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2.05.2010

Who's Afraid of Jeff Bezos?

The big news abuzz in the publishing industry this week is the battle between Macmillan and Amazon. This after Macmillian advocated an agency model of pricing. Under such a model, the publisher would be able to determine the price of ebooks, not Amazon, which has been selling ebooks for a solid $9.99, an obvious loss for publishers and authors: smaller profits for publishing houses means smaller royalty and advance payments to writers, or the general devaluing of books. Within the course of the week, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has announced that it would boycott Amazon, and Rupert Murdoch's company, Hachette Book Group, publishers of writers such as James Patterson, declared its advocacy for the agency model.

Truth is, Amazon has never been a good bookseller. That is, Amazon has been a good capitalist. One cannot, I believe, be both a bookseller and a staunch capitalist because a bookseller (traditionally speaking) is concerned with the circulation of knowledge: those words and pictures and information on the page, that's the sign of a culture's strength, a sign that it's thinking. Capitalists, by nature, want money. Amazon does not sell just books; while you're there, they want you to buy: a toaster, a lawn mower, a box of gourmet chocolates, Levi jeans, a staple, bed sheets, a Shamwow, 2 kindles, etc. Amazon has never been interested in the circulation of knowledge. Amazon is not a bookseller, at least not a very good one. Obviously, they love censorship. Censorship, not in the sense of banning speech, but censorship in a way that steers people away from the knowledge they need. The site is designed that way. In a recent New Yorker article, Nicholason Baker writes:
"If I looked up a particular writer on Amazon—Mary Higgins Clark, say—and then reached the page for her knuckle-gnawer of a novel “Moonlight Becomes You,” the top line on the page said, “ ‘Moonlight Becomes You’ and over 270,000 other books are available for Amazon Kindle—Amazon’s new wireless reading device. Learn more.” Below the picture of Clark’s physical paperback ($7.99) was another teaser: “Start reading ‘Moonlight Becomes You’ on your Kindle in under a minute. Don’t have a Kindle? Get yours here.” If I went to the Kindle page for the digital download of “Moonlight Becomes You” ($6.39), it wouldn’t offer me a link back to the print version. I was being steered."
The steering is not just with the kindle. As all queer writers can remember, there was the Amazon Fail 2009, when all books by queer writers were removed from sales ranking, thereby making queer writers invisible. That is not the circulation of knowledge. That is (indirect) censorship. The Macmillan debacle is sort of the same. Yet it's a little bit more than that. It shows Amazon's true colors for all to see. And Amazon cannot possibly win. As Scott Westerfield writes in The Guardian:
"Yes, Amazon gets to set whatever prices it wants (free market!), but guess what, Macmillan also gets to release its electronic editions later if it feels simultaneous release is not in its best interests and those of its allies (free market again, sir!). Amazon gets to de-list an entire publisher if it wants to, even on a whim. But that's a massive free market fail, because we start to hate them and they have to back down two days later. And that's really the end of it: their strategy failed, because the rest of us can call shenanigans and take our business elsewhere. They aren't a monopoly yet."
The fact that they are not a monopoly points to the fact that they are many other booksellers out there, including big corporations such as Barnes and Noble, but also, your local bookseller.

As IndieBound has pointed out, there are many reasons to shop at your local bookstore. Among them are:

The Economy
  • Spend $100 at a local and $68 of that stays in your community. Spend the same $100 at a national chain, and your community only sees $43.
  • Local businesses create higher-paying jobs for our neighbors.
  • More of your taxes are reinvested in your community--where they belong.
The Environment
  • Buying local means less packaging, less transportation, and a smaller carbon footprint.
  • Shopping in a local business district means less infrastructure, less maintenance, and more money to beautify your community.
The Community
  • Local retailers are your friends and neighbors—support them and they’ll support you.
  • Local businesses donate to charities at more than twice the rate of national chains.
  • More independents means more choice, more diversity, and a truly unique community.
(from indiebound.org)

Among other reasons, the less you shop at Amazon, the less Jeff Bezos--the CEO who once said "the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going...on the road to obsolescence." In this quote, you can tell that he thinks books are important, but he lacks any faith in them at all. He has a crude view of humanity--the less Jeff Bezo laughs...

Among other things, whatever way this turns out, writers from smaller publishing houses will still be losing.

Among more other things, I can't get out of my house. It's snowing.

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