The READ: In Defense of Amazon

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BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 28, 2010

The READ: In Defense of Amazon

The corporate behemoth isn’t to blame for the book industry’s failures.

I wrote that headline initially as a joke. In the decade and a half since it first started delivering to our doorsteps everything from bestsellers to diapers, Amazon.com has become so entrenched as an icon of evil business policies that any person who loves books can no longer look upon it with an unskeptical eye. A reader like me, who remembers the era of great independent bookstores (I pause for a moment to mourn Gotham Book Mart in New York and Louie’s Bookstore Café in Baltimore) and had the joy of having books hand-selected for me at the bookstore I used to frequent across from the TNR offices (Olsson’s, also gone)—really, I might as well try to defend Pol Pot. Watching the difficulties that the book business has suffered over the last decade—steadily declining sales, decreasing advances, the generally faltering reputation of literary fiction as a cultural force worth reckoning with—it is impossible not to feel the hand of Amazon at work: if not as a direct cause, then certainly as a factor.

Still, Colin Robinson’s critical piece last week in The Nation, which portended ominous, unspecific, and finally unconvincing disaster for the publishing world at Amazon’s hands, left me thinking that all the blustering about Amazon is by now beside the point. The piece, called “The Trouble With Amazon,” told a few piquant anecdotes and laid out some useful figures, but it did not bring any news. By now we are all well aware of the trouble with Amazon. Its business policies are inarguably draconian: Robinson revisits a couple of the more notorious incidents from recent years, such as Amazon’s “bullying” of the Brooklyn-based independent publisher Melville House to offer deeper discounts and its refusal to sell Macmillan’s books after the publisher protested Amazon’s set price for e-books. (Amazon relented soon after.) In addition to making the usual case that Amazon’s discounting has hurt both publishers and authors, Robinson also trots out the familiar complaints about the behemoth’s effect on book culture more generally. The tendency of the Internet shopper to search rather than browse leads to a “loss of serendipity” that was once key to the way people discovered new books, he claims, and the “staggering” number of titles makes browsing impossible anyway. If you include self-published books, Robinson writes, the number of new books made available on Amazon last year was over 1.25 million.

But we have known all this for a long time. 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. As a child growing up in suburban Baltimore—not exactly a backwater!—I felt keenly the lack of ready access to the books that I wanted. (Remember the joke of a selection at your local mall’s Waldenbooks?) And with the quirkier independents—such as the great Louie’s to which I paid tribute above—you were at the mercy of the owner’s idiosyncrasies, which meant that you might find shelves stocked with contemporary poetry but nothing by, say, Tolstoy. Let’s not even get started on how difficult it used to be to get foreign-language books, which normally required going to a specialized store with stratospheric prices. It’s hard to complain too much about the shipping rates on sites like Amazon.fr and Amazon.de when they offer access to so many of the books of Europe.

There is a deeper question here, of course: the issue of whether Amazon’s business practices have wreaked irreparable harm in the world of books, to such an extent that there may someday be no more books of quality left for Amazon to sell after it has put all the serious publishers out of business. There is a doomsday feeling among the editors and writers I know, to be sure, but it’s unclear how many of the problems in literary publishing can be directly attributed to Jeff Bezos. (Though we all moan about the decline of the reader, surely one of the reasons Amazon has been able to grow so big is that people are using it to buy books.)

If the publishing industry is suffering from the price-lowering trend that Amazon has led (though not entirely on its own), it also has its own poor business practices to blame. Robinson quotes a boss at Scribner, where he used to work, saying a few years ago that in terms of advances, “$50,000 is the new $100,000.” This isn’t a scandal; it is a necessary correction to inflated prices in the wake of a global recession. I understand that the metrics can be somewhat complicated, but a system in which 70 percent of books do not earn back their advances is destined to collapse. There’s something to be said for supporting books of quality regardless of how much revenue they bring in—this is why literary houses also publish diet books—but in recent years the amounts have gotten out of hand. Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones was a prize-winner and bestseller in France, but no one could have imagined that a 900-plus-page novel about a Nazi could sell anywhere near enough copies in the U.S. market to earn back the $1 million that Harper paid for English rights. (It reportedly sold fewer than 20,000.)

Another argument often made against Amazon is that by introducing the “Marketplace” section, in which used books (on which no royalties are paid) are sold for as little as a penny apiece, the company further cuts into authors’ earnings. There’s no denying this, but it’s also true that the prevalence of cheap books encourages people to buy copies that they might not otherwise have splurged on if paying full price for a trade paperback were the only option. The practice stiffs writers, but it helps foster a community of readers, and also helps all those secondhand bookstores and independent sellers reach a much wider audience.

Robinson ends his piece with the sober admonition that “the best things to number would be the days of [Amazon’s] dominance.” As the publisher of OR Books, Robinson himself has declined to do business with the company—a stance that, strangely, he neglects to mention in his Nation article. I wish him the best of luck in getting other publishers to follow suit: if Amazon is truly endangering their ability to bring out their books, it is their responsibility to take a stand against it. In fact, when publishing houses have stood up to Amazon—as John Sargent of Macmillan did earlier this year over the e-book issue—they have been successful in forcing the Goliath to back down.

But Amazon is a quintessential capitalist enterprise, and it cannot be faulted for exploiting the free-market system that, for better or worse, we have embraced. It offers people things they want to buy at prices they want to pay, and in so doing, it puts out of business other enterprises that are not able to match its terms. Other than continuing to make sure that Amazon’s practices fall within the bounds of what regulation we have—particularly antitrust laws—there’s not much to be done. (Although it does seem unnecessary to deliberately increase Amazon’s monopoly, as the Wylie Agency did last week with its controversial introduction of a digital publishing venture that makes classic books by the agency’s venerated stable of writers—including Bellow, Nabokov, and Rushdie—available exclusively through Amazon.) I’m not ashamed to admit that I buy books from Amazon when it’s convenient, as well as from Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, people on the street, or whoever else happens to have what I’m looking for. And to Jeff Bezos and everyone else who brings books to the world I say: thank you.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic. 

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posted in: books and arts, technology, baltimore, brooklyn, louie, melville, new york, amazon, amazon.com, macmillan, wal-mart, europe, colin robinson, jeff bezos, pol pot

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