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Amazon vs. Publishing

Or maybe it should really be “Amazon vs. Traditional/Legacy Publishing.”

I was reading this article and trying to decide where I stand. As ever, I can see both sides of the argument. Instead of making things easier, that actually makes them more difficult. Is there a right and wrong here? Or is this just a difference of opinion?

Amazon is hardly the first huge corporation to encounter people who dislike its business methods. Wal-Mart has haters. Nike. Any time a company gets big enough and starts wielding some power, it’s going to become a target.

But in Amazon’s case, it’s not the target of the “little guys.” Big names are coming against it, both in terms of big-name publishers and big-name authors. What does it mean that a huge book retailer has made an enemy of one of its sources of income?

And, yes, I realize Amazon is no longer only a bookstore. So it can afford to irritate a few publishers and authors. Not only because it has become an online warehouse, but also because authors are a dime a dozen, and there are a lot more self-publishing authors than those being signed by publishers. The big publishing houses have responded to the self-publishing revolution by shrinking and putting out fewer books, which means Amazon has less to lose by alienating them.

So on the one hand, I can see Sullivan’s point that these authors and publishers coming out against Amazon just smacks a bit of classism. These authors can be imagined—accurately or not—having an interior monologue of, I worked hard to get to the top, and now just anyone can do it. That’s hardly fair. And these authors, rejected by traditional publishers (because they’re not any good), are making more per book than I do? REALLY not fair! Meanwhile, the publishers are cast in the role of being desperate to keep their livelihoods and pertinence. There are fewer actual bookstores these days, after all, and even still, more people will order online to get a book for way less than frequent a book shop where they’ll pay full retail price. Yes, in that respect Amazon really has ruined book selling. We now expect our books to be cheap.

Amazon, like any bookseller, has the right to decide what stock to carry or not carry. How they make that decision, well . . . We may not like it. The way Amazon has handled Hachette, there’s definitely something extortionist about it. So on that hand, I understand the anger. It’s like dealing with a Mob boss; if we let Amazon do it to one, it’ll open the door for them to do it to others. I can’t fault publishers and their authors for wanting to put a stop to it. They do stand to lose a lot if Amazon squashes them.

And maybe that’s more power than any one company should have. That, I think, is the root of the fight, isn’t it? Should one mega online retailer have the ability to bring other companies, possibly an entire industry, to its knees? I, for one, don’t think so.

Of course, Sullivan’s article was more about the coverage of the fight, which goes back to the classism I mentioned earlier: The way the NYT gives more voice to the publishers and the traditional authors than it does to Amazon’s own authors and/or people who sign online petitions. It flat-out says those self-published authors, and the ones Amazon publishes, and the everyday men and women don’t count for as much. Wow. Why don’t you go shelve yourself under Snooty Assholism, mmkay?

These agents and publishers have set themselves up as the saviors of literature. They can tell the good from the bad, the worthy from the worthless. And their authors have already made it inside the gates. They’re being told they ARE worthy, and they have bought their own hype. They look down from their parapets at the rabble outside the castle walls and are convinced the walls are necessary. Allow the peasants onto the grounds? Never!

As is so often the case, the answer lies somewhere in between. Traditional publishing needs to change, and Amazon does too. The publishers and traditional authors are right that Amazon should not have so much power, nor should it use the power it has to bully, but on the flip side, Amazon has provided a great outlet for authors who have been rejected by the big houses. Amazon offers a service for which there is great demand. Maybe even a need, given that so many voices would go unheard if traditional publishers had their way.

For further reading, see my post on Barry Eisler’s keynote at SFWC.

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Writer/Screenwriter

Comments (4) for post “Amazon vs. Publishing”

  • I agree with you. The answer is in the middle. I usually stay out of debates like these, and I’ve had more directed at me lately due to the chatter about Ellora’s Cave. Nothing pretty is coming out of that one, but the answer, again, is really in the middle.

    • I only worry for you, Christine, because you already had that one terrible experience with a publisher and I’d hate for you to have to go through it again!

  • Very well said, Amanda. This is *exactly* where I stand as well. The reality (like any other issue treated as black and white by its opponents and proponents) is somewhere in the middle. This is more about advocating the continuation of lucrative contracts than it is about the “small guy.”

    • Yes, it’s not as if these big publishing houses are suddenly going to start signing more authors or anything. They come across as clinging to their sense of prestige. Truth is, they need to let go of that and go with the flow of changes in publishing if they’re going to survive.

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