The Trouble with Amazon Critics

There’s an interesting post at the Nation called The Trouble with Amazon that’s a few shades too negative about Amazon’s influence on publishing.  Though Amazon has done some seriously shady things regarding pricing and strong-arming publishers, it also has advantages.  The main issue I have with the piece is this:

Take the issue of choice: when it comes to the books it stocks, Amazon makes no pretense of selectivity. Provided it carries an ISBN and isn’t offensive, Amazon is happy to sell any book Joe Schmo cares to publish. “We want to make every book available—the good, the bad and the ugly,” Bezos once said. Spurred on by Amazon and the growth of self-publishing companies like XLibris and Lulu, the number of new books being published has soared. According to industry statisticians Bowker, just over 172,000 titles were released in 2005. Last year “traditional” output had risen to 288,000 titles, a significant enough increase by itself. But adding what Bowker describes as “self-published” and “micro-niche” books, the total inflates to a staggering 1 million new titles in just twelve months….

This apparent anomaly of greater choice resulting in a narrower selection finds a corollary in Amazon’s use of metrics to recommend titles based on previous purchases. The algorithms at work here are highly sophisticated and are widely credited with expanding consumer choice. Yet such metric-based systems can simultaneously increase the variety of books purchased by individual customers while decreasing the overall variety of books bought by everyone. This is because, as blogger Whimsley explains, “In Internet World the customers see further, but they are all looking out from the same tall hilltop. In Offline World individual customers are standing on different, lower hilltops. They may not see as far individually, but more of the ground is visible to someone.”

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. And that’s a problem.”

There are a number of ways in which this is wrong.  For one, to think that surfing on Amazon from book to book, listmania list to listmania list, does not offer some amount of serendipity really doesn’t understand how people discover things on the web.  But more importantly, Amazon is just better at linking people up with books.  You can make a good argument that it strips away the personal touch of a bookstore, but there are some things at which a computer is better, especially considering it’s accessing every book that’s ever been in print.

An example – I recently bought my brother a couple of books for his birthday.  They were:


He works in psychology and loves graphic novels so these books were perfect.  And they were linked up side by side on Amazon.  The odds of me going into a bookstore and the store having one or both of these fairly obscure books – plus an employee knowing about a book if I ask, “Hey, this looks good.  Any others like it?” is small.  Not small: impossibly small.  I have found a great many books in this way, as I’m sure have other people.

At the same time I acknowledge what is being lost with this new system.  I recently watched this documentary (recommended):

What Wal-Mart has done to communities (not to mention its own employees) is a nightmare.  Amazon’s discounts are having the same effect.  Bookstores are going out of business.  Additionally:

Blocked at every turn in their attempts to escape this relentless race to the bottom, publishers have seen their revenues fall, forcing many to make cutbacks and concentrate more on lead titles, the blockbusters that, accountants tell them, are the most profitable component of their business. Fewer staff and falling promotion budgets mean that books by less established authors—the “mid-list”—receive ever shorter shrift.

So Amazon is having an effect on publishers in the same way that brick and mortar Barnes & Nobles have had a negative effect – forcing publishers to go for the big sale.  It goes on:

Look at books like Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies or Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives,” says Paul Yamazaki, chief buyer at City Lights in San Francisco. “These are serious, sophisticated books that began life with modest expectations, but after dedicated work by the publisher and independent booksellers, they went on to reach wider audiences. This sort of publishing is under threat today.”

I don’t buy it. Are you telling me that Amazon played no part at all in the popularity of Savage Detectives?  Of course not – and if there’s evidence of anything it’s that this new system is much friendlier on independent writing than the old gatekeeper/brick & mortar bookstore system.  Especially if you take into account ebooks, a revolution spurred by the Kindle.

Here’s where I get lost:

“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.”

The logic here makes limited sense.  A site that carries everything gives less choice than a store that carries a couple thousand titles because of…human nature.  My proselytizing about self-publishing is predicated on the exact opposite idea – the gatekeeping-obsessed publishing industry means that many ideas won’t see the light of day.  An important book never finding a publisher is more pressing an issue than a “vetted” book being priced too low.  Theresa Neilsen Hayden’s argument is thus:

A fixed $10 price point would certainly be good for Amazon’s ebook business, but it would take a shark-sized bite out of the market for hot new bestsellers, which is trade book publishing’s single most profitable area.

That revenue source is what keeps a lot of publishing companies afloat. It provides the liquidity that enables them to buy and publish smaller and less commercially secure titles: odd books, books by unknown writers, books with limited but enthusiastic audiences, et cetera.

My honest estimate is that the result would be fewer and less diverse titles overall, published less well than they are now.

This is persuasive.  If publishers are losing money due to a dwindling book market, this will cut into their bottom line even more.  Once we go all ebook and publishers aren’t making $30 on a hardcover, this will get even worse.  No wonder they’re terrified.

The Music Industry

At the same time, this seems a bit of their own doing.  Publishers seem to have fallen into the same trap as the music industry:

They can’t afford to cultivate bands for years and years. They can’t help them grow their fan bases one member at a time.

They need the artists in their stable to pump out the hits. They need their albums to go gold and platinum. They need to sell high volumes of the albums they have in their stable.


Because if they don’t they won’t be able to cover their huge overhead and won’t turn a profit.

This is why record labels love to work with other people in the music industry that are built around the top 20 “hits” model (i.e. MTV, radio, retail stores, Rolling Stone Magazine).

This is also why the music industry is failing. It’s built around the top 20% “hits” model and it has failed to adapt and move to the Internet and its bottom 80% “non-hits” model.

In part, we’re in a phase where publishers are obsessed with the hit model because that’s what Barnes & Noble – or Amazon – demand.  But I have a suspicion this has something to do with the amount of overhead – i.e. giving a celebrity 7 million dollars, while not nurturing first-time writers who may have longevity. Publishers are terrified of the Brave New World of e-publishing because it will so drastically cut into their revenue.  The answer isn’t to overcharge for ebooks – it’s to reform their overhead.

There are many things to fault Amazon for, but this seems like a fault – not with Amazon – but with traditional publishing.  “A boss at Scribner, where I was a senior editor for two and a half years, announced at an editorial meeting that when it came to advances, “$50,000 is the new $100,000.”  For one thing, $50,000 isn’t a terrible amount of money – but how many advances could be given out for Justin Cronin’s $3.75 million advance for The Passage?

I can hear writers thinking – but I want a million dollars!  I do too: but I’d also like to see publishers publishing the widest variety of voices.  Amazon has horrible faults, but this criticism seems to overlook traditional publishing’s own culpability.   The end result of all this is more and more people looking to self-publish to avoid these pricing schemes and take more royalties.

The piece ends:

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.

Ah-ha!  That’s what this is about: gatekeeping.  The subtext to this whole thing is aimed at self-publishers, not Amazon – “selection by trusted and well-resourced editors reduces endless variety.”  I’m all for writers making a living, but suggesting that strident gatekeeping will increase our choice is frankly absurd.

  • I’m sort of going out on a limb here – supporting a corporation over the needs of writers, in some respect. I could be dead wrong. I don’t know all of corporate publishing’s expenses. I know that editors aren’t making the same amount of money as, say, successful Hollywood producers. So maybe the fat has been trimmed. But in this short-term profit obsessed economy, I tend to doubt it.

    Curious about your thoughts.

  • I’ve been hearing this argument a lot lately, and I’m beginning to think they are all connected back to some evil ‘Gatekeeper’ mastermind. They all seem to say the same thing. ‘Separate the wheat from the chaff. Let us determine who is worth hearing, because if we are out of the picture, the market will be flooded with terrible twelve year old writers and the potential Bestsellers will never be heard over the storm.’

    I can’t even count the amount of times I will go into a bookstore and look through whatever section it is I am looking in, skipping over 99% of those books until I find that one. The short description on the back cover is intriguing, the cover design catches my eye, the first few pages seem well written and informed. It doesn’t matter if the author is someone I have never heard of before, chances are I will buy the book to discover more.

    My point it, we don’t need gatekeepers to dictate to us what is worth reading, because for any given individual almost everything that they dictate turns out to be crap regardless. People as a whole may be stupid, but a single person tends to be pretty intelligent. We are already capable of separating the wheat from the chaff ourselves, and that will not change. Whether we’re in B&N, Borders, the little store down the street, or the Kindle marketplace, we will always be able to get books we enjoy. The idea that we need the Big 6 to help of decide is, in my mind, simply ludicrous.

  • Great post!

    I too can’t help but wonder at the anger (yes Joe Konrath is right to use that word in his newest post “With Change-comes Anger” http://bit.ly/9ogJML) because even many of those who commented on his post sounded so angry. It is a cliche to say behind anger is fear-but this seems very true in so many of the anti-Amazon, anti-self-publishing articles-including the one in the Nation. I frankly am disappointed in their tact.

    I do understand why the people who make their living in traditional publishing (including newspapers, magazines, and traditional book publishing) are so afraid. But, I have spent my life as a reader, and only recently as an indie author, and what is most telling is how dismissive so many of these articles are to the reader.

    How dare they tell me that I can’t do just as good a job browsing on Amazon (with the lovely help of browsing categories and suggested other books customer bought) as I have been able to do in bookstores (particularly the chains) where what they offer me is a bookshelf with thousands of mysteries-spine out-or even more limiting-the lucky few “bestsellers” that get featured front cover out because the publisher paid for that place of pride.

    Yes I have used and enjoyed indie bookstores, but much of my life I did my browsing first in libraries-then bought subsequent books from authors I had discovered. So did that hurt bookstores? No, it gave me a way to cheaply (ie for free) discover those authors. Which is what Kindle does for me now. I have tried so many more new authors in the year and a half I have had my Kindle, and I still buy the print books of my favorites-the ones I know I will reread.

    And maybe that will change, as I grow older and my eyesight-already in difficulty-gets worse. But rather than stop buying books, as I know my parents did, I will be able to keep buying them as ebooks, and increase the fonts as my eyes dim.

    So, how is that hurting me as a reader, or me as an author?

    And when will the traditional publishers stop being afraid, and start embracing the future?

    Whoops I think I just got angry-and I know fear had nothing to do with it!

  • I enjoyed this very thoughtful post.

    I’m new to indie publishing, but I think what struck me was how many traditional authors supported my decision to go that route. All of them are mid-list authors, so I have heard the tales of poor marketing, no marketing, having to hire a publicist of their own. I understand the fear among traditional publishers, driven by their anxiety that some other entity is going to eat into their profits, yet at the same time, they refuse to recognize their own culpability in how some authors view the industry. If we do not have the next blockbuster, we don’t stand a chance. In the end, readers will make a decision with their wallets. I can only hope that revenue flows toward excellent books and authors who deserve it, regardless of whether they are mid-list or big names, traditional or self-published.

  • paseasholtz

    I can remember the day I opened my first delivery from Amazon way back when internet shopping was still scary and new. It was the greatest thing since sliced bread. To this day, Amazon still has one of the best retail web sites in the world – trust me, my day job that pays the bills has been doing internet retailing web sites/databases for well over a decade.

    Now let me throw this out there to all the independent authors/publishers: Would you ever NOT let your book be listed on Amazon? When someone asks you, “Where can I find your book?”, isn’t Amazon the first answer you give? Why would you even mess around and answer anything else? Everyone knows Amazon – it’s like saying “Kleenex” or “Coke”.

    Simply put, as an author, I don’t see any downsides to Amazon as long as my books are listed there. This continual back-and-forth over “gatekeepers”, “evil corporations” and “us v. them”, quite frankly, isn’t even relevant. We are where we are, and there is no going back. No offense to anyone, but in many ways, it’s a pointless discussion – my words here included!

    • In a world in which Amazon carries every title it knows about, you are right. Because there’s no limit to shelf space online. But the world was not always thus. It took a substantial advance buy from B&N and Borders and Books a Million, et al before even contracted, edited, even ready-to-print books were actually printed and shipped. We thought the gatekeepers were editors and editorial boards, and they were in a first-cut sort of way, but the =real= gatekeeper (singular!) was and to a degree remains the B&N buyer responsible for your genre. No sale there, no career. I had four flunks in a row because (I learned in due course) a B&N buyer who had always been kindly disposed toward me hated the sight of and would not meet with or return calls from my publisher’s sales manager. Now =that= is a gatekeeper!

      Interesting to note that Amazon makes most of its money from leasing the underlying interface, neural network, and other computer-based systems it uses to present books, capture orders, and ship product. Selling books, etc. is kind of a self-liquidating demo for its real income producer.

  • steeleweed

    When the technology lets everyone publish, readers still need to know what’s worth reading. If we don’t have ‘traditional’ agents & publishers acting as gatekeepers and the Book Clubsn have sold out, who is left? The reviews in Amazon are meaningless, mostly biased drivel by people whose judgment is seriously impaired. I suspect in the end a new paradigm will arise: writers hiring good copy editors and proofreaders, possible professionals for cover designs, then using POD to create the products. Book reviewing will expand from the limited world of newspaper/magazine to hundreds of bloggers whose taste and opinions are trusted, at least in specific areas. A group of reviewers/bloggere will become accepted as the most discerning in a particular genre. It will undoubtedly take several year to settle down, but that where I think it’s headed.

  • When I first read the headline of this blog, I thought it was about critics–reviewers–who review books on Amazon.

    Now there’s a hell of a blog topic we could all comment on.

  • Amy

    The article in the Nation struck me as ridiculous in two places.

    1. God forbid we allow the little people to choose what THEY want to read! Oh, heavens to Betsy, we can’t allow that! People should read what white, middle-class, college-educated, pointy-headed intellectuals TELL them to read! The whole idea that more choice is bad because then people will choose the wrong things is so incredibly offensive and ridiculous. The explosion of self-publishing means authors are no longer at the mercy of publishing houses when it comes to getting published. It’s the same erosion-of-stranglehold the music business experienced once digital distribution started. The foxes are no longer in charge of the henhouses and that upsets them. Not surprising but they need to get over it.

    2. As far as indie bookstores go – I worked at one for a year, and went to several ABA functions, including BEA in NYC. Stick a fork in the indies, they’re done. We did a survey of our customers when I got to the store and found out 80 percent of our buying customers – not browsers, but buying, paying customers – were over 60. We had younger people come in and browse, but they never bought anything. They would have conversations in the stacks about getting things cheaper on Amazon. We did events, etc. and it didn’t matter. The business model is outdated, and most store owners are in their 50s and 60s (at the youngest) and are looking to cash out before the bottom drops out with e-books. I don’t know one person who’s bought at our indie bookstore recently. I do know about 10 people who have bought Kindles. I am not a scientific study but I don’t see the model of the indie lasting too much longer.

    What can I say? The world changes. Once upon a time you could get milk by having someone bring it to your house. There are no milkmen any more, last I checked. People’s lifestyles change, technology changes, and old ways of doing business go by the wayside. There used to be non-chain independent record stores too; when was the last time you saw one of those? Now that I have an iPod, why would I go to a store, buy a CD, take it home and rip it, when I could save myself about two hours and just download the songs from iTunes? Now that you can download books, it’s not going to be any different. Sorry publishers. You’ve officially become out-of-date.

  • If we don’t have ‘traditional’ agents & publishers acting as gatekeepers and the Book Clubsn have sold out, who is left?

    Um, the reader?

    God forbid we allow the little people to choose what THEY want to read! Oh, heavens to Betsy, we can’t allow that!

    What she said, with a double shot of sarcasm.

  • Nation writer cannot even get basic facts straight, so I didn’t bother with the rest: “Provided it carries an ISBN and isn’t offensive.”

    (1) Doesn’t need an ISBN
    (2) Lol, “isn’t offensive”? I could think of several but will refrain in the “to each his/her own” spirit.

    The media also is ignoring what I think of as a very important factor for U.S. at least — we are creating our own jobs. Amazon, itunes, app store on itunes, they are giving us technology tools and distribution channels to become our own producers. How many companies can say that? All the while the publishers don’t print books in the country that is one of their largest markets (nor do they print it in most of their other major markets).

    Amazon/Apple and others are helping to fuel an economy of creativity and remotely distributed professional services. And everyone who offers an opinion on this (myself included) is speaking from their own self interest. It’s up to everyone out there to figure out what their self interest is and what best services it.

  • Nice counter-post at The New Republic (which has so many parallels to this one, I wonder if she read it – but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself). She says,

    The real trouble with Amazon, it seems, is that nobody truly believes we were better off without it. This is where the often-made comparison of Amazon with other monoliths such as Wal-Mart falters. Wal-Mart is not known for its catalog of obscurities; the merchandise it sells is all available elsewhere. It put the mom-and-pop drugstores and hardware stores and grocery stores out of business by offering the same items that they sold, just at lower prices.

    This isn’t the case with Amazon. Before it appeared on the scene, if you lived in a part of the country that happened not to be served by a great independent bookstore, you were out of luck when it came to getting books other than bestsellers.