Pando

Shots fired: Authors appeal to Amazon's board over its bullying of publishers

By Nathaniel Mott , written on September 15, 2014

From The News Desk

A large number of authors have written a letter to Amazon's board protesting the company's negotiation tactics -- which mostly involve bullying publishers until they agree to its terms -- as the company continues its dispute with Hachette over ebook prices and revenue sharing.

The authors are carful to explain in the letter that they aren't against Amazon and its tactics when it applies to other goods -- just when it threatens their livelihoods. They also explain the negative effect that Amazon may have on culture and society at large by making it more difficult for people to purchase books:

Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on that book finding readers. This is the process Amazon is obstructing.
The letter is a personal appeal to an impersonal company. It's clear that neither Amazon nor its board are particularly worried about the effect that its tactics might have on readers, authors, or the publishers it's working so hard to bring in line. Otherwise it wouldn't be removing pre-order buttons, increasing shipping times and book prices, or hiding items in its gigantic marketplace.

I wrote about Amazon's willingness to spurn everyone, from its supplier to its customers, when the BBC revealed that the company was fighting for the right to print books on demand when it doesn't have enough from the publisher itself:

The BBC reports that the company would print the titles with print-on-demand equipment which can “print books more quickly than a traditional press” but are “generally thought to offer an inferior product.” Publishers are rightly worried that they will be blamed for the poor quality of these quickly-printed books even though they had nothing to do with the products.

It’s clear, then, that publishers won’t benefit from granting Amazon print-on-demand rights to their books. Consumers will also lose out because they are being given an inferior product — perhaps without discount or notification — instead of whichever book they thought they were buying. Amazon is the only party that would stand to benefit from being granted these rights. But at least Amazon knows that it's risking its reputation with its actions, as the head of its Kindle division recognized in an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this year:

Amazon executive Russ Grandinetti, the head of its Kindle division, has admitted that the company is using underhanded tactics to negotiate with publishing companies, even as he tries to convince consumers that it’s for their own benefit.

Grandinetti said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the company was willing to risk damaging its reputation to negotiate better terms for its ebooks, and that it was “in the long-term interest of our customers.” He also added that “the terms under which we trade will determine how good the prices are that we can offer customers.” Amazon’s not evil after all! This means that a letter, even one bearing as many signatures as this one, is unlikely to make Amazon blink in its contest with publishers. The company doesn't need to be told that its actions make it seem like a threat to anyone who cares about the literary arts. It doesn't need to be reminded that bullying other companies at the expense of customers is in poor form.

Amazon already knows all those things. The problem is that it doesn't care.

[Image courtesy gilles chiroleu]