[8 July 2014]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
About a month ago I quit Amazon cold turkey, and I feel great.
I have bought nothing from Amazon since 16 May. Not a book, not a DVD, not an MP3. After years of purchasing pop culture from the mega e-retailer at an embarrassing pace — even as I was unable to walk out of a physical bookstore without buying something — the gnawing guilt grew too loud. First came George Packer’s story in The New Yorker last winter about the bullying, contradictory relationship that publishers have with the online store (“Amazon continues to expend considerable effort both to dominate this small, fragile market and to win the hearts and minds of readers”). Then came the now two-month-old spat between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group, the specifics of which are quite unspecific (neither will go into detail nor comment) but reportedly involve a disagreement on e-book pricing terms and distribution of profits.
Negotiations had been quiet, invisible. That is, until Amazon made it pointedly discouraging to buy Hachette books on the Amazon website: Attempt to purchase, say, an essay collection from David Sedaris (published by Little, Brown, owned by Hachette) or a thriller from Michael Connelly (Hachette’s Grand Central Publishing), and Amazon likely lists it now as unavailable, available in a few weeks or available but not at its usual discount. Unless you want the Kindle version: The e-book version of any affected title is available; one of the ironies of this debacle is how tangible culture is being leveraged over virtual culture.
Anyway, my distaste at that — the country’s largest bookseller (Amazon sells 40 percent of all new books) frustrating readers as a bargaining chip — curdled into disgust. Then alarm: Wait, this could affect writing.
Perhaps even culture itself.
Paranoid or not, I simply stopped giving money to Amazon.
Frankly I wish I hadn’t: I was one of those people who thought Wal-Mart undermined communities but Amazon was fine, too convenient to ignore. Its ability to get me a book within 24 hours was so efficient that not even its plans to deliver by drone deterred me. I retained memories of a benevolent Seattle bookseller long after it was suitable: Once I wrote a story about summer reading for another newspaper. Amazon was young then. I called its book buyer and asked what she was reading. She told me to check out a new book about a young wizard. She said it would be lost on kids but adults would love it. Her prediction was both shortsighted and prescient: Without Amazon, I wouldn’t own a first edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Sixteen years later, Amazon, which now sells car tires, gardening tools and also books, is a parody of that enlightened, bookish image, and one of this summer’s biggest reads, The Silkworm, the new book from J.K. Rowling, (writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith and published by Mulholland Books, Hachette’s suspense-fiction wing) was unavailable for pre-order before its release Thursday. Also, you can’t quickly receive physical copies of some titles on Amazon now from Stephen Colbert (who called for an Amazon boycott), David Foster Wallace, Stephenie Meyer or Malcolm Gladwell; even Roger Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself (Grand Central), the basis for a documentary from Chicago’s Steve James, is listed as available in very limited quantities. Amazon is not restocking Hachette titles, and in a statement from late May, the retailer said it did not expect a resolution in the near future.
Most recently, Amazon began removing order buttons from upcoming DVD titles, including 300: Rise of an Empire and Transcendence, all distributed by Warner Home Video, which is owned by Time Warner, which is also working out its terms with Amazon. (Another ominous sign these tactics are catching on: YouTube, owned by Google, just announced it would block videos from the five percent of music labels that didn’t agree to be part of its new subscription service.)
You could say this is business.
You could point out that I can shop anywhere; nobody is forcing me to buy a book from Amazon (in fact, I still have a $99-a-year Amazon Prime account, proof that it’s hard to go too far from the long arm of CEO Jeff Bezos).
But the longer this war drags on, the more it shifts from a consumer and business issue and becomes a cultural concern. With a thornier question: Naïve as this sounds, doesn’t a bookseller as large as Amazon have a moral responsibility to books? In its early days, founder Bezos saw books more as a foothold for Amazon than a future. But by virtue of its size now, isn’t a business that built its reputation on the back of words obligated not to impede the spread of books? This issue wouldn’t be as heated if it were about DVDs.
Books are different.
Never mind the ugly history of bullies controlling access to books as a tactic for getting their way. Never mind if you live in a book desert, one of those increasingly common areas without a library or bookstore. Consider Scott Blackwood. He’s 49, lives in Evanston, Illinois, and teaches in the English department at Southern Illinois University. He commutes to Carbondale. He wrote two books on university presses, received a bit of attention, a few good reviews. Then he hit it big: Hachette, one of the top five publishing houses in the country, bought his new novel, See How Small. Hachette seems so assured of its potential, though the book isn’t being released until 2015, that the publisher hyped it last month during Book Expo America in New York, the industry’s trade show.
Things look good for Blackwood. Assuming Hachette and Amazon settle.
“To have a readership, that’s what a writer wants,” he said. “The money is secondary. I never expected to make much as a writer. So I teach. And write on the side. I work on a book for years, then this — it’s frustrating. A previous generation, some writers had more time to develop. Someone like a Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, The Road) didn’t sell well at all right away. But a relatively new author like me, I have one shot (and a one-book deal). If I don’t sell, I probably don’t get asked to write again. And I’m also getting older, so —
“You take one shot, you make the most of it, and to have the largest bookseller in the nation maybe keeping (my book) out of the hands of people who would read it? It’s like punishment.”
A few blocks away lives another Scott who also writes for Hachette.
Scott Turow is an iconic mystery writer and, until last spring, was president of the Authors Guild, the nonprofit that often negotiates with publishing houses over payment and royalty standards for writers.
“Why does this matter culturally?” he asked me. “It matters for one thing because new and midlist (aka, important but not best-selling) authors will get screwed, and that’s where a lot of great books happen. It is somewhat about making a living as a writer. You cut sales, you cut audience. Someone at the edge of a career, this is no one-time loss if they don’t sell now. More importantly: Publishing has always been a business, but can you think of another business where their product is also given away free? A library will have any of the books in dispute with Amazon, and there is a reason: We have always agreed knowledge is different, books are different. This is a cultural inheritance. When an Amazon, which is big and important to reading now, takes actions that restrict books and damn the careers of many writers, when they break the peace and say that books are no different than anything else, those cultural implications are tremendous.”
Are those still valid assumptions?
He said: “The thing is, it’s too much of an assumption now. And the fact Amazon is so blithely (expletive) authors here — it should bother anyone who writes, even someone just looking to write a book some day.”
Indeed, considering how many of my friends write for a living, this has become personal.
Maximillian Potter, a freelance journalist who also works as a media adviser to the governor of Colorado — and, in full disclosure, is a good friend with whom I attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University — is a bit like Blackwood, a hostage in a new media standoff. He sees himself, however, as collateral damage: His first book, Shadows in the Vineyard, a nonfiction account of a plot to destroy a celebrated vineyard in France, is coming out next month from Hachette. It’s currently listed as unavailable for pre-order on Amazon.
“Publishers are venture capitalists taking risks,” he told me. “So, I couldn’t have written my book without their advance. Not to be melodramatic, but civilization is built on books. Drive down the price of books, you deprive publishers and authors of profits leading to new books. Bezos has said, ‘Your (profit) margin is my opportunity.’ OK, but in that margin is the future of books.”
For weeks he’s been hammering Amazon on Twitter. I half-jokingly asked if he worried about repercussions.
“What are they going to do?” he asked. “Send a drone after me?”
Feverish reactions from writers on the Amazon-Hachette issue have been muted, mostly confined to established authors: Turow, Gladwell (“It’s sort of heartbreaking when your partner turns on you”), James Patterson, John Green (“The breadth of American literature and quality of American literature is in no small part due to the work that publishers do, and it’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, to see Amazon refuse to acknowledge the importance of that partnership”). A frequent warning is the homogenizing effect Amazon’s tactics could lead to.
Peter Orner, an acclaimed fiction writer, told me: “The big fear is one company eventually controlling a vast, important cultural form. It seems dangerous and very possible, not at all paranoid. I am a good example that part of publishing hasn’t always been about the bottom line. I make my life on this, but I’m not a best-selling author, and if Amazon squeezes all publishers and this becomes a world of only best-selling writers, the culture is going to be poorer for it.”
Not that Amazon would be the first homogenizing force in American culture: Casey Kasem, who died 15 June at 82, famously proclaimed his American Top 40 radio show as a coast-to-coast summation of what radio was playing and audiences were loving. To some extent, his show’s ubiquity created its own reality.
But American Top 40 was never as embedded in our lives as Amazon, which has a singular knack for unsettling: On 18 June, it unveiled its first smartphone, unabashedly built to tether users to Amazon. (“Amazon launches a shopping machine and calls it a phone,” read a headline on the website Quartz.) A week earlier, the retailer sent dozens of reporters an invitation to that unveiling. It included a copy of the children’s book Mr. Pine’s Purple House and a letter from Bezos. The letter explained it was his favorite book when he was a kid and concluded: “I think you’ll agree that the world is a better place when things are a little bit different.” That’s vague enough to be inspiring … or the purr of a Bond villain, stroking his cat, planning his domination.