There’s a lot here, and, using our earlier consideration of The New Yorker’s e-publishing state-of-the-union coverage as a model, we’d like to think about several of the specific points in detail.
1. Nervous more than scared
[R]eaders and writers may ultimately not be best served by Amazon's race to become the biggest, cheapest and most convenient bookseller around.Takeaway: This is as close to an argument as Robinson offers, and it seems to capture the tone and equivocation of much concern about Amazon. One thing to note here: writerly and readerly interests are aligned here, which we’re not so sure is either helpful or accurate.
2. Distasteful insider baseball, Amazon-style
In 2004 a representative of the retailer contacted Melville's distributor demanding an additional discount. Such payments are illegal under antitrust law, which precludes selling at different prices to different customers. Large retailers circumvent this restriction by disguising the extra discount under the rubric of "co-op," money paid to the bookseller for promotional services, often notional. In this case the distributor did not bother with such niceties, describing what Amazon was after as "kickback."Takeaway: So this clearly isn’t at all cool. That said, we’re not sure how much to care about this. The internecine warfare among publishers and retailers is nothing new really, though Amazon has definitely taken a page out of Wal-Mart’s playbook. Are these kinds of stories earth-shaking or just really irritating? Who is really being squeezed and why does that matter to the average book-buyer? Hard to know.
3. What should the price of books be?
…an industry worried that low prices of electronic versions would undermine profits from printed books and generally lower the perceived value of the product.Takeaway: The people who seem to care about publishing profits probably don’t care about the profits of Pfizer or BP or Coca-Cola. Why should a book-buyer care about “undermining” (read: lowering) the profits publishers make? This isn’t a rhetorical question, but a critical one. Also, “perceived value” of the product feels to us like just so much hand-wringing.
4. It is a zero-sum game.
Amazon gave in with a statement revealing contempt toward the very idea of a publisher. "We will have to capitulate," it said, "because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles."Takeaway: Amazon and publishers are fighting over who gets the profits from publishing. This is the main story, though perhaps not the most important one from The Ape’s point of view. What we care about is that the kinds of books we want to read are still available, no matter who is publishing or profiting from them. We’d like, if possible, for the people most responsible for writing and championing great books to enjoy some reward for their efforts. But, if we are honest, this isn’t as important to what we care about as the availability of quality books, especially literature. Professional writers are, in a historical perspective, a relative recent phenomenon, and we’re not sure that it’s the case that engrossing, meaningful literature will vanish if author’s don’t get six-figure advances or can give up their day jobs.
5. Ah yes, the fetid waft of parentalism.
…a number of studies have shown that when people are offered a narrower range of options, their selections are likely to be more diverse than if they are presented with a number of choices so vast as to be overwhelming. In this situation people often respond by retreating into the security of what they already know.Takeaway: Let’s say, for a moment at least, that this is true. Tough. That’s how ideas work. The suggestion that we should therefore somehow limit choices for readers’ own good seems both cynical and short-sighted. Who is to say that we should trust the people doing the limiting? We think it’s worth the extra effort of consciously selecting the ideas we consume if it means the full range of ideas are open to us. If some people retreat into intellectual solipsism, so be it. That’s the price of doing business in a free society.
6. Apparently, book buying is magic.
The loss of serendipity that comes with not knowing exactly what one is looking for is lamented by ex-Amazon editor James Marcus: "Personalization strikes me as a mixed blessing. While it gives people what they want—or what they think they want—it also engineers spontaneity out of the picture. The happy accident, the freakish discovery, ceases to exist.”Takeaway: This strikes us a literary romanticism. “Happy accident?” Really? This is what the traditional publishing industry is protecting? No wonder Amazon is eating their lunch. Media, publicity, and word of mouth are also given no quarter in this formulation, though these things, in our experience at least, are hugely important in the choice equation.
7. You can buy more books if you buy from Amazon.
In addition to regularly offering bestsellers at more than 50 percent off, Amazon offers a wide range of titles for around a third off the recommended price.Takeaway: There’s no way to make this go down any easier; your book-buying budget goes farther at Amazon. If you save 50% off the cover price at Amazon, you can buy twice as many books with the same cost. What’s debatable is if the cost-saving Amazon provides is worth the hidden “prices” to the end-buyer.
8. Your concern would be more compelling if it didn’t align directly with your interests.
Responding to the effects of price wars last fall the American Booksellers Association warned, "If left unchecked...predatory pricing policies will devastate not only the book industry, but our collective ability to maintain a society where the widest range of ideas are always made available to the public."We do not think that the availability of ideas is what is freaking the ABA out. We think this is what they think will scare book-buyers, who tend to be more liberal and educated than the general public, into buying books in ways that benefit the members of the ABA. Try again, please.
9. Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?
…a healthy publishing industry would ensure that skilled authors are recompensed fairly for their work, that selection by trusted and well-resourced editors reduces endless variety to meaningful choice and that ideas and artistry are as important as algorithms and price points in deciding what is sold.Takeaway: When have ideas and artistry been the primary determinant of what is sold? How many book-buyers think about the trustworthiness and resources of editors? The case seems to be that Amazon is threatening the viability of things that don’t exist. Author compensation does seem to us to bear directly on the production of good writing, but little evidence is presented in this article one way or the other on the matter. (If anyone out there could point us to some information along those lines, we’d love to see it)
We’re not arguing here that Amazon isn’t a problem; we’re arguing that we’re not yet sure how, as a reader interested primarily in the reading itself, how to deploy the finite book-buying resources we have. Would it really be better to buy half as many books from independents and fill out the rest of our library with used books, which don’t contribute at all to the health of the publishing industry? This is the question we’re interested in—how to make buying choices that balance our individual needs with the literary world as a whole.
There's quite a bit more of interest in Robinson's piece, so we encourage you to check it out for yourself. Here again, is the link.