February 17, 2012

Authors Guild joins list of major players drawing a line in the sand against “predatory” Amazon


Add the Authors Guild to the list of major industry players taking a dramatic stand against Amazon.com for unfair business practices. Yesterday, the Guild issued a statement decrying the behemoth from Seattle for “predatory” business tactics, and dismissing the defense that those tactics were simply unfettered capitalism, saying the “free market … had little to do with it.”

The declaration of war comes just as librarians are debating how much to blame Amazon for Penguin’s abrupt withdrawal of its ebooks from library circulation because of the Kindle Lending Library, and just a few weeks after the continent’s biggest bookstore chains Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and Indigo Books all declared a boycott of books published by Amazon because of practices that had “undermined the industry as a whole.” (The American Booksellers Associatioseemed to join the boycott when its ecommerce platform removed Amazon books from its site. But several readers claimed in the comments to one MobyLives report that the ABA, as a trade group, cannot legally advocate a boycott … although that’s hard to reconcile with the fact that removing ebooks from its platform would seem to constitute exactly that, and equally hard to reconcile with the fact that, two days later, according to this Financial Times report, ABA head Oren Teicher applauded the chains’ boycott and called for more such, saying, “We’ve got to push back and make the case that they have ulterior motives that are not in the best interests of the book industry.”)

And indeed, in its statement, the Guild cites its support of B&N in its stand as a testament to how drastic things have become:

We aren’t Barnes & Noble’s champions, or at least we aren’t their champions by choice. We’d favor a far more diverse and robust retail landscape for books, and we encourage all readers to patronize their local bookstores as they would their farmers’ markets or any other businesses that enrich the quality of life in their towns and neighborhoods. But here’s where we are: Barnes & Noble is book publishing’s sole remaining substantial firewall. Without it, browsing in a bookstore would become a thing of the past for much of the country, and we would largely lose the most important means for new literary voices to be discovered.

Coming on the heels of its statement two weeks ago regarding Amazon’s negative impact overall on the literary ecosystem, this new statement is a smart, concise take on Amazon’s march through developing the Kindle as a way to both dominate a market and take out the competitors — particularly smart is its discussion of how Amazon attacked Macmillan for attempting to deal with a competitor, and using that attack as an attempt to derail B&N’s launch of the Nook.

But perhaps most importantly is the way the statement, from beginning to end, zeroes in on the thing we’ve been noting on this site for years (and elsewhere, as in this NPR Morning Edition report): that Amazon’s predatory practices clearly seem a violation of antitrust laws:

… we’ve long had laws in place (limits on the duration and scope of patent protections, antitrust laws, stricter regulation of industries considered natural monopolies) that aim to prevent innovators and others from capturing a market or an industry. There’s good reason for this: those who capture a market tend to be a bit rough on other participants in the market. They also tend to stop innovating …

A truly competitive, open market has no indispensable player that can call the shots. The book publishing industry has such a player, and Amazon is poised and by all appearances eager to use its muscle to rip up the remaining physical infrastructure of book retailing and the vital book-browsing ecosystem it supports.

If Amazon succeeds, the free market will have had little to do with it.



Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.