NEW YORK – Like a serial for the digital age, the book world’s most dramatic story of 2014 unfolded in installments, often in real time.
A dispute about e-book revenue between Amazon.com and Hachette Book Group led to Amazon removing buy buttons, cutting discounts and reducing orders for works ranging from J.K. Rowling’s latest detective thriller to J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. The battle lasted for months. Hachette author Stephen Colbert flipped the bird to Amazon, right on camera. Amazon suggested that frustrated customers might try buying books elsewhere.
You could call the resolution happy and open-ended. The two sides agreed to a multiyear deal in mid-November, and Hachette books were back in full for the holiday season. Amazon and Hachette each declared itself satisfied.
But it’s hard to say what has changed. Douglas Preston, a Hachette author who became a leading Amazon critic, expressed a common view among writers when he told The Associated Press recently that the standoff demonstrated that the online retailer is “ruthless and willing to sanction books and hurt authors.” Amazon’s image may have suffered, but it still controls some 40 percent of the market – by the estimate of major New York publishers – and still has a hold on those who say they fear it.
Here are other highlights from 2014:
YESTERDAY’S NEWS: Many of the big fiction books of 2014 were not published in 2014: An Oprah Winfrey pick, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings; Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch – a Hachette release so in demand that even Amazon left it alone; and a handful of novels helped by movie adaptations – Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Phil Klay’s book of contemporary war stories, Redeployment, won the National Book Award, but a people’s prize for top literary hardcover of 2014 would likely go to a novel about World War II, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which has sold more than 180,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks around 80 percent of sales.
DIVERSITY: BookCon, a self-styled “pop culture” version of BookExpo America, launched in 2014 and immediately failed by only inviting white authors to speak. In response, a social-media campaign was born, and a grassroots movement, We Need Diverse Books, soon followed.
One of We Need Diverse Books’ advisers is Jacqueline Woodson, who won the National Book Award for her young adult book Brown Girl Dreaming. She also, quite unintentionally, helped raised a substantial amount of money for the organization. After she won her prize, awards emcee Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame made an awkward joke about watermelon that even Handler later acknowledged was racist. He apologized and eventually donated $110,000 to WNDB.
Woodson, a published author for nearly 25 years, sees the industry alternating between cycles of recognition and neglect. Now, she believes, recognition is underway, citing Jason Reynolds and Aisha Saeed as among the promising young adult writers. Meanwhile, Woodson wants to get around to an adult book she’s been meaning to write: “My plan for January is to get quiet again, and write.”
THE FACTS: With nonfiction still essentially a print market, and with bookstore space far smaller than a decade ago, it’s hard these days to be a historian – unless you’re Bill O’Reilly. The Fox News host’s latest recounting of a famous death, Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General, has sold more than 700,000 copies, according to Nielsen. That’s far more than the combined Nielsen sales for the most recent books (both published before 2014) by two of the world’s most famous historians: Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. O’Reilly’s book, co-written by Martin Dugard, also easily surpassed the combined sales of two of the biggest political books of 2014: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Hard Choices and George W. Bush’s biography of his father, and fellow ex-president, 41.
THE CLOUD: Trip Adler is the CEO of Scribd, a leading e-book subscription service, an emerging part of the digital market. He believes e-books are the future but is admittedly surprised that print is holding up so well.
Asked why he thinks print has endured, he pauses. “I don’t know,” he says. “I can brainstorm a bunch of reasons. Book technology has kind of lagged behind video and music. Even subscription services came to books last. Why weren’t the book services first? I can’t say why.”
For himself, Adler likes e-books and relies on Scribd for suggestions.
“I open the Scribd app and whatever books are recommended to me, I read,” he said. “I have not read a print book in a long time. I’m kind of the Silicon Valley type.”