Monopolies and Amazon
Amazon wars have inspired much excellent discussion of late. Is Amazon our next Great Satan, the media Walmart? Is there a “right” or “good” way to offer and consume literature?
The idea of media monopoly interests me. I grew up in an IBM family, alongside their rival Ma Bell, and my children grew up on Microsoft PCs. I recall the great lawsuits, including Bill Gates’s famously unhelpful testimony. Year after year, I warned my publisher about Amazon, only to be told, “They’re really going bankrupt.”
Let’s unpack some things.
Monopoly. What is a monopoly? The clearest kind of monopoly is a literary author. We all agree, for example, that George R. R. Martin is the only source of Game of Thrones books. When too much time lagged between books of the Thrones series, fans blogged in outrage how unfair it was to put them off so long. An author, especially a living, breathing author with copyright, is a monopoly.
Is Amazon a monopoly? That’s what publishers claim. But if so, it’s a precarious one. Today, anything can sell from anywhere. The best-sellers–even mid-list authors–can set up shop instantly and sell from their own website.
Maybe we need another lawsuit-of-the-decade, like the ones I grew up with. Or maybe, if Amazon is really that bad, they could get outcompeted soon, like MySpace and Yahoo.
Publishers. What is a publisher? The first thing I recall hearing from my fellow writers, when I made my first sale a hundred years ago, is “Beware the publisher.” Publishers were the source of all necessary evil. “Don’t let the publisher rewrite your book!”
Yet today, we defend the poor hapless publisher from the technology of the twenty-first century? And bemoan the lack of editing of self-published books? As Spock used to say, “I can’t believe my ears.”
Publishers perform a valuable function for authors–more than we usually give credit for. But the big New York publishers have always been behind the curve. My first book was shipped to Hong Kong for typesetting.
Today, if publishers are dying, why are there so many new small presses? If it weren’t for small press and eBook, most of my titles would be out of print. There is no more dreaded “out of print” today.
Greedy consumers. What is a greedy consumer? According to lots of Amazon consumers, no eBook should sell for more than ten dollars. Perhaps encouraged by Amazon, but these are real readers’ voices.
What I hear readers saying is that, instead of painstakingly selecting a few promising books to buy, the reader wants to buy a thousand books–as much as a device will hold–then select them to read whenever. This may not be the 20th century view of books–nor the Renaissance view, nor the Medieval view, nor the library of Alexandria–but nor is it evil. It’s just the 21st century view. That’s our contemporary reader, like it or not.
It seems to me that both authors and publishers need to find new ways. It won’t be easy; when text went from papyrus to codex, much of the ancient libraries were lost. But it had to happen, or else books today would still be rolled up in a monastery, unread by most.