The phrase “cheese eating surrender monkeys” first entered the main lexicon of American English just before the beginning of the second Iraq war courtesy of the ever-running The Simpsons cartoon series. France’s reputation for toughness has never recovered from that whole WWII-breakout-in-the-Ardennes-Forest thing and when the country declined to join the forces preparing to invade Iraq post 9/11, “surrender monkey” became a popular meme which makes the teeth of every Frenchmen grind.
Thus, it was with some surprise that I found myself writing admiringly of the courage of the French as Jeff Bezos and his merry band of monopolists/monopolists attempted to take control of the last independent bastion of book publishing, the trades. More formally known as trade book publishers, the companies who belong to what was once a very exclusive club include Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Liver, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, collectively known as “The Big Five, (soon to be the Big Four as Penguin is scheduled to take over Simon & Schuster). The mid-rank companies include Scholastic, Wiley, Oxford University Kensington and a bevy of others.
The object of my French crush was Hachette, a division of Hachette Livre, an international publishing powerhouse with its corporate HQ in Paris. I became a fan of the doughty face it showed to Amazon during the Great Channel Trade War of 2014. With the introduction of the Kindle platform in 2007, Amazon had seized control of the pricing model for ebooks. Prices for new titles were capped at $9.99 and the trade publishers were convinced this model spelled their doom, for who controls the pricing model of a market controls the market (with apologies to Frank Herbert and Dune.) In 2014, Hachette became the first company to attempt to break out of Amazon’s book pricing dungeon and implemented agency pricing, a model wherein the publisher sets prices for their books and kickbacks a % of the sale to their resellers. This is in contrast to the wholesale model, wherein the publisher charges resellers a discounted price for their books and resellers can mark it up to what they think the market will bear. (Yes, yes, I know. In other words Amazon was putting itself in position to sell some books at a loss? Exactly. If you’ve read Stupidity you know why they were willing to do this. If you haven’t read (buy) the book and find out what Amazon was up to.)
Amazon’s response to Hachette’s move was brutal. General Herr Field Marshall Jeff Bezos promptly unleashed the company’s iron horde on the hapless publisher, who was subjected to a vicious digital raking fire that included:
- Deep sixing Hachette books in the Amazon search engine.
- Removing the Buy Buttons from Hachette titles.
- Creating popups that covered Hachette books with “alternate” books.
- Announcing major shipping delays for Hachette books because of back orders (this was a lie).
- Removing Hachette books from Amazon’s pre-order lists. These are prime sources of revenue for all publishers.
Unfortunately, as Amazon advanced on the froggies arrayed before them, the Ardennes was nowhere to be found. When the enemy was engaged, Amazon found it was fighting the French of Rocroi, Austerlitz, and Verdun. No surrenders were offered.
Amazon then went with for Hachette’s jugular and began blowing up the sales of individual Hachette authors via their usual bag of tricks. The attacks seemed to be launched at random and you never knew if your books would be targeted next. The strategy was to inflict enough pain to force the hapless writers to run wailing to Hachette and demand it make it stop. Some did, but Hachette remained obdurate.
Wholesale pricing would not pass.
Hachette eventually prevailed in its struggle with Amazon and the rest of the trades broke out of Amazon’s pricing box (indie authors remained firmly caged in its dingy interior). The battle won, the publisher straightened up, threw out its chest, and walked across the (virtual) battlefield with a stern military gait.
In my opinion, French honor had been redeemed.
Unfortunately, in an embarrassing recapitulation of history, wherein Hachette demonstrated it had learned from past conflicts as much as had Maurice Gamelin, in 1940 the French army’s commander in chief. Gamelin led his forces, which had as many tanks and airplanes as the Germans, to their doom by refusing to learn a single thing from his stint as a WWI commander.
Hachette’s modern version of Gamelin’s debacle began on February 9th, 2021, when the publishing career of Kate Hartson, editorial director of the publisher’s conservative Center Street imprint, was summarily placed on a tumbrel, dragged to a virtual guillotine and to the gleeful shouts of approval from a pack of Hachette modern-day SJW sans-culottes, beheaded. The charge against the career was successfully buying and bringing to market such best sellers as Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy by Any Ngo, a pint-sized gay independent journalist who specialized on following Antifa’s Mussolini-blackshirt avatars as they strode through Portland and Seattle and rioted, burnt, looted and assaulted (in addition to beating up Ngo if they spotted him). Hartson was also responsible for shepherding to market other profitable titles from such authors as New Gingritch, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Corey Lewandowski, former Trump presidential campaign manager, Douglas Wead, presidential historian, and so on.
Busy doing her job and luring coin into Hachette’s coffers, Hartson was apparently unaware that on January 26th, Hachette CEO Michel Pietsch had held a Zoom meeting with restive Hachette employees, who were unhappy that the company’s conservative titles were generating enough profits to pay some of their salaries. The outcome of the meeting led almost immediately to the creation of a virtual Committee for Public Safety which threatened Pietsch and Hachette with their very own Bastille revolt if Hartson wasn’t eliminated. In an act of corporate cowardice and incompetence that made General Gamelin look like Colonel Travis at the Alamo, Pietsch capitulated almost immediately. To seal the deal, he agreed to turn his manhood over to the Committee for safe keeping (this sounds harsh, but they do it to French poodles all the time) and Hartson’s career was sent to the chopping block.
The turnaround in Hachette’s fortitude was startling. A company that only a few years ago had wrestled the Amazon giant to a draw, collapsed like a brick wall of pate carved up by cheap steak knives swiped from a bistro brandished by a mob of Mao-capped, pallid-faced, concave-chested Hachette junior editors and copywriters. Overnight, Hachette transformed itself from a proud publishing house with a grand tradition of publishing such books as Madame Bovary, The Catcher in the Rye, On the Origin of Species, and many others, to pusillanimous slavery in service to an increasingly authoritarian left-wing ideology. Not to mention that Pietsch stuck it to Hachette investors by destroying the revenues of a successful imprint.
The Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys were back. Somewhere in heaven, the murdered employees of Charlie Hebdo wept.
The New York Times commented on the entire affair in a babbling article that literally made no logical sense:
In the new media world, many publishing employees see their companies not as powerful gatekeepers but as workplaces and consider these political questions to be labor issues, not speech issues. They don’t feel any obligation to help authors who they believe are hostile, in particular, to their ethnic or sexual identities.
Just so, and some industry observers immediately suggested that Hachette move its corporate HQ from Paris to Beijing, where they do the job of suppressing unpopular ideas, such as freedom of speech and expression, with unparalleled efficiency.