’ve read on the dispute since it started, from someone in the tech industry with an outsider perspective. (I’m finding it increasingly impossible to read anything from inside the publishing industry at this point—it’s become a huge, nonsensical echo chamber that’s highly divisive and emotional.)

I’ll make no friends here by simply saying there is no bad guy. Amazon just wants to make a bit more money while not putting their current market share at risk. Hachette is looking at an existing marketplace that is about as good as it gets for them. Expecting for them to be generous and give some of their money to Amazon is unrealistic. This is business, not a charity.

Read the insightful post.

Thoughts & questions:

  • I’m tired of discussing.

How Technology Is Changing the World by Ben Thompson

Over at the Stratechery blog—always reliable for insights into the tech, business, and media industries—Thompson comments on the significance of Procter & Gamble’s strategy of greatly paring down the number of its brands. It’s well worth reading the entire post, even if you think it doesn’t apply to your world.

Thoughts & questions:

  • This post sparked all kinds of questions for me about the significance (or lack thereof) of traditional book publisher brands (what is the value of the brand “Penguin Random House”?), and the difficulty of any publisher trying to market 200 new book titles a year, of which each could be said to constitute a mini-brand.
Posted in Smart Set.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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William AshJohn BrownBob MayerJane FriedmanGrace Recent comment authors

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As someone who’s just stepping into this whole writing game, the discussions about Amazon and Hatchette, while important, have become a bit of a distraction. I found myself beginning to worry about what would happen when I finally published, instead of focusing on finally publishing! It’s an important conversation to have, of course, but the almost cult-like allegiance to one side or the other is a little disheartening. And, as much as I am a fan of the self-publishing model that, in many ways, Amazon has allowed to flourish, I’m nervous about one company amassing this much power and control… Read more »

Bob Mayer
Bob Mayer

The truest thing is that every author is in a different position. Many are trying to cloak essentially self-serving interests in the guise of ‘protecting’ other authors. I’m afraid no other author really knows what is best for me. I’ve been called selfish for that stance, but on the flip side I don’t pretend to know what’s best for other authors. Certainly the 909 who posted the letter in the NY Times have a very different view of things than I do because their situation is very different. I can respect but not agree with that In 25 years I’ve… Read more »

John Brown
John Brown


Can you explain more about the impact of Amazon’s desire to take over POD printing at their distribution centers? I don’t see how that changes anything. Lower cost POD books for some reason?


[…] Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I share three smart pieces worth reading about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.  […]


[…] There's an oversupply of content and a relatively small base of demand. So what does it mean for publishers or retailers to protect authors' interests?  […]


[…] window into protecting authors’ interests and other current issues in this week’s The Smart […]

William Ash
William Ash

Taking Bob’s point about the author/reader connection being the strongest, is there a future where direct sales becomes dominant? Pottermore is the largest example I can think of. There are certainly authors doing a significant percentage of their earnings through direct marketing. Then places like Amazon are just a convenience of distribution, not a necessity? I have a feeling I have better chances of selling to someone on my site rather than an Amazon book page. Although there is no data, but even someone browsing on Amazon is having narrow results filtered to them–no surprise purchase. It seems the world… Read more »