Douglas Preston on his open letter about Amazon: "I'm not a firebrand, I fell into it accidentally!"

900 authors are urging their readers to email Jeff Bezos. Salon spoke to their organizer about how it came together

Published August 8, 2014 6:30PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
(Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

Douglas Preston is about to have a big weekend -- he's going camping with his son. But while he's away, the Sunday edition of the New York Times is going to publish as an advertisement an open letter he wrote, one with some 900 signatories.

Preston, who with his co-author has published thriller novels including "The Lost Island," "White Fire" and "Extraction," recently published on his website a letter to readers asking them to contact Jeff Bezos to express their dismay about Amazon's dealings with Hachette. That letter features the names of authors from Paul Auster to Nora Roberts and from Claire Messud to Stephen King -- but Preston insists he never meant for there to be more than 12 signatories. We spoke to him as he prepared for his camping trip.

What was your intention here -- how many authors did you hope would sign on? 

It was very unusual. I wrote the letter and circulated it to a couple of friends hoping to get 12 brave friends to sign it. I was met with a huge amount of reluctance to be one of 12. This went on for about three weeks, as I tried to get four or five people to sign. But then, over the course of two days, it went viral. It was incredible. I got like a thousand emails from across the spectrum: debut authors, mid-list authors, best-sellers, cookbook authors, Pulitzer Prize-winning historians -- they all emailed me, and said please put my name on this letter.

But things don't "go viral" on their own! What happened? 

From what I can tell, there were a couple of authors who had big mailing lists in their computers and said, "Can I share this with my friends?" And their friends shared with their friends.

Did you get walk-backs from people who'd put their names to this but then got nervous about reprisal from Amazon?

Very few. Once I got the names together, I posted the letter and names online, but I emailed everyone and asked them to check the spelling of their names, and to allow them to withdraw. I don't feel perturbed by authors afraid to sign or who withdrew their names. Amazon is formidable and we already know how they treat people. It's not paranoid to think Amazon would retaliate -- that's what they do. Less than a dozen authors had second thoughts -- their husband asking "What did you do?" or their agent asking them not to sign, their son ...

So it was posted online. When did you decide this would be a good New York Times ad? 

That came later. The idea was to put it up online and hope it went viral and that people would write to Jeff Bezos. It is a letter to our readers. It's not a petition to Amazon, or Jeff, or threatening anyone. We're asking readers to email Jeff, who welcomes emails from his customers. And we're all Amazon customers. We hoped it'd go viral. But I thought we need to make a bigger statement than this. I put in some of my money, and asked some well-heeled friends to put in money. All the people who helped pay are signatories -- between 15 and 20 -- but about half of the people who helped pay for the ad wished to remain anonymous. I'm happy to allow people to know I helped finance it -- but I didn't want to go to 1,000 people and ask for money, I'm not a fundraiser.

Who helped pay for the ad whose names you can say?

Stephen King, John Grisham, James Patterson, David Baldacci, Stacy Schiff, Nora Roberts, me, Lee Child.

Do you think it sets you up for criticism that some of the authors who are signed are people who, frankly, would be successful even without Amazon's support?

This is not about money. It really is not about money. That's what Amazon keeps assuming. They dismissed me as a rich author. This is about Amazon's bullying tactics against authors. Every time they run into difficulty negotiating with a publisher, they target authors' books for selective retaliation. The authors who were first were from university presses and small presses. Then Macmillan was a target. It's a sense of outrage that we authors helped Amazon become one of the biggest corporations in the world. I can't tell you the free blogs and exclusives I've given them. For them to treat me as if I were a poster or computer cables or a TV set is really hurtful. I've never seen authors so incandescent on any subject. I've never seen authors come together like this -- journalists, fiction writers. It has nothing to do -- well, it has something to do with money, but it's mostly a feeling of outrage. This is going to stop. Amazon is going to be negotiating with publishers forever. Are they really going to target authors every time they run into a problem with a publisher? And we're not against Amazon. It's a fine company and we'd like to see it make a profit!

Is there any sort of back channel among authors? Until writers started coming together over this, I'd always thought writing books was a fairly solitary profession.

This is very unusual! I've never seen authors come together like this. It is true -- I have a small group of authors whose advice I respect enormously. I'm terrified of what's happening. I'm not a fighter. I would much rather be writing my books, going on vacation with my son, which I'm about to do. I'm not a firebrand. I kind of fell into this accidentally.

What do you think will happen while you're offline this weekend? 

I don't know. Amazon has made statements about me that are not all that nice. [The company called Preston "an opportunist" in a recent statement.] Maybe they'll say more about me. I don't know. But we are in this for the long haul. We are not going to publish an ad and go away. If they think we're going to wait it out -- we will walk down the road with you as long as it takes. There are many steps we can take and we just wish this could be settled as soon as possible in an amicable and friendly way so all parties are happy.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Amazon Douglas Preston Jeff Bezos