Minnesota author on Amazon/Hachette feud: "It's just heartbreaking"

Nicole Mary Kelby
Nicole Mary Kelby

When Nicole Mary Kelby's new book, The Pink Suit, was released in late April, things couldn't have started any better. Entertainment Weekly picked it as the number one book for Mother's Day. It was highlighted on Oprah Winfrey's website. And sales were good.

"I noticed that I was selling really well right when the book came out," said Kelby, from St. Paul. "I mean it just started going right up the charts."

But for the novel, which tells the fictionalized tale of the outfit Jackie Kennedy wore on the day her husband was assassinated, it all went downhill from there. The next week, sales of the book plummeted, falling from thousands down to the low hundreds, according to Nielsen BookScan numbers from Amazon's site (those numbers don't tell the complete story, as they miss some retailers, but they're relatively reliable).

"And to see that, it's just heartbreaking," Kelby said.

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Two big factors helped cause that decline, Kelby says. The first was that the book was originally sold at a discounted price, but Amazon removed the discount after the first week, making The Pink Suit more expensive. In addition, Amazon also increased how long it took the book to ship, going from days to multiple weeks. (We reached out to Amazon to get their response but didn't hear back.)

"But I was befuddled," Kelby said. "If a book is selling well, wouldn't you want to keep it selling?"

As it turns out, those declining sales didn't just have to do with Kelby. She just happened to be releasing her book at the start of a fierce negotiating battle between Amazon and Hachette Book Group, the parent company of her book's publisher.

The reason for the Amazon/Hachette conflict has stayed mostly private, but according to recent reports, it's believed the battle revolves around Amazon's desire to charge for services like personal recommendations or a pre-order button, which it provides for free right now. As part of the conflict, Amazon has made it tougher for Hachette authors to sell their books on the website by delaying shipping times and changing search results, among other tactics.

Other Minnesota authors who've had books published under Hachette are feeling the effects, too. One is Minnesota State University Professor Lin Enger, whose 2008 novel Undiscovered Country was published by the Hachette-owned Little, Brown and Company.

"I can say that someone who wants to purchase my Hachette-published novel on Amazon is told on the web page, 'book ships in three to five weeks,' which is certainly a disincentive to buy the book through that site," Enger wrote in an email. "Amazon used to keep copies of the book on hand to ship immediately."

Wendy Webb, whose most recent novel, The Vanishing, was published by Hachette-owned Hyperion Books in January, is seeing the same thing.

"I don't know why anyone would continue to do business with a retailer that makes it difficult for their customers to get the products they want," Webb wrote in an email. "If I went into Target and learned I'd have to wait three weeks to get toothpaste, I wouldn't shop there anymore."

But it's Kelby who's seen the worst of it. Her book went on sale right as the Amazon/Hachette feud heated up during the novel's first month of release, a crucial sales period. While she's turned to other outlets like Barnes & Noble to pick up the slack, Kelby says Amazon traditionally makes up at least 50 percent of sales. Now, she's not sure she'll even earn back her advance, the kind of failure that she says can make an author "kind of tainted."

"That's how you make money, getting those five, six figures from Little Brown," Kelby says. "And It feels impossible, and if you don't earn it back, they're not that's really important."

As of now, Amazon and Hachette are still feuding, with Hachette this week acquiring the trade publication Perseus Books Group to gain some negotiating muscle. But with the fight ongoing, those long shipping times aren't about to end.

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter at @robbiefeinberg.

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