Amazon, Hachette, coffee and the psychology of change

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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.