RECENTLY I’ve written a bit about Amazon and other giant tech companies and how they have begun to crush the world of culture, and the people who make it, while the Department of Justice and other regulatory agencies sleep. These are longstanding concerns of mine, as a journalist who writes about music and the arts, as well as the author of the forthcoming book Culture Crash, which tries to take the long view on the whole thing.
A powerful new essay on the subject gets at Amazon — which now handles two-thirds of all e-book sales — in specific, and urges the DoJ to bring this beast to heel before it destroys the publishing world. The piece, in The Nation, is written by my editor at Yale University Press, Steve Wasserman. Steve points out that we’ve had a few years now to see that the online bookseller was dangerous: “While big is not always bad, there was much about Amazon that was troubling: its labor practices, for one; its cutthroat business dealings, for another. Bezos once joked that Amazon ought to approach small publishers ‘the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle’.”
Today, Amazon so dominates the marketplace that it feels free to bulldoze the competition, dictating terms to suppliers and customers alike. With respect to publishing and bookselling, Amazon is increasingly a vertically integrated company, at once a bookseller, a reviewer, even a publisher, and as such it poses a uniquely disturbing threat. It has achieved a worrying hegemony, having successfully laid siege to traditional bricks-and-mortar bookstores not only in the United States but also in Europe….
But it’s no longer enough to critique, he argues: We need federal action.
The entire ecology of publishing is at risk. Conglomeration proceeds at a dizzying pace: Random House and Penguin (which includes, among other imprints, the Viking Press) merge; Hachette buys the Perseus Group (which distributes Nation Books, among others). Little fish are gobbled up by bigger fish, and they, in turn, face even larger predators. There is blood in the water. But the Obama Justice Department, seemingly mesmerized by visions of a digital utopia, is oddly blind to the threat to publishing posed by Amazon’s growing monopoly. Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff seem to regard Amazon as a benign giant whose machinations, so far, offer more benefits than disadvantages. Amazon, for its part, insists that it has only readers’ interests at heart and is merely providing books at the lowest possible price, absorbing huge losses in order to do so.
It’s time for the DoJ to wake up, he says.
This piece is essential reading and chimes very much with my point of view. For what it’s worth, this article caused me to take out a subscription to The Nation: You can’t read it if you don’t. And, as I may not have to point out to readers of CultureCrash, we don’t get journalism — or culture — if people don’t pay for it.