Last night at the New York Public Library, a group consisting of a mega-bestselling author (James Patterson), a publisher (Morgan Entrekin), several professors, a political theorist (Danielle Allen), an attorney (Bob Kohn), a literary agent (Tina Bennett), and others assembled to ask the question, “Amazon: Business As Usual?” They discussed the current controversy around the e-commerce behemoth — Amazon, obviously, believes it is in the right and today reiterated that what it’s doing is “in the long-term interest of our customers,” while publishers, bookstores (both independent shops and struggling chains like Barnes and Noble), authors, and even writers who defended Amazon in the past are agreeing this move is “Amazon behaving at its worst.”
Emma Cueto at Bustle broke down the dispute a few weeks back for those who haven’t had time to parse all the legal and business jargon, but the quickest way to explain the situation is to say that Amazon has shown what lengths it will go to to get the best deal: cutting out a publisher that puts out books by mega-bestsellers like J.K. Rowling and Malcolm Gladwell, and essentially sitting on the chest of that publisher to see how long it will take them to beg for air. It isn’t a pretty situation, to say the least.
Last night, event moderator Bennett was curious about whether Amazon should be classified as “squeezers” or “killers,” asking, “What’s the endgame for Amazon?” The answer, of course, is to make all the money they can make. Jeff Bezos — no matter how much I disagree with his business practices — is not hellbent on world domination like some cartoon bad guy, nor does he really care all that much about books or the people that make them or sell them. He’s a businessman, and if there’s one thing this panel stressed, it’s that he’s a businessman who has earned his reputation as a modern-day titan of industry, like a Vanderbilt or Morgan.
Yet to anybody who knows even a little bit of American history, what those moguls of yesteryear did to get the power they had — and what sort of effect their monopolies had on business — is exactly the problem with Bezos being their contemporary analog. Even worse is that nobody seems to be able to stop him.
Panelist Tim Wu — author, policy advocate, professor at Columbia Law School, and contributing editor at The New Republic (and the source of the evening’s best quotes) — likened Bezos to another famous industrialist, one whose name you can find carved into libraries all across the world: Andrew Carnegie. When the discussion of books as “pure commodity” came up, Wu quipped, “Efficiency is great for US Steel, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense for books.” This particular statement struck me, not so much because it was the type of comparison that I’d been thinking of even before this latest show of Amazon’s muscle, but because Wu’s statement highlights just how strange this entire battle is when you consider that books don’t even make up ten percent of Amazon’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue.
There is no efficiency in books, as anybody who’s tried to figure out why there are about a dozen smaller publishers underneath the umbrellas of each bigger one can attest. There’s also very little money. As Grove publisher Morgan Entrekin says, the hope is essentially to build careers, to find the next Jorge Luis Borges, to help foster literature, find great nonfiction and poetry, and develop writers. Of course, that’s really not what’s best for business in the short term, and in most cases, it doesn’t do much for the long term, but that’s the old art vs. business/art as business debate. Books are “pure commodity,” sure, but each book is also someone’s piece of art, and I’d be willing to bet that, more often than not, most people who work in publishing got into their jobs because of the art, not because they want to figure out how to be make a cool million off the book industry.
Patterson likened the publishing world to a “wounded gazelle.” When he and the other participants were asked by the moderator to rate the state of the industry on a scale from 1 to 5 (1 being “Business as usual,” 5 being “Crisis”), the average score was about 3.5. Meanwhile, David Vandagriff, an intellectual property attorney, mentioned the public fundraising platform Kickstarter as an alternative form of compensation to the traditional book advance so many writers use to live off of while they write their books. Vandagriff — who I think saw himself as a voice of reason among panelists who compared the dispute to religious wars (Baghdad and Ireland were both explicitly mentioned, as was the Stamp Act of 1765) — positioned himself in the corner of business, while Patterson mentioned that in a literary world ruled by Amazon, a book like James Joyce’s Ulysses couldn’t work, because the amount of bad reviews by readers who couldn’t get past the first page would sink the book into algorithmic obscurity. Vandagriff saw things differently: “The crisis is with publishers, not with writers,” he said at one point.
The takeaway from the event was this: the trouble Amazon causes the book industry is but a symptom of a larger and dangerous illness (there’s also the company’s well-documented poor treatment of its employees, for instance) and it leaves you wondering what comes after books. Which industry will have to deal with Amazon trying to get the lowest prices possible to up their own profits? That’s the larger question the publishing industry has to grapple with, and asking other companies outside of the book world will only benefit them. To borrow an analogy that Hachette author Gladwell used to sell countless copies of his latest book, trying to figure out how to make this about more than the 7% of business that the Goliath makes a year is how David will get out of this battle in one piece. The publishing industry should be worried and, to answer the question of the evening, view this latest issue as a crisis; but they should think of a different strategy to combat it that goes beyond their own survival narrative.