September 5, 2019
What happens when you give a monopoly a dystopian text: They learn how to be badder
by Dennis Johnson
If it wasn’t for social media, most likely no one would have noticed.
But in numerous posts on Twitter and Instagram beginning at least on Tuesday, the cat was out of the bag: Amazon customers were receiving copies of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale — despite an embargo placed on the book by its publisher, Penguin Random House, preventing retailers from selling the book before its September 10th release date. (Even the judges of the prestigious Booker Prize were given watermarked copies and had to agree not to leak them.)
Many of those Amazon customers breaking the news on social media were ecstatic:
Did anybody else get the new @MargaretAtwood book THE TESTAMENTS sent to them a week early? I thought they’d just changed the date but checking it now it looks like this is an Amazon mix-up? I feel like I won the lottery! #TheTestaments pic.twitter.com/CZ34Zg8jjX
— Jason Adams (@JAMNPP) September 4, 2019
blessed be The Testaments
(may the book open) pic.twitter.com/hhJx1rULDt
— Amy Cutlip (@amy_cutlip) September 3, 2019
But as the headline to a Gizmodo article put it, “Margaret Atwood Fans Rejoice as Amazon Completely Screws Other Retailers.”
Many of those other retailers around the world — all of whom had signed what many referred to as “affidavits” agreeing to the embargo — hadn’t even received the book from PRH yet. (Amazon, no doubt ordering tens of thousands of copies of the book, would have been prioritized in shipping over smaller accounts.) And within hours on Tuesday, their fury exploded on Twitter and elsewhere — including in irate letters to PRH.
Rachel Cass, the manager of the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explained in a Publishers Weekly article:
“It makes us look bad. This is bigger than just this book. Customers will see that people who ordered online got their books. They will come into our store and see that we don’t have it yet. They won’t know or care about embargoes; they will just see that Amazon can supply them a book and we can’t. They might not come in next time.”
The rather nasty irony of the situation didn’t escape booksellers, either.
In a blistering series of tweets, Lexi Beach, owner of the Astoria Bookshop in Queens, noted:
Back in May, I signed an embargo agreement on behalf of my bookstore stating that I would “ensure that [#TheTestaments] is stored in a monitored and locked, secured area and not placed on the selling floor prior to the on-sale date.”
— Lexi Beach (@lexiatwork) September 4, 2019
Matt Keliher, manager of Subtext Books in St. Paul, tweeted at me
And this is what most upsets me. If people were on Twitter and Instagram tagging Subtext and thanking us for sending them this* book a week early, we wouldn’t get another PRH title before the on sale date for another decade. With Amazon it’s all, “well, they got us ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ “
— Matt Keliher (@MAKeliher) September 4, 2019
For its part, PRH — which would have known this was happening, even before the news broke, via its feed of daily ship numbers from Amazon — put out a statement:
“A very small number of copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments were distributed early due to a retailer error which has now been rectified. We appreciate that readers and booksellers have been waiting patiently for the much-anticipated sequel to the bestselling The Handmaid’s Tale. In order to ensure our readers around the world receive their copies on the same day, our global publication date remains Tuesday, September 10.”
Rachel Cass deemed it “a wildly inadequate response.”
It was also inaccurate on the key points. For one, it wasn’t “a very small number” of books shipped early — according to a report in The Guardian, it was at least 800 copies. And if you believe that Amazon sent out 800 (or more) copies accidentally, I’ve got some swamp land in Florida I’d like to sell you.
No, the statement from PRH was no more than the company positioning itself for what it’s going to do, exactly — which is nothing.
And it’s not just because these embargoes aren’t, legally, all that enforceable — one of the big secrets of the book industry is that they’re not … although as Matt Keliher pointed out, PRH has other means to enforce it, such as not supplying books to booksellers that break an embargo.
But PRH isn’t going to do that in this instance because, despite the fact that it is (by far) the biggest of the big publishing houses, Amazon is far bigger still — in 2017, the most recent stats I could find, PRH had a net worth of $3.55 billion, while in 2018 Amazon’s value capped $1 trillion. What’s more, Amazon probably constitutes close to 50% of PRH’s business. As Lexi Beach put it in her series of tweets, “even a publisher the size of PRH can’t afford to fuck up things with $amzn.”
But of course, publishers not standing up to Amazon is how we got where we are in the first place.
Not that PRH isn’t also damaged by this, nor Margaret Atwood herself, for that matter — both stand to lose revenue from major assorted excerpt and serial rights deals (with The Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald, among others) that were timed around the embargo. Some immediately ran their excerpts — such as The Guardian — but those deals were devalued, and people may want their money back, or, at least, their deal renegotiated. Likewise, many critics immediately broke the embargo — such as Michiko Kakutani, maybe the world’s all-time embargo breaker, who rushed out a review in the New York Times in less than 24 hours. That’s exactly the kind of spoiler damage publishers fear could dampen sales.
But all of that’s peanuts compared to the damage PPRH’s reputation is going to take this week from accounts and other business partners for doing nothing … which, trust me, won’t matter one iota to them …
Meanwhile, are there any repercussions at all for Amazon? Well, yes, if you consider the damage they’ve done to the brick and mortar showrooms they need (why do you think they’re building so many of their own bookstores? Other than to capture information, that is). And yes if you think it damages an industrial ecosystem to cheat your partners and colleagues.
But of course Amazon doesn’t care about public opinion. Like our president, Amazon is a lawless entity that’s good for multiple outrages a day, one supplanting another, ad infinitum.
And getting away with it, ad infinitum. In the last few days, Amazon has been accused of faking its financials in order to underpay its taxes in the UK; it’s been sued by the Association of American Publishers for including the text of a book with its audio book version (when it doesn’t own those print rights); eBay is suing Amazon for “racketeering”: and a sensational investigation by Buzzfeed revealed how the company’s next day delivery program has “brought chaos and carnage to America’s streets,” including “a litany of labor violations … deaths and devastating injuries …”
So this, to Amazon, is nothing. Who knows if this is even the first time it’s done it. It could be just the first time it got caught, because it did it on a really big book this time. And in fact, the resultant shitstorm is no doubt seen by the comapny as an advertising coup, helping to establish the ruse that — as Rachel Cass observed —Amazon can get you a book quicker than your local bookseller. Of value here is, as Josh Cook of Porter Square Books in Cambridge put it, “the mind share it grabs.”
Like all those booksellers, I’ve become pretty cynical about our ability to do anything about Amazon. On the other hand, cynics are just people who have hope buried more deeply inside them, and when it escapes it can be something formidable. My hope on this, then, is that it’s a powerful educational lesson for readers everywhere not to be like those characters in Gilead who willingly side with the evil ones ….
Hats off to Astoria Bookstore’s Lexie Beach for jumping on that by educating one book buyer in particular …
If you’re that concerned about us, why did you order this book from amzn? pic.twitter.com/sFJMCHQ8mw
— Lexi Beach (@lexiatwork) September 4, 2019
September 6, 2019 — Late yesterday Amazon issued the following apology:
Due to a technical error a small number of customers were inadvertently sent copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. We apologize for this error; we value our relationship with authors, agents, and publishers, and regret the difficulties this has caused them and our fellow booksellers.
But as reported by Shelf Awareness, the statement “doesn’t indicate how many copies were sent or the nature of the ‘technical error.'” I say again it was no error, and observe again that the publisher would also know how many copies were sent out — publishers receive a daily feed of data from Amazon that, while it doesn’t specify where books were shipped, does detail how many books were shipped. So Amazon isn’t the only one withholding that info.
The Shelf story also notes the statement “seems liable to irritate independent booksellers further” because it “makes a reference to ‘fellow booksellers,’ claiming a camaraderie that most non-Amazon booksellers don’t feel.”
Keith Kelly, in his New York Post column, notes indie booksellers are indeed “crying foul.” He reports the American Booksellers Association, which had been in recent talks with the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission about antitrust complaints against Amazon, has issued an update on that statement: “Amazon’s latest actions only further underscore how important it is that the appropriate federal agencies thoroughly investigate Amazon’s destructive business practices.”
Meanwhile, Penguin Random House has yet to make any statement about whether Amazon will face any repercussions for breaking the embargo — i.e., they’re still trying to figure out the best synonym for “nothing.”
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives