Amazon, Hachette, coffee and the psychology of change

Posted: July 30, 2014 in reading, self-publishing, writing
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve written several posts here about how wonderful current changes in publishing and modern technology are. But not everyone sees those changes like I do, and if we’re to discuss them with any intelligence then it’s important to think about why.

The devastating loss (of coffee)

My favourite local coffee shop closed down this weekend. As a working writer this is a terrible blow. Nowhere else that close combines wifi, plug sockets and friendly service. I’m going to have to walk at least ten minutes now if I want to work out of the house. Laura’s also sad about it – the staff were friendly, they knew what we liked to drink, the cakes were top notch, it was a lovely place to relax.

I loved Barbican coffee shop, but I suspected it was doomed from the start. It was an up-market coffee house on a street of discount stores and the cheap, cheerful cafés favoured by the working (and unemployed) English. It was an independent business following a model dominated by big chains. It was bold and beautiful and I hoped rather than expected that it would last.

Alas, poor coffee, I knew you well...

Alas, poor coffee, I knew you well…

If such an expected inconvenience can put me in a grump, even though it costs me nothing directly, imagine how it must feel to have your whole working life threatened. Not just the income, or the stability, or your corner cubicle that’s handy for the coffee machine. The very credibility and value of the model you’ve invested your work in for years. That’s what the rise of indie publishing and disputes like the one with Amazon represent to the employees at big publishers like Hachette. Their working lives and personal identities are built around believing that what they do creates value for readers and writers, that their service is a good thing. And now innovators are coming in and stomping all over that.

It doesn’t matter how good the evidence is. It doesn’t matter how much they normally like innovation. They are going to be predisposed to believe and defend the viewpoint that says ‘you are right and Amazon is ruining everything’.

The frustration of facing denial

I used to work in business improvement, trying to help employees save themselves time and effort, trying to help clients get a better experience. I was constantly faced with people who would prevaricate or refuse to act on evidence clearly showing that changes would benefit everyone. They didn’t want to take the risk of changing, and it drove me insane.

That’s how it must look from the other side of the indie/traditional dispute – that of innovators like Amazon or hybrid author Hugh Howey. Their lives and identities are built around the value of moving forwards, trying new things. They find this incredibly exciting. They can see the benefits it will bring. They have the evidence. They have the logic. And yet still people dig in their heels against them.

Like some kid trying to win an argument in a YouTube comments thread, they aren’t thinking about how their argument makes people feel, just whether it’s right. But just being right won’t change people’s perspective unless you take into account their emotional response too.

So what?

So what does this mean in the end? Right now it means that no-one’s going to ‘win’ this debate. Publishing will change, and in the long run I believe the innovators will win out, not through better arguments but by providing better access to books in the way that readers want. The Amazon/Hachette dispute – which despite all this rhetoric is really just a contract negotiation – will be decided by power and profits, not who’s right about the future of publishing.

People will move on, but you can’t force them. And if you want to have an intelligent discussion about these changes then you need to think about how they make people feel.

  1. malwen says:

    When I read your words “working lives and personal identities are built around believing that what they do creates value for readers and writers, that their service is a good thing” I was put strongly in mind of the battle faced by librarians and information professionals, struggling against the argument that “it’s all on Google”.
    Sorry about your coffee shop, and hope you soon find a suitable alternative.

    • The comparison with libraries is a good one. From what I’ve seen of professionals working in libraries and information services – at least those on the ground floor – they seem to be reacting better than the big publishers. There seems to be a recognition among librarians that they can’t hold back change, but can find a way to continue providing a valuable community and information service in new ways.

      • Actually I think librarians are moving very rapidly into the digital age now.

        I’ve only recently started following and learning about what they’ve been doing lately, after kinda leaving them out of my life a few decades 🙂

        Once I elected to have my work be in libraries digitally, which one can’t do if in KU, I started really looking into how my work could reach people.

        These are two links with great info. The link is to what I thought was a satire, and may still have been, but the over 200+ response from librarians around the world, about what they’re doing now, is astounding. And digital books and services is a huge part of it.

        • Thanks for the links – I hadn’t seen that first one, and there’s some interesting ideas in it.

          I think the fact that it’s hard to tell how serious Tim Worstall’s piece is is telling in itself. Ideas that would have seemed absurd even two or three years ago now look practical and helpful. Libraries shifting to more electronic lending has huge potential to improve accessibility.

          • This is to a short post about an all digital library near (in?) San Antonio. Includes a video described as “a gem from the Film School of San Antonio at Harlandale High School, is right on target for a young Hispanic audience.” –


            Coming from a childhood and teen experience pre-dating digital 🙂 , where reading was often considered a waste of time, this is extremely encouraging to me the way the Hispanic culture is being able to be positively affected.

            • That is fantastic. I imagine that, further down the line, there would be potential for such digital libraries to pool their resources on making the widest possible range of ebooks, magazines, etc available while creating those great local physical spaces. And the fact that it’s set up to be appealing to people who might not use regular libraries is surely a positive step.

            • Yeah, these were kids that definitely did not fit a stereotype of a book reader or library patron 🙂

              I know I grew up being almost the only one on my block or family that liked to read as a kid; that’s changed hugely now, thank goodness.

              And your line of thought – imagine – is very perceptive, check out this link on the interlibrary loan program:


              This is all info I’ve just found about this last month!

            • That’s another fascinating piece, and one I largely agree with. If Amazon do manage to dominate ebook lending then it won’t be because others weren’t there first. That’s perhaps symbolic of wider attitudes on the Amazon/Hachette palaver – people are treating these big companies as the be all and end all of their techniques, when both modern and traditional business models, ebooks and paper books, are produced and distributed on a whole range of scales.

              I think one thing the article misses in its focus on the organisations rather than the technologies is the potential for ebooks to improve interlibrary loan services. When I was a postgraduate student I needed access to the PhD thesis of a historian who’d gone on to become big in his field. I got it, but it took weeks to get hold of and I couldn’t take it out of the library building because it was one of just two copies. As long as I had it no-one else could get hold of it. Now imagine if it was available as an e-book – dozens of people at a time could instantly access that obscure but significant piece of scholarship. Surely a big step forward to human knowledge.

  2. Wayne Halm says:

    Aloha Andrew,
    Your writer is showing – another succinct post.
    However, now I’m worried about you. I don’t believe I could write without coffee.
    A Hui Hou,

    • It’s OK Wayne, I couldn’t write without coffee either, but I still have four cafetieres, two stove-top coffee pots, and a longer walk to coffee shops in town to see me through. In fact a fifteen minute walk takes me to a lovely cafe that does smaller coffees but even better cakes than the old place.

  3. glenatron says:

    I think it’s a hard fact to face that most of our trades only exist for a certain window of opportunity and harder still to be someone belonging to that trade at the end of it’s time. Draughtsmen, for example, have been entirely replaced by CAD, one sees few broomsquires or charcoal burners these days, in a few years cab drivers will probably be replaced by driverless cars. These are the course of progress.

    In fact, looking at how technology has changed the things we do, it seems that the only consistent ways of making a living over any long course of history have been creative- storytellers, musicians and artists have always made their livings in similar ways, although the modes of transmission have certainly changed.

    • glenatron, Very strongly agree – All my degrees are in the arts, they’re what’s endured through all the wars and countless civilizations – dancing, music, art, stories. Many times are of one piece. I want to make money from my art, there’s not reason not to, but I would always have to have an artistic outlet, no matter what. It’s too deep a part of me.

      • It’s a good point, and one that fills me with hope. Like the draughtsmen being replaced by CAD designers, the tools of our craft might change, but the craft itself, whether that’s creating techical designs or writing a poem, that part endures.

  4. I halfway agree on the central premise. Some are eager to change, *without* seeing if it’s really better. Some resist change at all costs (Luddites). Some change as soon as they can see that it’s beneficial (successful Indie authors are in this category). The majority change reluctantly. The “argument” that e-book buyers won’t buy hard copies, is only partly true. I have some e-books that I plan to buy, for various reasons, in hard copy. The point is that *total* income from sales goes up. The “publisher’s argument” is like saying. “I will only eat cake, I don’t want pie, ice cream, or candy, for dessert.” That’s how a Three year old, _spoiled_ child acts.

    • I see their position as more like that of the cake maker who worries that increased variety of deserts will undermine them, and who isn’t willing to learn to make other deserts. But is general I agree with you – there are a range of responses on display, and the one from big publishers generally isn’t productive.

    • On reflection, I decided that I needed to come back to your point Walter. I don’t think that the publishers’ argument really is all that comparable with a spoiled child. The people working for publishers see something of value in the institution they work for – hardly surprising, as historically publishers helped writers find an audience and readers get access to the content of books. Publishing employees see what they do as of value for other people, not just them. I may not agree with continuing the traditional publishing model, but to dismiss it and the people working within it out of hand is to dismiss the value they have historically contributed, the real value they still contribute in putting books into readers hands and supporting their authors, and the negative impact these changes have on them.

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