Join 3,418 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


relentless.com
February 11, 2014 10:54 AM   Subscribe

Is Amazon Bad For Books?
posted by the man of twists and turns (91 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm going to read the article, I promise, but the first caption says, "In the era of the Kindle, a book costs the same price as a sandwich." Why is that a strange idea? Haven't paperback prices outpaced inflation in the past 20 years? Their affordability was the key to their accessibility.
posted by mittens at 11:05 AM on February 11 [6 favorites]


[Please consider R-ing TFA please. Early snark is easy, sure, but it's bad for discussion.]
posted by jessamyn at 11:06 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]


Some stories:

1) About the time that Amazon was getting-going, there were suggestions that the American Booksellers Association should make a business that competed with Amazon. The idea was to create a book distribution business that would credit local bookstores a portion of profits shipped, depending on the zipcode where a book was ordered from. There were some wrinkles in the plan, but it was thought of as a neat way to counteract the early successes that Amazon was having. The idea was resoundingly defeated by the ABA's membership, who considered Amazon a flash-in-the-pan startup.

2) About the time that Amazon was getting-going, during a meeting with Louis Borders (Founder, Border's Books) and a fairly high-powered VC, a discussion about what Mr. Borders was going to do with the money he had just made from selling Borders. It was suggested to Mr. Borders that perhaps a competitor to Amazon might be a good investment. Mr. Borders, on hearing the suggestion, dismissed the idea out-of-hand, claiming that "nobody ever has, or ever will, do the book business as well as Border's books has". A few weeks later Mr. Borders invested $20Million of his sale winnings in a startup called WebVan,a grocery delivery business.

Market evolution is a bitch.
posted by Vibrissae at 11:11 AM on February 11 [19 favorites]


And here I was thinking that Amazon has completely improved my quality of life by providing a fast and easy service to instantly download books, buy used books (in my living room) for cents on the dollar of face value, and generally receive immense value for my money!

It's a good thing the enlightened folks at the New Yorker explained to me why myself and millions of others are--sadly--mistaken. And this is really just some greedy, sneaky, snake-oil sailsmen, who is trying to squeeze us with no mercy.
posted by jjmoney at 11:15 AM on February 11 [10 favorites]


Yglesias reaction piece. I tend to agree - gatekeepers can have value, not sure why Amazon should be the locus of the gatekeeping.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:15 AM on February 11


Between this piece and Deborah Friedell's in the LRB a few weeks ago it's been nice to see more open, informed public discussion of Amazon's dominance of publishing. I hope this thread can be a better version of that discussion than the Reddit thread on Packer's article, which consisted (unsurprisingly) largely of techno-utopian Kindle boosterism, free-market fundamentalism, and the knee-jerk defense of ebook piracy.
posted by RogerB at 11:16 AM on February 11 [7 favorites]


Doeren considered [Bezos's statement that Amazon was the biggest bookstore because it had the most affiliate links], then asked, “What’s your business model?”

Bezos said that Amazon intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers. The books would be priced close to cost, in order to increase sales volume. After collecting data on millions of customers, Amazon could figure out how to sell everything else dirt cheap on the Internet. (Amazon says that its original business plan “contemplated only books.”)

Afterward, Doeren told his partner at Rainy Day Books, Vivien Jennings, “I just met the world’s biggest snake-oil salesman. It’s going to be really bad for books.”


This is an interesting quote that the article doesn't fully explicate, though perhaps a close reading is too much work. What's the snake-oil here? Snake-oil suggests customers are being scammed for a fake product, but there's nothing fake about what Amazon was offering.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:18 AM on February 11


It has still never been explained to me how an e-book (which requires absolutely nothing to distribute) can cost as much (if not more!) than a mult-hundred page physical book.

CDs, DVDs, and software make sense, as that is an incredibly compact, uniform commodity. Books are seemingly complex physical works of all shapes and sizes.
posted by lattiboy at 11:19 AM on February 11


Because Amazon sells things at the price that yields the greatest profit overall. The value of the e-book is not some misty, Platonic "true value" but the price point that make the seller the most money.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:22 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


IIRC the cost of printing the physical object makes up perhaps 10 percent of the price of a book.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:24 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


He told her, “I’m sorry, Anne, I just don’t see what value you add.” (Kilar denies saying this.)

That's a bad thing to deny, as that phrase — to ask what value an employee adds — is very common in Amazon culture, especially around review season.

It's an interesting piece on corporate culture, but it really fails in understanding the problem in several key ways.

It isn't so much that Amazon lowered book prices to the point of squeezing authors and publishers, which they do. It isn't so much that the US government handed them even greater monopoly control over the book market by slamming Apple, which they did.

The reality is they are pretty much the only software-based online vendor capable of outdoing Walmart. And that's a problem for writers, not so much because they get paid less, but because Amazon can exercise effective control over what books reach the mainstream marketplace.

And that's a problematic chunk of power to hand to one private entity that regularly skirts the grey areas of the law in a number of areas (including taxation, for instance).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:26 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


lattiboy: It has still never been explained to me how an e-book (which requires absolutely nothing to distribute) can cost as much (if not more!) than a mult-hundred page physical book.

Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish: IIRC the cost of printing the physical object makes up perhaps 10 percent of the price of a book.

Exactly. Why e-books aren't cheaper:
Based on a list price of $27.95

$3.55 - Pre-production - This amount covers editors, graphic designers, and the like
$2.83 - Printing - Ink, glue, paper, etc
$2.00 - Marketing - Book tour, NYT Book Review ad, printing and shipping galleys to journalists
$2.80 - Wholesaler - The take of the middlemen who handle distribution for publishers
$4.19 - Author Royalties - A bestseller like (John) Grisham will net about 15% in royalties, lesser known authors get less. Also the author will be paying a slice of this pie piece to his agent, publicist, etc.

This leaves $12.58, Money magazine calls this the profit margin for the retailer, however, when was the last time you saw a bestselling novel sold at its cover price.
Those figures are circa 2009, but I doubt much has changed in any direction, except up.

That's why self-publishing authors can sell cut-rate books and make a killing (if they understand self-promotion and their niche market).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:28 AM on February 11 [12 favorites]


It has still never been explained to me how an e-book (which requires absolutely nothing to distribute) can cost as much (if not more!) than a mult-hundred page physical book.

The physical cost of a book often makes up less than a dollar of the overall price. Publishing, like any industry, has come a long way in the digital age and is now incredibly efficient. Let me illustrate the point with my experiences from working in bookstores. Paper books that don't sell are routinely stripped (the cover is torn off) and tossed in the recycling bin. I've done this to hundreds of books of the same title at once! This is because it costs more to ship this book back to the publisher's warehouse than it is to just print another copy.

Now think of the overhead involved in developing and maintaining the digital infrastructure to support a book buying and downloading service. That's some serious overhead that adds a small amount to the cost of each ebook. It's likely less a percentage than with printed books, but it isn't much.
posted by boubelium at 11:30 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Hardly anything is priced solely according to it's production cost. Prices just aren't determined that way.
posted by ceribus peribus at 11:36 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]


What a strange article...and the rest of it confirmed my initial impression.

The small publishers and independent booksellers are used as a kind of veil, covering the truly bad business practices of big publishing. I mean, Ingram was mentioned once in the article, even though surely it has had at least as detrimental effect on small bookstores as Amazon...and has had a longer time to do so. And has there been an era where small publishers and booksellers were not struggling? Not in my lifetime, certainly.

Book returns merited a passing mention, but what other industry has ever operated this way, shipping out huge amounts of merchandise which will either be shipped back for credit, or destroyed for credit? It is insane, and it's amazing the industry has lasted as long as it has.

These weird, ancient practices, bolstered by an addiction to mergers, aren't Amazon's fault. Amazon, sure, has some pretty weird stuff going on, but it is also not the monolith Packer makes it out to be, because it's on the Internet. Amazon removes the 'buy' button for the book you wanted? Yes, it's evil...but you can buy it from somewhere else in 30 seconds. There is really no shortage of outlets for books, no lack of places to read reviews to make buying decisions. Would the ease with which a book can be bought online, happened without businesses deciding to compete with Amazon?

I come back to my very first thought on that caption. The insistence on seeing books as a high-margin item is damaging, both to the book business itself, as well as to readers, and literacy generally. Libraries, used bookstores, and thrift shops are full of people who are proving the point that new books are priced too high...and those are just the people who are committed to finding the book at that low price point already, it doesn't include all the readers who could be enticed to buy at a cheap enough point if wide selection and ease of ordering were also guaranteed.
posted by mittens at 11:45 AM on February 11 [15 favorites]


Thanks folks! That is incredibly interesting to know.

One question I have: If that $2.83 cost for printing and glue and whatnot is correct, isn't that about 25-30% of the actual market price for a paperback?
posted by lattiboy at 11:49 AM on February 11


And that's a problem for writers, not so much because they get paid less, but because Amazon can exercise effective control over what books reach the mainstream marketplace.

First they came for the Big Foot rape porn, and I did not care because...well...really? Big Foot rape porn?

More seriously: there is no pre-Amazon publishing culture in which it was easier to get mass distribution of Big Foot rape porn (or equivalents) than it is in a post-Amazon publishing culture. Big Foot rape porn would have been basically unfindable to all but a small self-selecting coterie in the pre-Amazon world. No "normal" brick-and-mortar store would have carried it, and Amazon isn't about to ban anything that they would have carried (in fact, it carries far racier stuff--including Big Foot rape porn so long as the product descriptions aren't too explicit). There's always, though, going to be some margin at which a company like Amazon is going to balk. So long as we still have the internet, it will be easier for writers of that material (be in Nazi propaganda, child molestation fantasies or what have you) to find a large audience than ever before, but it will certainly be true that they will lose one particularly valuable channel when they are debarred from Amazon. But it seems to me a bit pointless to just go wherever that margin happens to be and start crying "Censorship! Censorship!"
posted by yoink at 11:50 AM on February 11 [5 favorites]


I really wish that non-self-published books had a list of credits in the back, like films do, of everyone who worked to produce the book. If you're lucky a polite author will have a few acknowledgements in an author's note. But the majority of really good books do not flow directly from the author's brain to the formatted page in flawless form, with no spellcheck intervening. When you think that's how writing works, it's all too easy to believe that publishers are only in business as bloated money-grubbing fossils, and that writer + self-published books + direct line to audience = freedom!!! But it devalues literature to not consider the time/money/effort/people it requires to publish it.

I honestly believe ebooks should remain nearly as expensive as print books. Because ultimately, bulk-printing paper copies by the thousands at the cheapest Chinese printer and then storing them in a warehouse is not the costly part of publishing a book. A publishing team of editors, proofreaders, fact checkers, graphic designers, publicists, tech support, accountants, etc., etc., will need to put just as much effort into producing an ebook as they would its print equivalent. Although you're less and less likely to see full publishing teams employed now, since books are magically appearing works of Art sprung from the brain of Zeus, so people shouldn't have to pay real money for them.
posted by nicebookrack at 11:50 AM on February 11 [5 favorites]


This is an interesting quote that the article doesn't fully explicate, though perhaps a close reading is too much work. What's the snake-oil here? Snake-oil suggests customers are being scammed for a fake product, but there's nothing fake about what Amazon was offering.

I connect this to two notions: that quality of books sold is more important than quantity (Besos clearly scheming for the latter); and the sentiment one encounters in many readers and indy booksellers that only those who love books for the sake of books (i.e. not as units of merchandise) are legitimate sellers of books. I have sympathy with the former but not necessarily the latter (I'm always wary of the "true believers" cult in any sphere, and I have seen too many indy bookstores founder because the true blue book loving owner had no idea what they were doing as a business owner).
posted by aught at 11:55 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure why people would think the equivalent of Walmart is any less evil just because it doesn't have physical stores.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:56 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


nicebookrack: I honestly believe ebooks should remain nearly as expensive as print books.

But your argument is based on the idea that high margin/low sales/high revenue is the only way to make sure designers, proofreaders, etc., get paid. The problem with it is, the industries seem very afraid to do a low margin/high sales/high revenue model. It's a model that seems to be working out well in other industries...why are publishers so hesitant? Why is selling 100 copies of an expensive book, better than selling 100,000 of a very inexpensive book?
posted by mittens at 11:56 AM on February 11


And here I was thinking that Amazon has completely improved my quality of life by providing a fast and easy service... It's a good thing the enlightened folks at the New Yorker explained to me why myself and millions of others are--sadly--mistaken.

I didn't read the article either, but I did read the first five words of the article, which were "Amazon is good for customers."
posted by escabeche at 11:59 AM on February 11 [9 favorites]


Barnes and Noble may have fired its entire NOOK hardware staff.

"We’ve been very clear about our focus on rationalizing the NOOK business and positioning it for future success and value creation. As we’ve aligned NOOK’s cost structure with business realities, staffing levels in certain areas of our organization have changed, leading to some job eliminations. We’re not going to comment specifically on those eliminations."

posted by sparklemotion at 12:01 PM on February 11


And here I was thinking that Amazon has completely improved my quality of life by providing a fast and easy service to instantly download books, buy used books (in my living room) for cents on the dollar of face value, and generally receive immense value for my money!

It's a good thing the enlightened folks at the New Yorker explained to me why myself and millions of others are--sadly--mistaken. And this is really just some greedy, sneaky, snake-oil sailsmen, who is trying to squeeze us with no mercy.


He's not squeezing you, he's squeezing publishers. The relevant question is whether we want publishers squeezed, whether they provide a social benefit which is not captured by their profit loss margin, nor sustained by their business model.

E.g., the social value generated by newspapers (such as it is, etc., etc.) is provided by investigative journalism. The funding model that sustained newspapers as a profitable enterprise is a combination of local business and classified advertising.

The argument for publishing, or at least for publishing-back-in-the-day, would be that they provided a social benefit by using their excess profit to publish good books and give good writers advances that would enable them to spend their time writing, even as diet books and Danielle Steele sustained their margins.

Amazon generally takes the view that if diet books and Danielle Steele are what sells, that's what they want to be in the business of publishing. They have no taste; they consider taste an irrelevancy. Taste sustains art.
posted by Diablevert at 12:03 PM on February 11 [14 favorites]


why are publishers so hesitant? Why is selling 100 copies of an expensive book, better than selling 100,000 of a very inexpensive book?

If they are, it's because they know that one way of selling books, if not necessarily leading to ginormous profits, actually sort of kinda works, while the other is a huge gamble.

Meanwhile for readers that second model isn't the greatest either, as that would lead/has lead to a relentless focus on bestsellers: the next Dan Brown, not the next Nicola Griffith.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:07 PM on February 11


Why is selling 100 copies of an expensive book, better than selling 100,000 of a very inexpensive book?

Presumably because most books don't have anything close to that level of demand elasticity? (And this is especially true of mid-list books, the ones whose ability to be published we should be worrying about now because they support the existence of writers, and indeed a non-intellectually-bankrupt culture in general.) The U.S. publishing market is already worryingly skewed toward bestsellers. We should want a publishing system that supports many different books at reasonable levels, not a winner-take-all system.
posted by RogerB at 12:07 PM on February 11 [11 favorites]


This is an interesting quote that the article doesn't fully explicate, though perhaps a close reading is too much work. What's the snake-oil here? Snake-oil suggests customers are being scammed for a fake product, but there's nothing fake about what Amazon was offering.

I read it as the sleazy part being the data collection/mining as the goal, not money. Especially since that's something that a lot of writers online love to shit on.

I mean, take it or leave it, but it is a widely held belief that it's default evil.
posted by emptythought at 12:16 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


IIRC the cost of printing the physical object makes up perhaps 10 percent of the price of a book.

But the cost of a physical book goes beyond production, doesn't it? Now you've got boxes full of heavy books that have to be stored, shipped and otherwise handled in order to move through the supply chain. And transporting things through the material world ain't getting any cheaper.
posted by Flexagon at 12:17 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Barnes and Noble may have fired its entire NOOK hardware staff.

If they haven't eliminated the whole staff, I'm kind of curious what they've been doing the past year or so, as they haven't done much in the last year.
posted by drezdn at 12:24 PM on February 11


Yikes. I do some work for Melville House and was not surprised to see them crop up in the article. I don't use Amazon anymore in part because of what Dennis has written about it.
posted by mlle valentine at 12:24 PM on February 11


I have a personal, emotional ambivalence for the death of the traditional model. I am from a small pissant town, next to a small pissant city in flyover country. When we got a Barnes and Nobles we were thankful, because it was better than the closet sized Waldenbooks in the mall. The local, underfunded library was little better.

The old model did not serve me. I doubt the powers that be cared it did.

I can buy almost any title any get it to my door in two days, if not instantly. Although Amazon now has the ability to restrict what books they sell, there never has been a time when large corporations didn't control what books I could buy. They have a much lighter hand that B&N, Waldenbooks, whatever random Christian bookstore, or Wal-mart ever did.

If the traditional publishing model and Amazon cannot co-exist, I have very little sympathy for the publishers. Their value never seemed to trickle down to me.
posted by zabuni at 12:34 PM on February 11 [18 favorites]


And here I was thinking that Amazon has completely improved my quality of life by providing a fast and easy service... It's a good thing the enlightened folks at the New Yorker explained to me why myself and millions of others are--sadly--mistaken.

What is good for customers now may not be good for customers later or may not be good for society as a whole. This is not a difficult or radical concept.
posted by entropicamericana at 12:44 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]


A friend of mine just published a really interesting look at another aspect of amazon's business: The Crowdworkers of the Mechanical Turk.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:45 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure why people would think the equivalent of Walmart is any less evil just because it doesn't have physical stores.

Perhaps because a lot of the evil of Walmart is inextricably bound to staffing those stores? I realize that Amazon fulfillment people don't have the best jobs either, but that doesn't seem especially relevant to the sale of digital goods.
posted by me & my monkey at 12:48 PM on February 11


People love to compare the current Amazon-dominated book marketplace with the pre-Amazon marketplace of a few years or in some cases decades ago, but that doesn't seem like a fair comparison.

It's not as though, absent Amazon, that the book market would have just stood still. Retail, in general, has been consolidating for decades. Ecommerce has hit many specialty stores. Yes, several big bookstore chains have gone under, but several big electronics chains have gone down as well — the market forces are similar and are not restricted to books.

What seems likely to have happened, if we imagine a world where Bezos went into law or medicine or investment banking, is that books would have continued to become dominated by the big gen-merch chains, especially Walmart. There was a time when Walmart was primed to become one of the biggest book vendors in the country, and I think it only stumbled because their online presence has always sucked (their supply chain and logistics model really doesn't lend itself to online order fulfillment well). That's really the alternative that you have to compare to what we have today. Not some cozy alternative of independent bookstores, but one where publishing is dominated by whatever Walmart can shove down the collective gorge a few million copies at a time, and everyone else fights for scraps around the edges — just like the rest of the retail world.

Amazon, at least, has a model that's built around wide selection, and the lack of physical stores means that a large publishing run isn't required to make a particular book widely available. You can produce a very short print run (or even do PoD) and be "in stock" on Amazon, with an order-to-delivery time not substantially different from the latest Harry Potter book. That is not possible with physical bookstores: you have to print a lot of copies just to get them in front of potential buyers.

I think it's important to keep in mind the worse alternatives that we might have avoided by ending up with Amazon/Bezos running the show, in between bouts of complaining about how terrible they are.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:50 PM on February 11 [7 favorites]


Well Skynet hasn't started lobbing nukes willynilly yet, but that doesn't mean I'm going to be thrilled about drones with the ability to self-select targets.
posted by entropicamericana at 12:54 PM on February 11


I was looking over the above cited figures for book publishing. I've seen these cited before. These are for The Associate by John Grisham.

Based on a list price of $27.95

$3.55 - Pre-preduction (sic) - This amount covers editors, graphic designers, and the like
$2.83 - Printing - Ink, glue, paper, etc
$2.00 - Marketing - Book tour, NYT Book Review ad, printing and shipping galleys to journalists
$2.80 - Wholesaler - The take of the middlemen who handle distrobution for publishers
$4.19 - Author Royalties - A bestseller like Grisham will net about 15% in royalties, lesser known authors get less. Also the author will be paying a slice of this pie piece to his agent, publicist, etc.

I'm guessing this book being John Grisham it sold hard copy 200,000 and paperback 500,000 minimum. Let's say 300,000 electronic. While the printing costs will be different between hard and soft covers and electronic, the pre-production, marketing would be much the same, the author royalties might bounce around (maybe a fixed percentage) and the wholesaler costs would disappear with electronic.

So, is that really $700,000 for pre-production costs of the hard-cover which gets added to another $1,665,000 for the soft cover?

Did they really spend over a million on publicity?

And they still got all of the gravy of the electronic version?

What I'm saying is two things. I think these numbers are poorly descriptive even for the John Grisham book. Numbers which are percentages of a small wedge of the books that are sold when they would be absolute costs (pre-production, publicity-not absolute, but I'm sure diminishing) divided by all of the books sold is a poor way of describing costs for an individual book.

And, beyond Grisham, these numbers are probably nowhere near descriptive for most books. It sounds like someone is selling a line of poorly thought-out bullshit.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:54 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


Bit of nerd-lore, Emacs was important to early Amazon.
posted by sammyo at 1:03 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Did they really spend over a million on publicity?

Eh, I can't speak to book publishing specifically, but I was talking to a guy who used to buy print ads in a major metro daily; it was $100,000 for a single full page Sunday ad in a major metro daily (not a national paper like the NY Times). Ten times that for an entire campaign doesn't seem at all out of whack....but I have a friend who could answer this far batter than me if she cares too, let me see if she will...
posted by Diablevert at 1:04 PM on February 11


People often seem inclined to conflate book sales and distribution with publishing in these discussions, but it'd be good if we could draw the distinctions a little better than this, since the company's effect on publishing specifically is really the subject of Packer's article.

Like the chain bookstores, Walmart doesn't try to compete with e.g. Random House directly — it mostly wants to strongarm publishers on pricing, like it does to any other widget supplier. When Walmart exerts control over what is published, it's only indirectly, by economic leverage. But Amazon does both, and ultimately seems to want to use e-publishing as a way into dominating the publishing industry, in addition to dominating bookselling. It's reasonable to be concerned about either one of the two, but they're at least partly separable and different arguments apply.
posted by RogerB at 1:10 PM on February 11


This is an amazing article, for Amazon watchers/critics, there is a ton of new and meaty information. This will be a seminal piece for a while.
posted by stbalbach at 1:19 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


One question I have: If that $2.83 cost for printing and glue and whatnot is correct, isn't that about 25-30% of the actual market price for a paperback?

Because that's the cost for a hardcover book, not a paperback book. The cost for a paperback book is considerably lower.
posted by Justinian at 1:28 PM on February 11


It's interesting, given all the outrage out there about the high cost of e-books that there isn't the same level of concern about the price discrepancy between hard cover and paperback books (a difference almost entirely unrelated to manufacturing costs). I guess that's just one of those things where human psychology just accepts that the evident physical differences between the products justifies the steep cost difference.
posted by yoink at 2:22 PM on February 11


Well and often the hardbacks come out earlier and so you are paying a premium to have it "first" even though nowadays that lag is also totally built-in and imaginary/unnecessary.
posted by jessamyn at 2:26 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


And then there's the way that $27.95 book would get sold in Canada for $36.50, because publishers feign that they can't keep up with the latest forex rates and are only coincidentally clinging to the pricing they adopted in the 80s when the difference was at it's highest. Shipping & handling extra, of course.
posted by ceribus peribus at 2:34 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


In Seinfeld2000-speak, "Krame find out Obame now ownd by Amezon."
The coup de grâce came last November, when the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service announced a special partnership to deliver Amazon—and only Amazon—packages on Sundays, with the terms kept under official seal. To some people in the book world, Obama’s embrace of their nemesis felt like a betrayal. One literary agent said, “It’s strange that a President who’s an author, and whose primary income has come from being an author, was siding with a monopoly that wants to undercut publishers.”
posted by larrybob at 2:36 PM on February 11


He's not squeezing you, he's squeezing publishers.

Yup, and fuck em, I say. Fuck em in the ear. The 5 large publishers are fucking bastards, and have been bastards for decades. They were happy to rip us off blind here in Australia (do you know how much a mass market paperback, say the first book of game of thrones, costs here? $23.95. Australian dollar is at 90 US cents. They have fucked libraries, booklovers, writers etc. The idea that they are some kind of tastemaker (compared to Amazon) is hilarious when you see the swirling cataracts of shit that pour out on the desperate gamble one will prove to be the next Dan Brown.

Amazon, for me, as a book reader, has done more for diversity and quality of titles than anything else I've ever encountered. They are not saints, but I feel like a lot of criticism is based on some starry-eyed view of publishers which is wholly at odds with the grubby reality.
posted by smoke at 2:45 PM on February 11 [18 favorites]


The idea that publishers are better arbiters of what we should be reading than we are ourselves seems to me at best condescending claptrap. Amazon is in the business of figuring out and delivering what its customers want -- and what's wrong with that?

Art has always been at the mercy of the marketplace, in the sense that patrons, publishers, and anyone else who pays for the art wants the artist to cater to their preferences or wish to make a buck. What is a bit different here is that it is the readers who are driving the demand for books these days. I am fine with that.
posted by bearwife at 3:06 PM on February 11


This is a really good article, full of many insights and observations on an issue that's important to me, and no doubt to many others here. There's a lot that I agreed with and a lot I need to read again and think about.

One thing that really jumps out at me is the poor performance of Amazon Publishing, blamed (in part) in the article on conventional bookstores refusing to stock titles published by their nemesis. It seems that even Amazon still needs the competition to give a title a "critical mass." If the book doesn't succeed first in brick and mortar bookstores, it won't succeed at all.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:14 PM on February 11


By the way, Chrysostom, Matt Yglesias' reaction has a permanent link at Will Amazon Destroy the Market for Quality Books?
posted by Monochrome at 3:15 PM on February 11


Amazon Publishing, blamed (in part) in the article on conventional bookstores refusing to stock titles published by their nemesis.

I find this interesting as I've purchased several of those titles, only those from Nancy pearls booklust series and whatever their translation imprint is, and found them to have a very good price/performance ratio.
posted by smoke at 3:20 PM on February 11


I have found that their Kindle Serial program features really poor editing -- it's a really interesting plan, but I'm not sure that the books are successful in the way that older serials had been.

And then there's the way that $27.95 book would get sold in Canada for $36.50, because publishers feign that they can't keep up with the latest forex rates and are only coincidentally clinging to the pricing they adopted in the 80s when the difference was at it's highest. Shipping & handling extra, of course.

Prices are now closer -- especially with paperbacks, which rarely swing more than a dollar -- except for board books for kids. I have no idea what that's all about.

(Starbucks, on their mugs and stuff, does the same thing, charging 15-30% more in Canada.)
posted by jeather at 3:24 PM on February 11


Another thing I wonder about is the statement (can't remember who said it, but it was one of the quotes) that publishing wouldn't exist at all right now if it weren't for Amazon. I don't know if that's true, but through Amazon there has been a massive movement of capital over the last twenty years into book distribution. (And yes, I know that same distribution channel now sells everything, but it still moves books along with the dog food.) Probably way more investment into the physical warehousing and distribution of books than there would have been if publishing and chain stores had continued holding each other in their death grip, and genteelly declined.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:28 PM on February 11


> whatever their translation imprint is

AmazonCrossing.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:08 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


/What is a bit different here is that it is the readers who are driving the demand for books these days

Could you explain this a bit?
posted by ominous_paws at 4:31 PM on February 11


And here I was thinking that Amazon has completely improved my quality of life by providing a fast and easy service to instantly download books, buy used books (in my living room) for cents on the dollar of face value, and generally receive immense value for my money!

That's fine if you think that a business has obligations only to you the customer.

If you take a more old fashioned view that a business is lives in a broader environment and has obligations in varying degrees to its customers, to its workers, to its suppliers (authors/publishers in this case), to its community, and to its shareholders, well, Amazon starts to look a lot less bright and shiny. Bezos, in short, is no Milton Hershey. Long term, it's hard to argue that Amazon help birth a new age of better literature, much less that it sees any particular interest in doing so. (Me, I'm off to buy a Melville Book.)

The idea that publishers are better arbiters of what we should be reading than we are ourselves seems to me at best condescending claptrap. Amazon is in the business of figuring out and delivering what its customers want -- and what's wrong with that?


But condescending publishers have always been perfectly willing to sell what the customers want. Hence Mazo de la Roche, Mickey Spillane, Harold Robbins, hence Fifty Shades of Gray. Amazon is simply eager to get on that gravy train (with, NB, less of the risk). Unlike Amazon, however, condescending publishers, on their better days at least, are also willing to work with and publish [fill in your favorite quality unknown novelist here]. Not as much nor as well as they did in decades past, but still, it can happen. Amazon - not so much.

As to the Yay Amazon helped the country folk! - There was long distance commerce long before the internet. Back in the day, booksellers would mail books anywhere in the country if not the world. Still will, in fact. Give them a call.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:33 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Art has always been at the mercy of the marketplace, in the sense that patrons, publishers, and anyone else who pays for the art wants the artist to cater to their preferences or wish to make a buck. What is a bit different here is that it is the readers who are driving the demand for books these days. I am fine with that.

Are they, though? The readers? The big publishers have been blockbuster driven for decades now, and will only become more so. So you could certainly argue that any useful social function they had served is long gone.

But. Placement, promotion, "readers who purchased XYZ also purchased QWV...." all that shit has a huge, huge influence on what actually gets bought. As the article points out, the bulk of book promotion money, at this point, is just paying Amazon to prominently feature a title. Publishers give Amazon their taste or they don't play. Even the indie guys can't afford to spurn them.

So when you say "readers are driving the demand" where's the evidence for that? For every word-of-mouth book that's blown up, I could point you to a very fine author who languished in obscurity until being championed by someone influential. Amazon has a ring through reader's noses, and they don't care about what's good and what's bad, just who pays the baksheesh.
posted by Diablevert at 4:38 PM on February 11


It's interesting, given all the outrage out there about the high cost of e-books that there isn't the same level of concern about the price discrepancy between hard cover and paperback books (a difference almost entirely unrelated to manufacturing costs).

I'm in a mild snit about the 6"x9" trade paperbacks that have been cluttering up my local bookstore at $15+ a pop. That and the manga that's $5 over in Japan and $10 over here.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:31 PM on February 11


The idea that publishers are better arbiters of what we should be reading than we are ourselves seems to me at best condescending claptrap.

Publishers aren't in the business of giving you what you should be reading, they're in the business of giving you what you want to read. That's the only way they make money. Okay, yes, they actually end up doing both; they will happily publish as many copies of the latest fad book of the month as the public will buy and use the revenue to publish books they actually believe are good books. 'Cause a lot of people went into publishing because they love books. The ones who didn't go into publishing to get rich I mean. HAHAHAHAHA. Ahem. Yeah, you don't get rich by going into publishing.

As someone who loves books I'm extremely grateful for the publishers. Because they wade through the crap in the slush pile so that I don't have to do it myself. You know Dan Brown? Or Stephanie Meyer? Or people like that? As awful as they are they can actually write ten times as well as the vast majority of the stuff in the slush pile. Hell, a hundred times as well. That's what would happen without publishers - we'd have to read fifty books much worse than Twilight to find one barely decent novel.

Can anyone really claim that the limiting factor on finding good books to read is that there aren't enough books to read rather than there isn't enough time to read all the books?
posted by Justinian at 7:18 PM on February 11


Yay Amazon helped the country folk!

You could have made your point without being condescending. And, yes, for those of us in rural areas, Amazon does make a huge difference. The catalog is massive, easy to search and the book arrives in two days, or instantly on the Kindle. If you've never lived far away from a city, then I guess I can understand how you wouldn't understand how great Amazon Prime can be in that situation.

I moved to my remote location to help out in a family crisis. Sometimes this place feels very isolated from the rest of the universe, with the nearest city of any size being a 2 hour trip away. I like hearing the coyotes howl from the edge of my land and seeing the deer and the antelope play but, culturally, this isn't a very vibrant place. Amazon Prime, and relatively fast internet and Netflix and other things, help tremendously.

Sure, in the pre-Amazon / Internet days, I could order whatever I wanted. I'm barely old enough to remember those days well and the 2 week to 2 month delay in getting my order, assuming I could find a place that sold the book I wanted in the first place. For more obscure books, a lot of calling around was entailed, and this was often long distance calling back in the days when long distance was a source of great expense and horror. Sometimes interlibrary loan was the only solution, but this also had a long lead time. It's not a great time to reference if you're trying to make a comparison to Amazon.
posted by honestcoyote at 7:21 PM on February 11 [10 favorites]


So basically, a little extra convenience for you outweighs all of Amazon's well-documented negatives (predatory business practices, poor treatment of workers, anti-union activities, et cetera)?
posted by entropicamericana at 7:56 PM on February 11


If you want to have a genuine discussion with people about why they make the life choices they make, it's a lot easier if you don't do that sort of "I am summarizing what you said in a really nasty way to make you sound like an asshole" thing.

Signed,

another person from the country
posted by jessamyn at 7:59 PM on February 11 [15 favorites]


It was phrased as a question, they are free to answer in the negative, and it raises a perfectly valid point.

Signed,

what makes you think I'm not from the country, too?
posted by entropicamericana at 8:08 PM on February 11


So basically, a little extra convenience for you outweighs all of Amazon's well-documented negatives (predatory business practices, poor treatment of workers, anti-union activities, et cetera)?

For me, here in Australia, I only buy ebooks and my rationalisation is that none of those activities (cept maaaaybe the first one) really apply to the business as it pertains to ebooks, and as for predatory, as outlined above, I've felt so exploitated and shitted off by the publishing/bookselling industry as a whole I'm quite satisfied to see someone giving them shit.
posted by smoke at 8:26 PM on February 11


So what valid point does it raise? That I use an unethical company for some of my needs even when I know it's unethical? I'll admit I do, even though I'm troubled by it and I sometimes try to find alternatives. Will you admit to the same?

To be an American (or citizen of any first world country) is to use unethical products every day. Even you, entropicamericana, as you happily stew in your indignation, are using a computing device most likely made in China by underpaid and overworked people in an unregulated factory generating an ungodly amount of pollution. Your computing device's screen contains things like rare earths which were sourced from either a heavily polluted Chinese mine or from a conflict area in Africa where the miners may not work there by choice. And can you tell me how your computer / tablet / phone was shipped to you? Well paid union workers or guys getting 8 bucks an hour in unheated / uncooled warehouses? What about the warehouses and the shippers who handled your gadget on the other side of the Pacific? If you bought it in a store, does the store pay its workers a living wage? If you needed support or warranty replacement for your gadget, did you ever talk to a nine dollar an hour CSR who is only allowed a bathroom break once per shift and is terrified of losing her job because you spent a little too long on the phone, thus poisoning her insanely strict metrics? Or maybe a tech in India on her 10th hour of a 12 hour day?

So why haven't you returned to pen & paper & carrier pigeon? Does the convenience of using modern computing equipment outweigh all the negatives of a cruel industry for you? Do you enjoy your small part in making all of these people suffer?

Do you enjoy being on the receiving end of questions carefully crafted to make you look like an uncaring asshole?
posted by honestcoyote at 9:53 PM on February 11 [9 favorites]


entropicamericana: "I'm not sure why people would think the equivalent of Walmart is any less evil just because it doesn't have physical stores."

Well this. The face of Amazon is their web site (fairly slick) and your mailbox. You don't see the people getting paid shit wages in appalling conditions with no security. And people used to shopping at their mailboxes don't see the reduction in local shopping options. And when your indie bookstore owner closes up shop they don't end up with a job at Amazon.
posted by Mitheral at 11:34 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


Interestingly, Hugh Howey (previously) just yesterday released a compendium (or at least as compendium-y as they could get, as the intro to the report explains) on self vs. traditional publishing.
posted by Evilspork at 11:58 PM on February 11


And I shouldn't have ended on such a sour note.

My point is that most of us make these sorts of compromises. Whether it's with Amazon, or whoever made our gadgets, whoever provides our fuel, our power, or our food. Unless you're an off-the-grid freegan, you make these compromises daily.

A more civil way to phrase your question is: why do we make these compromises and why do most of us make them so easily?
posted by honestcoyote at 12:06 AM on February 12


I buy ebooks and print books. I'll continue to prefer the ink and paper versions so long as, what seems to be, every 10th Amazon ebook has typos, from obviously mis-placed semicolons in the middle of words to missing spaces or periods. I've also noticed a few examples of "used the completely wrong character name", especially while in the midst of back-and-forth conversation. Sometimes I don't click the "I want to read this on Kindle" button because I wonder that a book with less demand won't have shittier editing.

That said, I buy gobs of books from Amazon. It's the only way I can get a startling amount of print about _insert subject here_ for fairly cheap. My recent subject binge was photography; I now own The Camera, The Negative, The Print, and Ansel Adams: An Autobiography. All for about $40, all of which I wouldn't have bought otherwise.
posted by DisreputableDog at 4:05 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


"Bezos’s favorite novel is Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day,” which is on the suggested reading list for Amazon executives. All the other titles, including “Sam Walton, Made in America: My Story,” are business books, and even Ishiguro’s novel—about a self-erasing English butler who realizes that he has missed his chance at happiness in love—offers what Bezos calls a “regret-minimization framework”: how not to end up like the butler."

I've hated Amazon for ages, but this is reason enough to never give Jeff Bezos another cent again. What a tool.
posted by libraritarian at 9:42 AM on February 12


...So why haven't you returned to pen & paper & carrier pigeon? Does the convenience of using modern computing equipment outweigh all the negatives of a cruel industry for you? Do you enjoy your small part in making all of these people suffer?

So basically our hands are all dirty, therefore there's no point in trying to take a principled stand on anything?

Do you enjoy being on the receiving end of questions carefully crafted to make you look like an uncaring asshole?

I sometimes enjoy having my beliefs and behavior challenged when having a discussion and try not to take myself too seriously, so yes?
posted by entropicamericana at 10:04 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


A more civil way to phrase your question is: why do we make these compromises and why do most of us make them so easily?

That's basically what I'm trying to get at. In today's world, there's nearly no way out of living a compromised life. Does that mean we should live unexamined lives too? Does that mean we have to accept things the way they are or are going and just say, "Welp, that's progress. Can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs." I'd say "No."
posted by entropicamericana at 10:07 AM on February 12


Does that mean we should live unexamined lives too?

Given the volume of articles written about Amazon, its business and labor practices, I think it's far easier to live an examined life and order from them, than from their competitors. How much do we know about unionization and worker treatment at other major chains? Or for that matter, at used and independent stores? How do you examine these issues, before being morally satisfied that you've found a good place to get a book?
posted by mittens at 10:34 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


Target and Walmart have horrible anti-union practices, have taken a terrible toll on unionized grocery stores (jobs with livable wages), have driven many locally-owned businesses out of business, ruined downtowns, promote car-dependent culture, and pad their bottom line at the taxpayers' expense. Why does it upset people that these things bother me?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Why does Amazon usually get a pass from the same people that condemn Walmart?
posted by entropicamericana at 11:02 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


I vaguely recall from reading The Wal-Mart Effect that there has been a study or two showing that Wal-Mart customers who are most conflicted about Wal-Mart's practices are those who shop there the most. This may be a related phenomenon.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:26 AM on February 12


So basically our hands are all dirty, therefore there's no point in trying to take a principled stand on anything?

More of the realization that I'm not even a drop in the bucket of consumers. What stand I take or don't take doesn't affect anything. If I don't order from Amazon, then the workers are still treated poorly. If I don't buy an iPad, then all the problems that go into its manufacture still occur. The stand you or I take is equally meaningless in the short term beyond the good feelings it might generate for us.

Amazon Prime makes my life and my family's life much easier. Considering the city is a four hour round trip and shopping would take another 2-4 hours on top of that, Amazon often allows me to eliminate an all day chore. It reduces my gasoline consumption. It gives me more time to spend with the dogs and family and more time to do my work. Since a personal boycott of Amazon does not make anything better for the warehouse workers, then this is a compromise I can make because it makes my life better. Does the compromise trouble me? Yes, because it reveals me to be the hypocrite I am.

But modern society makes hypocrites of us all, at least those of us who give a shit about the environment and worker's rights.

And the point I was trying to make, with my angry rejoinder to you, was to change your rhetoric, assuming you're not just trolling. Your hands are most likely as covered with blood as mine, so asking me a loaded question whose sole intent is to say: "Christ, what an asshole" really accomplishes nothing beyond making your message seem deeply hypocritical and your potential allies think you're a jerk.
posted by honestcoyote at 11:39 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Why does it upset people that these things bother me?

What upsets people is you acting like you're making some sort of gotcha statement about how people live their lives knowing very little about them and appear to be presuming that because you've decided not to shop at Amazon that people who do continue to shop there are living an unexamined life in some fashion and are found wanting by you, person on the internet. What upsets people is that you have a lot of different choices that you can make about how to interact here and when people tell you that you're making this conversation difficult (and not in a "you can't handle the truth!" way) you just continue to make these armchair anarchist statements about terrible things to stay away from while remaining secure in the fact that no one can criticize your choices because we know nothing about them, or you.

We know very little about each other and honestcoyote's explanation of the real life compromises that they make as their go through life--compromises that include Amazon shopping--is actually sharing some personal experience and some of the real-life choices that they are making. There is risk in personal disclosure and one of those risks is that you're going to get people looking at your choices under a magnifying glass and deciding that they don't measure up.

Does that mean we should live unexamined lives too?

I shop at Amazon occasionally (though I don't buy books from them) for similar reasons, so that's my skin in the game. I "tithe" back to be the change I want to see in the world by doing free work for Open Library helping connect people, worldwide, with books for free. Everyone here probably has things they do that they are proud of and things that they do that they are not so proud of and we try to muddle forward. The alternative to not boycotting Amazon is not living a totally unexamined life. The implication that it is just sounds like high school debate club tactics. Respect this community enough to presume that they understand the angles as well as you do and maybe just made different choices.
posted by jessamyn at 12:11 PM on February 12 [5 favorites]


Amazon.com: Leveraging your consumer instincts against your community commitment since 1994.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:41 PM on February 12


And hurling invective like "armchair anarchist" and "high school debate club tactics" are shining examples of community engagement?
posted by entropicamericana at 12:49 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I mean, what the fuck would jessamyn know about that? o_0
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:55 PM on February 12


Well, they're relatively honest characterizations of how some folks are interpreting the tone of the comments. It's worth noting that both descriptors used by Jessamyn are actually quite indirect; they characterize the statements that you have been posting and not you yourself. (Contra, say, your comment that she's hurling invective.)
posted by Going To Maine at 1:01 PM on February 12


Thanks for pointing that out, I'll make sure my insults are more indirect in the future.
posted by entropicamericana at 1:04 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


It's true! I mean, perhaps this falls as smarm according to the Gawker definition, but IMO it's better to emphasize that the objection is to the words someone has typed than to conflate the person & the statement.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:17 PM on February 12


Oh sorry did you not want an answer to "Why does it upset people..."?
posted by jessamyn at 1:24 PM on February 12


I didn't especially need one, no.
posted by entropicamericana at 1:27 PM on February 12


> You could have made your point without being condescending.

Sorry you took it that way. For what it's worth, I've lived in the country (pre internet - I cherished the slower pace) back in the day and ordered plenty of books by mail. The Internet makes it a whole lot easier. My point was that Internet does not equal Amazon. (Yet.) There are other options, options well worth supporting. Options I pointed out.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:29 AM on February 13


Anyway, back to Amazon....

RadioLab just did a great short piece about working for Amazon, and Amazon-like/utilized fulfillment centers called Brown Box.

Pull quote 1: "Who is ordering paper towels on the Internet?"

Pull quote 2: "Everybody is asking each other, 'Why are you here?" which is like in prison."
posted by Toekneesan at 2:20 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Amazon recently bought Kiva, who make robotic warehouse pickers, and have ordered up a ton of the machines to install in their warehouses. So I guess the "Amazon warehouse picker jobs are exploitative!" stories will soon be a thing of the past. Yay?
posted by yoink at 2:44 PM on February 13


Why 18th century books looked like smartphone screens
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:15 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


With special awesomesauce by our own Horace Rumpole!
posted by jessamyn at 2:57 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


That's an interesting post. Maybe that is why 17th and 18th century authors (and readers) were so industrious: given a small market of dedicated readers, the book publishers gravitated toward the formats that were easiest to read. And in an era before widespread adoption of prescription glasses, the large type on those books probably helped reduce eyestrain quite a bit.

I wonder how much one's preferences depend upon early training, though. Even when given the freedom to be one's own typesetter (thanks to modern Ereaders) I tend to prefer page sizes of 300-500 words. It's just what I'm used to.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:34 AM on February 19


« Older How Do You Code?...  |  "For centuries, coffee was use... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments