Over the last few years, Amazon has repeatedly locked horns with publishers, appearing to test its boundaries as it sees how far it can push publishers before they give in. The retailing giant has demanded terms and concessions that no other booksellers receive, and it’s extorted publishers into compliance with campaigns like delistings, removal of pre-sale options, delays on shipping, and more. As the company throws itself around in the ring, showing itself to be the big heavy that it is, consumers are finally starting to understand why booksellers and other small businesses were so wary of Amazon so many years ago.
It’s not just that they feared competition, though in a capitalist society, Amazon offers formidable competition. Thanks to centralised distribution centers and lack of physical stores, the company can cut down on operating expenses radically, passing on savings to its customers. Furthermore, as is common with huge retailers, it can negotiate huge bulk volume discounts, creating more savings opportunities. For customers interested in the bottom line (or forced to look for the cheapest option because books are expensive and they can’t afford them by other means), Amazon has become the natural choice, because it allows people to get books at 30% off cover price, or more, routinely.
In response to Amazon’s rise, indies have tried a variety of methods to keep up in the bookselling economy, creating reasons for people visit them in preference to Amazon. They’re putting a stress on personal service, community events, and other options that Amazon can’t offer by very nature of its structure. Even with these measures, though, many indies are losing the war. Some venerable bookstores are closing or scaling back operations, and while Amazon isn’t entirely to blame, it’s certainly playing a large role in their business failure. The economy may be poor, but people are in fact still reading books. They’re just not getting them from indies.
Amazon’s publisher disputes, however, are about far more than just a battle of wills between bookseller and publisher. They are about the future of publishing. They are, in the long term, about the rise and fall of writing careers, who will get published, what gets published, and how it gets distributed. That’s serious news for publishers like Hachette, one of New York’s ‘big five.’ Hachette was embroiled in a very public and ugly dispute with Amazon this year, and one of the most chilling things about it to witness was the realisation that a major New York publisher could be brought to its knees by a single retailer, and that the retailer could neatly set the terms and do as it liked.
That’s capitalism, some might say, but it’s also a restriction of publishing, and let’s be honest: We don’t live in a truly free market. Amazon’s interference with publishers may be part of the true capitalist way, but it’s not good for publishing, and it’s not good for media, culture, and society, either. For every Hachette book that customers couldn’t access, there were readers who needed books, including people from all walks of life, with all sorts of different needs. Teachers wanting to order Malinda Lo for their classrooms. Casual beach readers looking for a good book who had a whole swath of new releases hidden from them. Teens wanting a contemporary novel that speaks to their experiences.
Publishing is already a massive gatekeeping and filtration system. Of the vast number of books written or proposed each year, only a small fraction make their way through to publication. In theory, this reflects the best that the world has to offer, an assortment of the finest books from the sharpest minds. In reality, lots of fantastic work slips through the cracks. Not all publishers have the same access to the market, too — indie publishers typically have more limited distribution, smaller print runs, less advertising dollars, and fewer ways to connect with consumers. But at least they have a fighting chance.
If Amazon can start randomly delisting publishers or leaning on them to make unreasonable demands, that’s going to have a chilling effect on publishing. When publishers give in to Amazon because they need to get their books back in stock at one of the largest book retailers in the world, it sends a signal to the company that it can (and perhaps should) continue carrying on this way, throwing tantrums until it gets what it wants. Which, if you examine the terms bandied about by Amazon, is rather a lot, enough, perhaps, to make selling books to Amazon almost unprofitable for publishers, who are then caught in a double bind, because if they don’t make those sales, their books won’t reach the audience they need.
In a market that is allegedly about competition, Amazon has arisen as a monopoly, and it’s creating a bottleneck in the book distribution system. It’s effectively impossible to sell on any real scale without going through the company, which has appointed itself the arbiter of the book trade, determining what it will sell, when, and at what terms, even if it damages the publishers it’s allegedly working with. For consumers, this is bad news, because it deprives them of a truly competitive book market and access to a wide range of books, which are supposed to be doorways into new worlds that take people deep into entirely new experiences.
Even if you aren’t afraid of Amazon’s looming presence in the bookselling market and how this pertains to the fate of indies, you might want to be concerned about what Amazon is doing to publishing, and the books you love.