Is Amazon Evil?
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The man sitting next to me takes out his new Kindle. “How do you like that thing?” I ask. He instantly becomes animated, angling the Kindle toward me so that I can better see its face. “It’s great,” he says. “I can download tons of different books and magazines.” Then, eyeing my hefty, hardback of John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, he adds, “Cheaper than that, too. $9.99.” There, our conversation ends. I am unsure of where I fall on the Luddite spectrum, but I’ll admit to inhaling the odor of leather-bound volumes. Having moved over a dozen times, though, I’ve also found occasion to curse their weight.
So, too, has Jeff Bezos. Bezos calls the Kindle a response to “the failings of a physical book.” He told attendees of a technology conference in New York: “I’m grumpy when I’m forced to read a physical book because it’s not as convenient. Turning the pages ... the book is always flopping itself shut at the wrong moment.” His conclusion? “It’s had a great five-hundred-year run ... but it’s time to change.”
That Bezos is unencumbered by reverence for the physical entity should be no surprise. The book has always been an object of convenience to Bezos, whose principal interest is capturing market share. In 1994 Bezos set out to create a new kind of online business. The specific product was irrelevant; what was important was how it would be marketed, sold, stocked, and shipped. He made a list of the items he could carry, including CDs, videos, computer software and hardware, and books. Books won out because there were so many, and demand was steady. The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) also allowed him to organize and index the millions of books in print. No catalogue or bookstore could possibly have it all, Bezos reasoned, but he could.
Amazon’s ascendance no doubt is a function of its nontraditional ways. Though neither a publisher nor strictly-speaking a bookseller, it has become the world’s largest retailer of books in any form. And it has done so as a software company that offers great deals on Vienna sausages as well as hardbacks. Bezos’s customers come for the low prices, not to fondle, sniff, or otherwise interact with the product. The most one can do is “browse” some pages electronically. Bezos thinks pleasing the customer is all that matters, and his strategy—nearly endless inventory at rock-bottom prices—is working.
Today an estimated 75 percent of online book purchases in the United States are made through Amazon, and its overall market share in book sales is astonishingly high. Some publishers make more than half of their sales through Amazon. So when Bezos rang the death knell for the physical book, people paid attention. Even before the Kindle, Amazon wielded enormous influence in the industry. Now it is positioned to control the e-book market and thereby the future of the publishing industry.
What happens when an industry concerned with the production of culture is beholden to a company with the sole goal of underselling competitors? Amazon is indisputably the king of books, but the issue remains, as Charlie Winton, CEO of the independent publisher Counterpoint Press puts it, “what kind of king they’re going to be.” A vital publishing industry must be able take chances with new authors and with books that don’t have obvious mass-market appeal. When mega-retailers have all the power in the industry, consumers benefit from low prices, but the effect on the future of literature—on what books can be published successfully—is far more in doubt.
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