Will Amazon Crush Publishing?

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….220px-Cheetah_with_impala

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.

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    No culture or journalism if it’s not paid for? Lots of interesting questions raised here. What are you paid for this blog? (Pretty damn good journalism and I haven’t paid squat for it.)

    Are there assets gained in the creative economy that might not be directly translated to monetary terms? What is the value, the artist’s work, or the artist’s name? What happens to the creative economy when we put a price on abstractions like a name rather than the art-object itself? Is the value of self-publishing that it offers an opportunity to add value to your name, rather than to make cash from a book?

    I have no idea what the answers are, but look at the economy as if it were something out of Alice In Wonderland — like the military spending $1.2 million a minute 24/7, or the incomprehensible high prices paid for some art works. Some numbers for what self-publishers make here which is very little:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeremygreenfield/2013/12/09/how-much-money-do-self-published-authors-make/

  2. says

    My graduate students thought I was kidding last spring when i mentioned that not so many years ago the federal government actually broke the phone company up into little pieces (see my comment on your “Culture and Monopoly” post July 7). I think the same principle would apply here — we’re just not in an era when most people could even imagine that the DOJ would have any right to interfere in the operations of Amazon, or Comcast, or AT&T. Amazon may have destroyed the book industry and is cruising straight toward the very concept of eliminating the retail store, and we are all complicit. We sat back and watched and even cheered as Wal-Mart destroyed the American downtown, and now Amazon is coming after Wal-Mart and what’s left of the shopping industry. Somehow we need to regain the idea that government has a right and a duty to set reasonable rules under which the marketplace operates. Who will advocate for this politically? It’s hard to imagine.

  3. Jim Barish says

    As Mr. Wilkerson points out, we are all complicit, and I believe we are our own worst enemy. Amazon’s model is no different than Wal-Mart’s, which is no different than Home Depot’s, which is no different than Microsoft’s, etc. While many decry Wal-Mart’s practices, full parking lots and shopper-clogged isles tell another story. Sticking to the publishing/book selling theme, there was a time when Barnes & Nobel was considered the shark. How could a private enterprise compete with the enormous selection of books offered at volume-reduced prices? Once the shark, it’s now become the chum of the industry as far as Amazon is concerned. Government intervention? To who’s benefit? Certainly not the consumer. With more and more of the remaining holdouts visiting brick and mortar stores to simply “window-shop” for books, using their smart phones to scan bar codes that enable the item in hand to be found on Amazon’s web site in order to peruse reviews and compare prices, it’s only a matter of time.

    Besides, B&N does not appear to be interested in drop-shipping by drone. No drones? Pluuueassss.

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