I'm still mulling over Onnesha Roychoudhuri's cover story in The Boston Review--"Books After Amazon"--that paints a dark picture about how Amazon's stronghold on the book industry influences what is and is not published, who gets to stay in business and who is does not, and the nearly unaccountable impact it has on our culture. It is a point that, with the advent of e-readers, is only increasing in complexity.
Readers of Isak know that I am happy to sidestep Amazon at almost every turn. Now, I do appreciate Amazon as an archive tool, which I use rather like IMDB to look up basic information on a book. And I value Amazon's capability of making lesser-known books accessible through a system that was truly innovative and brilliant at its founding. But I prefer to put whatever influence I have elsewhere by buying directly from independent booksellers, offline or online, or through publisher websites. (I also don't mind the occasional purchase from Borders, which for me is a local company.) It's to one of these sources where I'll always link you here on Isak, both because I like the service and because I think it's an action that leads to a more vibrant, balanced, literary world. Believe me, as a freelancer, I get the appeal of Amazon's low prices. But frankly, a book culture that doesn't have Amazon as the controlling force appeals to me even more. It's worth the extra few bucks; I don't think that I, as an avid book consumer, benefit only from low prices. And besides, as Roychoudhuri's article describes, Amazon's prices aren't just artificially low; they have an oppressive influence on writers and publishers, as well as other booksellers.
One of many stories of interest in the article:
This past January John Sargent, CEO of the publisher Macmillan, met with Amazon executives in hopes that he might regain control over the pricing of Macmillan’s books. If anyone could sway Amazon, it was Macmillan, a huge bookmaker with imprints such as Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; Henry Holt; Picador; and Times Books. Sargent flew to Seattle and laid out his terms. By the time he stepped off the plane in New York, Amazon had removed the buy button from every Macmillan book on the Web site.
Negotiations between retailers and publishers have historically been behind closed doors, so it was that much more dramatic when an irate Sargent wrote a blog on the Macmillan Web site chronicling the messy details. Before long, Amazon announced that it had no choice but to cede pricing control to Macmillan because the publisher “has a monopoly over their own titles.”
Macmillan’s success is a heartening development. It and a handful of other large publishers have taken over pricing of their own e-books. But smaller houses have not been so lucky. Johnny Temple, founder of the independent press Akashic Books, is not sure whether he will eventually be able to negotiate the same terms that the big publishers have with Amazon. “If we had a room full of lawyers, maybe we would be working with them and thinking about the future terms,” Temple says. “But we’re just busy trying to stay in business.” As is the case with most large retailers, those publishers with a lower sales volume are simply treated differently.
“At the end of the day,” an Amazon source explained, “the market is going to determine what the right price for this content is.” The conceit is that that $9.99 price tag is what the market demands. But in this case Amazon is the market, having—with no input from its suppliers—already dictated the price and preempted the standard fluctuations that competition and improved efficiency impose on prices. It was only through Macmillan’s negotiating that a new e-book-pricing model emerged, and then only for certain, privileged publishers.
That anonymous Amazon source quoted above is the only citation of any input from the company in Roychoudhuri's article, beyond public statements from CEO Jeff Bezos. I wish for more information from that side, or at least an indication that Roychoudhuri attempted to hear what Amazon has to say for itself. I also was left wanting for more hard data in the article about publishing and bookselling to supplement the anecdotes. Also missing? Input from writers and readers--two key populations that should have something to say about how they are (or are not) influenced by Amazon.
All the same, this is a solid piece that is worth the attention of anyone who cares about reading (in whatever medium). It is indisputable that Amazon's a dominating force in the reading world, and to only take advantage of its conveniences without looking at its long-term impact would be a terrible mistake. Those who want to continue shopping at Amazon might at least make their choice an educated one. Those who sidestep it, like me, might do well to supplement our evasive instinct with actual facts. While I wish that Roychoudhuri would write a follow-up that brings in more of what's missing in this piece, she's already made it clear enough that our choices--conscious or de facto--matter.