Why the blinding hate for Amazon?

For its sixth Breakthrough Novel Award, Amazon is ditching Penguin as its publishing partner. In the opening paragraph of the article on the Christian Science Monitor, they quote Ann Patchett as saying this past summer that “Amazon aggressively wants to kill us.

I love Ann Patchett. She’s written some wonderful books (perhaps my favorite is The Magician’s Assistant) and she co-owns a cozy little bookstore in Nashville called Parnassus Books, which she opened when the two nicest bookstores in the city closed up in about the span of a year. She’s also a delightful speaker, and seems generous and friendly in person. Unfortunately, no matter how vehement her rhetoric against Amazon, I have to disagree with her.

Since Amazon is not trying to kill books or authors, that can’t be the “us” in Patchett’s statement. They are one of the largest sellers of books on the planet, and it’s where they got their start. I’d hazard to guess that Jeff Bezos loves books. Who else is foolish enough to start a bookstore of any kind? Especially when those in publishing would not invest in his crazy start-up back in 1994.

The self-publishing boom that has been nurtured by Amazon is certainly not the brainchild of a person or company that hates authors. In a business where most professional authors are paid a royalty in the neighborhood of 15%, and where unsophisticated authors were tricked by vanity publishers into shelling out their own money for dubious benefits, Amazon started out offering a 35% royalty on ebooks with no upfront costs, which they later increased to 70% for most cases. In other words, they pay authors better than the traditional publishing industry. Not really the actions of a company aggressively trying to kill authors.

So maybe Amazon is trying to kill bookstores. Well, this one almost seems plausible. Amazon is certainly aggressively competitive with all brick-and-mortar stores, often in ways that are downright unsporting. I don’t have to pay sales tax on books (or any other goods) ordered online. Plus they have a fraction of the overhead of traditional retail stores, with only warehouses to pay for. No floor space, or prime retail rental costs, or sales clerks. Perhaps most damning, and certainly one of the things which Ann Patchett is rightly concerned about, is that Amazon does not have a physical presence in the communities where it sells books (and toilet paper), so they cannot bring authors to town, or serve as a meeting place locally for readers to gather and fellowship.

But.

This is like blaming the steam train for killing the stagecoach, or the car for killing the passenger train, or the rifle for replacing swords, or the written word for replacing epics sung aloud. Any transition to a new paradigm has negative consequences. It is our duty to mitigate those negatives as much as possible, but railing against change altogether is as futile as raging against the oncoming storm. Better to find shelter and hope that the rain will do us good in the end.

To get to specifics rather than general metaphors: the two prettiest bookstores in Nashville just a few years ago were the Borders on West End and the Davis-Kidd in Green Hills. Neither of these closed due to pressure from Amazon. Borders closed due to bad management at the corporate level extending back a decade. And Davis-Kidd closed because it wasn’t profitable enough. Their local owners had been bought out years ago by a regional chain based in Kentucky. There were two other bookstores in the metro area that I’m not sure Patchett generally mentions. A Barnes & Noble that closed down after the flood of 2010 and never re-opened, and a Books-a-Million that still seems to be humming along. Not to mention at least two other Barnes & Noble stores still open within twenty-five miles of downtown.

The common thread between all of those bookstores is that they were corporate chains. They were not independent, locally-owned stores like Parnassus is. Even Davis-Kidd, which all us locals thought of as our local store, wasn’t really all that much. Not anymore.

In the 80’s and 90’s, the large media corporations came into publishing and gobbled up the dozens or hundreds of houses that once had plied the narrow margins of the book world. Once the publishers were reporting to shareholders, they needed a way to make more money–faster, easier, and cheaper. Thus we got blockbuster books, much like blockbuster movies. Better to sell a boatload of a few titles than to have to fiddle about with mid-lists. And if you know you’re going to sell a bunch of books, you can afford to discount them more–say, 40% off on those bestsellers. Wal-mart and Borders and Barnes & Nobel could afford to do that with their high volume, but the mom & pop bookstores were out of luck.

In the late 90’s, early 00’s, that was the cry of indie bookstores: the corporate stores are putting us out of business. And it was true. Most of those small bookstores closed. And the publishers were happy because they could sell more books to fewer locations, cutting costs again.

This is why I have little sympathy when the publishers’ cry foul over Amazon’s unfair practices. There is no lamb in this saga. The publishers have been aggressively driving bookselling away from variety towards homogeneity for at least a decade. For all of its faults, Amazon has opened the floodgates on all of those non-bestsellers. Let’s leave out the self-published books for the moment since some would consider them inferior, unproven works. But what about all the mid-list titles that are now available with a simple search? In the last decade, you were lucky to find titles from the last couple of years from any but the bestsellers, much less books from ten or twenty years ago.

So if Amazon doesn’t want to kill readers or authors, and they seem more indifferent to independent booksellers than malicious, who are they out to kill?

Publishers? Maybe. It’s the one thing that worries me about Amazon as they grow in market influence. Could they become a monopoly and cut royalties to writers and raise prices for their customers when they’re the only game in town? Maybe. But here’s the thing–publishers seem to be doing some really scary things now rather than in some hypothetical future, including collusion, price fixing, rights grabs, and underpaying authors (even more).

I think Amazon does want to kill publishing as it has been for the last fifty years. I assume that’s what Ann Patchett and Scott Turow and others are worried about. The system in which they came to prominence may be falling. But that doesn’t mean that Amazon wants to kill you.

Change is here, and nothing will stop it. Amazon is not in charge of it, but they have ridden the wave better than the traditional publishers. However, the publishers are slowly catching up as well, ditching their outmoded business practices as well as they can and apparently employing some shady Hollywood-style accounting and double-talk to keep costs down with writers.

I don’t think Amazon is saintly, but so far, their greatest sin has been playing the game better than their corporate bookseller and publishing rivals. Offering convenience, low prices, selection, and attempting to buy the talent out from under the old guard, Amazon has simply been a smart business. Based on their royalty rates, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt compared with the publishers’ rates. (I know the rationales for lower rates… maybe another time.)

Why do so many authors stand up to defend publishing? Why is Amazon the enemy, and publishing the knight in shining armor? Why is the capricious, elitist publishing industry the de facto hero–just by virtue of having been around longest?

I’m no wide-eyed naive optimist setting myself up as an apologist for Amazon, but I wonder why many authors take the opposite tack for the old guard. I’m hopeful that Amazon will point a way toward a better future for authors than the path the publishing industry has put us on for the last decade. I know it could turn south at any moment, but the possibility for better career options for more writers is in sight.

Stop fighting solely against Amazon, and start fighting for writers. Against all comers. How come no outcry from Patchett and Turow over Simon & Schuster’s recent announcement that they were entering the self-publishing market and charging writers $1,600 to $24,000? Plus a percentage share of sales!

Amazon does not want to kill anyone. All of the corporations want to buy us and sell us, and skim as much profit off the top as they can.

Stop bickering. Stop defending bloated multinational corporations. Start fighting for readers and for writers. All of them. All of us.

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