In the current fight between Amazon and the publisher Hachette over the price of ebooks and print-on-demand rights, Amazon’s tactics are awful, the worst possible in fact: They are denying readers access to books, removing pre-order options and slowing delivery of titles published by Hachette. Amazon’s image as a business committed to connecting readers to books is shredded by this sort of hostage-taking. The obvious goal for readers in should be to punish anyone using us as leverage.
This skirmish will end, though, and when it does, we’ll be left with the larger questions of what the landscape of writing and reading will look like in the English-speaking world. On those questions, we should be backing Amazon, not because different principles are at stake, but because the same principle — Whose actions will benefit the reader? — leads to different conclusions. Many of the people rightly enraged at Amazon’s mistreatment of customers don’t understand how their complaint implicates the traditional model of publishing and selling as well.
Some of the strongest criticism of Amazon comes from authors most closely aligned with the prestigious parts of the old system, many of those complaints appearing as reviews of “The Everything Store”, Brad Stone’s recent book on Amazon and Jeff Bezos. Steve Coll, Dean of the Columbia Journalism School, wrote one such, “Citizen Bezos,” in The New York Review of Books:
At least two qualities distinguished Bezos from other pioneers of e-commerce and help to explain his subsequent success. The first was his gargantuan vision. He did not see himself merely chipping away at Barnes & Noble’s share of retail book sales; he saw himself developing one of the greatest retailers in history, on the scale of Sears Roebuck or Walmart. Secondly, Bezos focused relentlessly on customer service — low prices, ease of use on his website, boundless inventory, and reliable shipping. To this day, Amazon is remarkably successful at pleasing customers.
Coll does not intend any of this as a compliment.
He writes about book-making and selling as if there are only two possible modes: Either the current elites remain firmly in charge, or else Amazon will become a soul-crushing monopoly. The apres nous, le deluge!-ness of this should be enough to convince anyone that the publishers are bullshitting, but if your worry is market manipulation, the publishing cartel we have today has has already created decidedly non-hypothetical harms.