I’m a bit sick to death of the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Mainly because it’s a case of one corporate giant against another. Another thing that is troubling is the absolute cheerleading for Amazon that comes from the self-publishing side. While Authors United has made some egregiously overboard claims, Amazon isn’t entirely above reproach.
Today, literary heavyweights have joined the Authors United cause, including Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera.
Ursula K. Le Guin sounds a bit unhinged when she says,
“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author,” Ms. Le Guin wrote in an email. “Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”
On Facebook, Barry Eisler snarks,
It’s twue, it’s twue: Amazon, the company that created KDP, wants to “dictate to authors what they can write.” Also, “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America!” I guess selling too many books destroys literary culture…?
Seriously, I don’t know how this thing calling itself Authors United doesn’t just shrivel up in mortification over its own debased rhetoric.
It’s not quite as simple as that either because Amazon doesn’t have a 100% clean track record. See: 4 Ways Amazon’s Ruthless Practices Are Crushing Local Economies
Lest you think predator is too harsh a term, consider the metaphor Bezos himself chose when explaining how to get small book publishers to cough up deep discounts as the price for getting their titles listed on the Amazon website. As related by Businessweek reporter Brad Stone, Bezos instructed his negotiators to stalk them “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” Bezos’ PR machine tried to claim this sneering comment was just a little “Jeff joke,” but they couldn’t laugh it off, for a unit dubbed the “Gazelle Project” had actually been set up inside Amazon.
This top-level team focused on doing exactly what Bezos instructed: Pursue vulnerable small publishers and squeeze their wholesale prices to Amazon down to the point of no profit, thus allowing the online retailer to underprice every other book peddler. When Stone exposed Gazelle last year in his book, The Everything Store, the project was suddenly rebranded with a bloodless name—“Small Publisher Negotiation Program”—but its mission remains the same.
This is bad. It can be portrayed as normal capitalism, but Amazon is having an effect on local economies in the same way as Walmart. Couple that with Amazon affecting the algorithm for certain books and there’s cause for concern.
Obviously, self-publishing has opened it up so there is increased freedom in what people can publish. That’s where Le Guin goes wrong. But Amazon is monopolizing the publishing space, and conceivably, when they have a complete monopoly they really will have the tools to dictate what books get read. A new head of Amazon could come in with a political agenda of whatever stripe and make it so certain books are more easily discovered.
That’s Orwellian paranoia, but given that
1. Amazon has a history of aggression towards competitors
2. Amazon has a widening share of the marketplace
then what Authors United is saying is plausible. It’s an overstatement today, but it is not out of the realm of possibility. Amazon is very literally monopolizing how books get read.
What these authors are fearing is having to self-publish – the old model is coming down, and that’s daunting. But it’s daunting in part because self-publishing does not lend itself well to writers like Philip Roth or Salman Rushdie, it lends itself to genre fiction. Those guys need publishers more than Hugh Howey does. That doesn’t make them dinosaurs clinging to an outdated model, because the model has served them very well. Eventually all publishing will be self-publishing and in that environment a first book like Roth’s Goodbye Columbus might not find readers and the next Roth won’t have a career.
If traditional publishers were to fail and all we were left with was Amazon and KDP then certain wings of literary culture could really suffer. That’s where Authors United is right. And this is especially true if Amazon dictates what is seen by readers, which is entirely within their power – even if people have the freedom to publish whatever they want. Freedom to publish and freedom to be discovered are two different things.
Amazon has served the self-publishing community extraordinarily well, in addition to every other writer by creating easy access to books wherever you live. Is this dystopian publishing future inevitable? Probably not, but it shouldn’t be disregarded if it’s even a possibility.