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How Amazon Kills Books and Makes Us Stupid

Amazon offers infinite choice and rock-bottom prices: those aren't necessarily good things.

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Johnson resisted Amazon's pressure and complained to Publishers Weekly about what he saw as the retailer's capo-like tactics. What happened next evidently still rankles. "I was at the Book Expo in New York and two guys from Amazon came to see me. They said that the company was watching what we were doing and that they strongly advised us to get in line. I was shocked at how blatant the pressure was." Within a couple of days Johnson noticed that the buy buttons for his books had been taken off Amazon's site, making Melville's titles unavailable.

In the end Johnson, faced with an offer it was nigh impossible to refuse, agreed to the co-op. His books' buy buttons were reinstated. Today Amazon is Melville House's biggest customer, and though Johnson still regularly flays the company on his popular publishing blog Moby Lives, he also concedes that it is highly effective at bookselling: "They make buying so easy. It's impossible to resist."

Another man who recently lost his Amazon buy buttons is John Sargent, head of Macmillan, the US arm of German book giant Holtzbrinck, home to many authors familiar to Nation readers, including Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich. In January Sargent confronted Amazon over its insistence on setting the prices of e-books it sold on its site, generally at under $10. This was a concern throughout an industry worried that low prices of electronic versions would undermine profits from printed books and generally lower the perceived value of the product. Sargent informed Amazon that he wanted to move Macmillan to an "agency agreement," meaning that he, as the publisher, could price books at whatever level he chose, paying Amazon a fixed discount.

Amazon reacted with characteristic distemper: bye-bye Macmillan's buy buttons. A face-off ensued. Amazon was vehement that its stand was on behalf of customers looking for bargains. A gallery of cynics openly suspected it had more to do with securing the future of its proprietary e-book reader, the Kindle, in the face of Apple's imminent launch of the competing iPad.

Something had to give, and a few days later it did: Amazon gave in with a statement revealing contempt toward the very idea of a publisher. "We will have to capitulate," it said, "because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles." The company's hand had been forced by a preceding announcement that Apple had accepted an agency agreement with five of the six largest publishers. Unusual for Amazon, its suppliers had an alternative for selling their books.

It was the first time Amazon had ever given way in public on a big issue with publishers. And it may just have marked the beginning of a power shift between the retailer and its suppliers. Such realignment is long overdue, because the problems caused by Amazon's business practices extend to fundamental matters of the future of the book business and the diversity of our culture as a whole.

Take the issue of choice: when it comes to the books it stocks, Amazon makes no pretense of selectivity. Provided it carries an ISBN and isn't offensive, Amazon is happy to sell any book Joe Schmo cares to publish. "We want to make every book available—the good, the bad and the ugly," Bezos once said. Spurred on by Amazon and the growth of self-publishing companies like XLibris and Lulu, the number of new books being published has soared. According to industry statisticians Bowker, just over 172,000 titles were released in 2005. Last year "traditional" output had risen to 288,000 titles, a significant enough increase by itself. But adding what Bowker describes as "self-published" and "micro-niche" books, the total inflates to a staggering 1 million new titles in just twelve months.

 
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