Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Trouble with "The Trouble with Amazon"

Colin Robinson, writing for The Nation, offers a consideration of Amazon’s massive influence in the publishing world. It’s a complicated picture to be sure, but Robison gives a lucid if somewhat incomplete (more on this in a minute) snapshot of how Amazon’s dominance, business practices, and worldview are shaping the books being written, sold, and read.

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.


  1. Lots of grumbling out there about Amazon recently. I must have my head in the literary sand because I never knew there was an issue. I suppose they are sort of the Wal-Mart of the book world.

  2. This is great - thanks Ape. Loved your rebuttal of #8 - that claim is so stupid it practically drools (sadly). Also, you're right, it seems #4 is the heart of the matter - the availability of good literature IS the most important thing, but it warms any book-buyers heart to know he's helping out a writer. Similarly, (re: #7) buying books from indie book stores almost feels like donating to charity at this point, and many (though probably not enough) book-buyers enjoy doing so...

  3. Amazon will undoubtedly change the publishing world. The question is:will it be for the worse?

    As it stands now, both as a reader and a writer, I don't have issues with Amazon. 80% of my book dollars are spent on Amazon. But, I live in Paris, and while there are English bookstores around, they are expensive, and since these stores are always packed with tourists, I don't feel like my spending more helps to keep a struggling indie alive. I just feel ripped off.

    But, it'll be interesting to see how Amazon will negotiate its role with the publishers in the future. Especially with the proliferation of e-books. I mean, from their perspective, why not go directly to the producers – the writers – and cut out the publishers altogether?

    My knee-jerk reaction is that that'll be bad for both readers and writers. Books as a product, judged solely on sale figures and profit margins(The keyword here is solely – now profitable commercial fiction funds the less-profitable literary stuff, but I think most people in publishing appreciate and value the literary, and wish they could publish more).

    Although, it could be argued that Amazon, with its power of distribution and resources, could afford to take more risks, and since Amazon won't likely be handing out 7-figure advances, they have little to lose by “publishing” more innovative, literary stuff.

    In the end, that could mean more choice for readers. Whether that is a good thing or not, depends on how you feel about point 5.

    However, the traditional writer-editor relationship is so important! Arguably, many great books wouldn't exist in their present incarnation without editors like Robert Gottlieb or Ellen Seligman.I would hate to see the writer-editor relationship go the way of the scroll!

    Once again, Ape, great post. I love how thoughtful your blog is. Keep it up!

  4. Jane-
    It's only something I've started following since I started blogging. Before blogging, I just bought my books and went about my business. Now, I hear (and think) a lot more about where my reading money goes.

    Hey thanks. Your analogy with giving to charity really struck a chord with me, because this is very much how I feel when I buy a new hardcover from my local, and beloved, indie bookstore---that the extra 9 bucks is some sort of good-will effort. That I can't write off.....

    Totally with you on the editor front, but I don't know if that relationship will be changed or not. With so many more books published/e-published, won't editing be a competitive advantage? Or perhaps the people who don't need their literary hand held quite so much will win? Like you, I think there's room between apocalypse and rapture here.

  5. Greg-
    Take whatever is useful. While the language is my own the structure is largely pilfered from the policies of others.

    Yea, I don't know how long the third person plural is going to stick around. I started using it because I liked the tone of old newspaper editorials, but it's feeling less like an homage and more like an affectation as I proceed with this little project.

    Sammy B-
    *raises glass*


    I didn't think about trying to represent my tone/voice as well, but that does seem important.

  6. The book world is changing and I don't think Amazon is a big bad monster as much as an entitiy that's embracing the changes. Anyway, I just wanted to say I enjoyed the post.

  7. This is a terrific essay! Definitely the best thing I've read on the topic in . . . ever. I'm a little bored with the whole amazon hand wringing thing, so I appreciate that you took the time to pick through it for me.

  8. I am speaking as bookstore owner.

    Having Walmart and Amazon be the only bookstores around will be bad news for writers and readers. If you have any doubt, look at the music industry. The sales of music cds have halved in the past ten years. (No, this isn't due to online sales, which are only 10% of all music sales.) This decline corresponds with the near extinction of the independent music store and chain music stores.
    The music industry had been charging a high price for its product. Then it gave huge discounts to Walmart. Walmart would offer the latest and most popular release at a price with which the music stores could not compete. In most cases, the price would be less than the wholesale price paid by the retail music store. Over 2000 music stores closed. Now the music industry cannot figure out what happen to its music sales. But music stores were places for people to do more than buy music. It was place to discuss and learn about music.
    Walmart could care less about music. It wants to sell toilet paper and toothpaste. It offers the latest Taylor Swift Cd at half price to get people into its store.

    The publishing industry is having a lot of the same issues that the music industry had a few years ago. It has overpriced its product. It is making it difficult for retail stores to compete by giving Walmart and Amazon much larger discounts than it gives to Walmart and Amazon. Again, Walmart and Amazon could care less about books. Both engage in predatory pricing. Both companies have used their power in the market unfairly, hurting publishers, writers and ultimately the readers.
    The goal isn't to sell books.

    Currently Amazon is violating several laws, including anti-trust and predatory pricing. It is also violating the sales tax laws in several states. Hopefully, it will be challenged.