Over 300 authors have decided to take a joint stand against Amazon.
[H]undreds of other writers, including some of the world's most distinguished, are joining the coalition. Few if any are published by Hachette. And they have goals far broader than freeing up the Hachette titles. They want the Justice Department to investigate Amazon for illegal monopoly tactics.
They also want to highlight the issue being debated endlessly and furiously on writers' blogs: What are the rights and responsibilities of a company that sells half the books in America and controls the dominant e-book platform?
They have a rather apocalyptic view of Amazon's role in the literary world. Here's agent Andrew Wylie.
"It's very clear to me, and to those I represent, that what Amazon is doing is very detrimental to the publishing industry and the interests of authors," the agent said. "If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America."
And here's Ursula K. Le Guin.
"We're talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, 'disappearing' an author," Ms. Le Guin wrote in an email. "Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable."
Full disclosure: I've been an Amazon customer for about 15 years now. I was both stunned and thrilled when they announced the very first eInk Kindle. I've owned almost every eInk Kindle they've made and the Kindle has been my preferred way to read for at least 6 years.
With that background in mind, my response to Ms. Le Guin is something along the lines of "Say, what? How's that again?".
Amazon has created a self-publishing platform that allows anyone (literally anyone, have you seen some of the dreck that's up there?) to publish a book. They give authors a platform to self-publish in both print and digital formats. How that correlates to dictating to authors what they can write and to readers what they can buy is beyond me. (As a reader of discriminating tastes, I sometimes wish that Amazon would exercise more control over what writers write and readers read.)
The Times attempts to provide some evidence of Amazon's dastardly deeds and pernicious effects.
Even Amazon's detractors readily admit that it is one of the most powerful tools for selling books since the Gutenberg press. But how that power is used is increasingly being questioned in a way it was not during the company's rise.
So what are they guilty of?
Take, for instance, the different treatment Amazon has given two new Hachette books on political themes.
"Sons of Wichita" by Daniel Schulman, a writer for Mother Jones magazine, came out in May. Amazon initially discounted the book, a well-received biography of the conservative Koch brothers, by 10 percent, according to a price-tracking service. Now it does not discount it at all. It takes as long as three weeks to ship.
"The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea" by Representative Paul Ryan has no such constraints, an unusual position these days for a new Hachette book.
Amazon refused to take advance orders for "The Way Forward," as it does with all new Hachette titles. But once the book was on sale, it was consistently discounted by about 25 percent. There is no shipping delay. Not surprisingly, it has a much higher sales ranking on Amazon than "Sons of Wichita."
That's really reaching. First of all, the complaint isn't that Amazon is jacking up the prices on books that they don't like. They're complaining that Amazon isn't discounting Sons of Wichita, as if a discount were a moral right.
This anecdote ignores the fact that the central disagreement between Hachette and Amazon is that Amazon wants a wholesale pricing model for eBooks (like the one they have in print books) that would allow them to discount eBooks. Hachette is fighting that, insisting on an agency model that gives them full control over pricing. And, yet, here the complaint about Amazon's "abuse of power" is that they should be discounting more, not less.
Second. "Not surprisingly, it has a much higher sales ranking on Amazon than Sons of Wichita". I'm pretty sure that the pricing discount isn't the entire reason—or even the main reason—why a book by a national political figure is selling better than a book about comparatively obscure political donors. As much as Harry Reid wishes it weren't so, most of America neither knows nor cares who the Koch brothers are.
Here's what I think is going on. Andrew Wylie represents a large number of very successful literary figures. Like most successful people, these literary lights seem to feel that not only do they know their own craft better than anyone else, but that they know everything better than anyone else. As a result, they're confidently claiming to know how Amazon should run its business. Not only that, they're confident that they know how the entire publishing industry should be run. Not for their own benefit, of course, but for the good of civilization.
Personally, I think it's likely that the authors know far more about the craft of writing than Amazon does. And I think it's likely that Amazon knows far more about the craft of getting books into readers' hands than these writers do. As a longtime voracious reader, I appreciate what Amazon has done for me over the past 15 years. I've continually had access to an ever widening variety of books, especially the obscure ones that I despaired of ever getting access to.
I find Ms. Le Guin's and Mr. Wylie's comments to be more than a little ridiculous. I absolutely respect their right to free speech and their right to advocate for any position that they like. But the more I hear of what they have to say on this topic, the more my respect for them diminishes.