Goliath v. Goliath
At a party Saturday night, I had a long conversation with a friend about the contentious situation between Amazon and Hachette publishing. This friend is a professor and an author, so these two roles do elevate his awareness of publishing issues, but still, I think this battle is a publishing business issue that has really spilled over into public awareness. It is something that people really care about, because they have a stake in it. Most of us shop from Amazon, so what Amazon does affects us. How are we to feel about the latest move by the online retailing giant, hindering sales of books by Hachette authors? Do we calmly continue to enjoy the convenient free shipping offered by our Amazon Prime accounts or do we learn to shop elsewhere? Even Stephen Colbert is weighing in!
With Amazon demanding a higher discount from Hachette on ebook sales and Hachette’s now closely-watched CEO Michael Piestch holding the line, Amazon has fought back by making Hachette books harder to purchase, claiming long waits for shipping, removing discounts, and recommending other titles instead. Many authors, including Colbert and Malcolm Gladwell, have weighed in to say how this situation is affecting them. Gladwell, speaking to the New York Times, explained how, over the years, he has sold millions of dollars’ worth of books on Amazon and therefore made them millions of dollars. “It’s sort of heartbreaking when your partner turns on you,” he says. James Patterson, who, according to New York Times columnist David Carr, has penned one out of every 17 hardcover novels now being sold, railed against Amazon at the recent Book Expo (the annual publishing trade conference), warning that: “Amazon seems to be out to control shopping in this country.”
Several authors, however, have weighed in in support of Amazon, and in a story in The Daily Beast headlined “Amazon Is NOT the Vladimir Putin of the Publishing World,” Nick Gillespie says the fight is really about how much readers, having gotten used to Amazon’s deep discounting, are going to have to pay for books. He says: “It’s really about how much readers are going to be asked to pay for titles coming out of big publishing companies. Amazon’s track record on that score is pretty damn great: It always wants the price to be lower. That sucks for publishers and authors, and maybe even for Amazon’s bottom line. But it’s worked pretty nicely for readers so far.”
According to Publishers Weekly, Amazon has captured 40% of all book sales. That’s pretty difficult for any publisher or author to just walk away from. The recent government lawsuit accusing five publishers of colluding with Apple on pricing, a strategy aimed at fighting back at Amazon, left Amazon, according to many, feeling free and clear to continue to use strong-arm tactics to get better discounts from publishers.
In the 90s, the advent of the Barnes & Noble superstore put many independent bookstores out of business. Amazon, in turn, has scooped up much of that market, leaving B&N in a precarious position. Meanwhile, the independent bookstore is beginning to make a comeback and other innovative avenues for book sales are developing (I myself run a pop up mobile bookstore in the Philadelphia area).
According to Professor Jeffery Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, one of Amazon’s next steps will be to provide same-day shipping, which means the next stores they’ll be targeting will be the Walgreen’s, Targets, and mom-and-pop shops where we buy our toiletries and other urgent needs. But, as David Carr points out, it’s because Amazon started as a bookseller that its approach to bookselling is important to note. Patterson and others are urging readers to shop at independent stores. Stephen Colbert is specifically sending buyers to Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Spreading the purchases around a little seems like a good strategy. I’m not saying don’t shop at Amazon – I’m just saying pay attention.