No, Amazon isn’t doing the world any favours

stupidburnsA rebuttal to Matthew Yglesias

I haven’t written here in a while. That’s largely for three reasons. 1) My wife was pregnant and I was spending a lot of time just figuring out how to Dad. That process is ongoing now that my daughter is out in the world, but it was kind of a big deal around here. 2) There was also the most fraught municipal election in the history of the amalgamated city of Toronto going on basically for the last six months. Being a municipal politics nerd (yes, that’s a thing) I was a bit preoccupied by that. 3) The ongoing culture wars in genre were becoming exhausting to write about. Seriously, this particular SJW just needed a break from fighting in that battle because it’s a neverending cavalcade of misogyny, homophobia and racism that we seem to be dealing with. The Gamergaters and their ilk need to go away, and never come back. But, hey, The Amazon / Hachette thing is making the rounds of authorly social media once again and this article on Vox is just about the dumbest defense of Amazon I’ve ever read! That has almost nothing to do with the culture wars, but I can still get a chance to dust off the old snark. I’ll rebut it point by point.

Yes, publishing is big business, so what?

I’m not going to waste too many words on the first point because it’s a straw man argument plain and simple. There’s nobody sane criticizing Amazon because major publishers are mom and pops. Everybody even tangentially connected to publishing knows otherwise. This is simply not a significant part of the argument .

Amazon having competitors doesn’t mean it doesn’t have monopsony powers

Paul Krugman’s argument that Amazon, as the main buyer of goods, has the ability to manipulate the market as a monopsony is actually a very strong one, and more correct than those who have argued that Amazon is effectively a monopoly.

After all, Amazon HAS driven down prices. In fact, the opening volley of open conflict between the big four and Amazon happened when the big four (then five but there was a merger afterward) colluded with Apple in an effort to slow Amazon’s race to the bottom on book prices.

So, yeah, the big four tried to threaten to withdraw their products from Amazon if it didn’t stop pricing them into the ground. Amazon’s response was to cry to the courts that Apple was being unfair. Amazon derives its power in the market from being the dominant buyer and reselling the product, often at a loss, in order to grow at the expense of other companies. It’s a little bit insane, and it’s bad for the market in the long run.

And now for the obligatory self-publishing-or-bust section

I’ll lay this out simply: Every author needs an editor, cover art and marketing. Some authors are very good editors. They still need an editor. You just can’t edit your own work as well as another person can. You can’t. You’re too close. You miss things. Hell your brain infers details that aren’t on the page. And I’m talking both macro-level stuff (the setting looked fine in my head) and grammar level stuff (typed teh, never noticed even during proofing). Not every author can afford to hire an editor. Few authors are also cover artists. Many authors have day-jobs and don’t have time for the day job plus writing their books plus marketing their books, even if they know how. Some writers are not marketers by nature.

If you get rid of publishers you’ll turn writing into an art reserved for the wealthy and the deluded. I’d rather not see that.

Some publishers not being good marketers doesn’t make what Amazon does right

That much stands on its own. But furthermore books are more like commodities than you care to suggest. With the exception of a small cadre of “name” authors and the very different academic press market (which has its own set of pricing problems completely separate from Amazon’s) authors are sadly interchangeable. For the most part, for the mid list authors, their books get sold or some other similar authors books get sold instead and no consumer is likely to get too concerned. They want to read horror. If they can’t find horror book A they’ll find horror book B.

Frankly 99% of the working authors out there aren’t George R.R. Martin. If they don’t sell their books everywhere books can be sold they don’t get to influence the market. Instead they just lose money.

And, as I mentioned, some authors have no time to market their books. Even shabby marketing is better than absent marketing.

And what about authors who have no inclination to marketing? Should they just be excluded from their art? Honestly, there’s a deeply problematic misunderstanding of the lifestyle of the author in this section.

Advances are business, so what?

Yes, an advance isn’t a charitable contribution. Again arguing this is a strawman. Advances are more akin to futures stocks than to charity. A publisher is gambling that the future earnings of a book will be greater than the outset of cost for the advance on the book.

In exchange authors who dependably move copy get a slightly more stable income. It’s actually kind of win-win. And frankly it is NOT a loan. So to suggest that authors should take on debt (whether or not they can) to live while they wait for their royalties to roll on in is perverse.

Cheap books aren’t necessarily good for anybody

Amazon’s manipulation of the market does drive down costs for consumers. But books weren’t that expensive to begin with. I mean seriously, I read more than most consumers, and I buy print frequently. I buy hardcover and trade paperbacks when I buy print almost exclusively – IE: the expensive options – and you know what? \

It’s not an expensive hobby.

I don’t need to pay pennies for my four books a month, and most consumers can afford their one or two even at $10 for an e-book.

Yes, publishers profit from book prices. So what? They’re a business. We covered that at the top.

Authors ALSO profit from book prices. How do you think publishers can afford to gamble $50,000 or more on an unknown product that might or might not pay off? They do it through scale. It’s a sad truth big publishers can afford big advances. Small presses, as much as I love them (and I DO love small presses) can’t afford big advances.

Amazon’s reckless growth without profit model is harmful to everybody. It hurts publishers, it hurts authors, it hurts competing distributors and ultimately it hurts consumers.

Because when the choices remaining are un-edited and un-curated chaff and the vanity projects of the wealthy consumers will find their options for alternatives extinct.

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