December 6, 2011
The most influential bookseller in Britain calls Amazon the devil
by Ellie Robins
Book-industry professionals are often shy to criticise Amazon—it’s a biting the hand that feeds issue, even though ‘feed’ in this instance normally means ‘bully and coerce’. Of course, Melville House has become known as the most vociferous exception to that rule; never let it be said that we haven’t made our thoughts on Amazon clear …
Someone else has just chimed in: James Daunt, Managing Director of Britain’s biggest bookselling chain Waterstone’s, and founder of the wonderful Daunt Books. In a long interview in The Independent, he describes Amazon as a ‘ruthless, money-making devil’, adding that ‘The computer screen is a terrible environment in which to select books. All that “If you read this, you’ll like that” – it’s a dismal way to recommend books.’ Quite, and how refreshing to hear someone using such strong language, though of course Daunt is in direct competition with Amazon, so you’d expect a certain sting to his words. He ends the interview by talking about the responsibility he feels to ensure that bookshops don’t die out:
As to the books-industry Cassandras who predict that publishers, agents and booksellers may all disappear in the next five years, “I wouldn’t bet against publishers,” he said. “The editorial process and the marketing — someone has to do it. I don’t think agents are the best people to do it. Authors certainly aren’t — they need editing. I think either all three will survive or they’ll all disappear, swept away, replaced by one big fat Amazon, getting his way. And if the bookshops go, they will never come back.” His combative eyes glitter.
“So I have a responsibility.”
That question of responsibility, both social and artistic, is being discussed more and more by everyone in the book industry, as we all try to position ourselves on rapidly shifting ground. After all, this industry has never been just about making money. As Melville House co-publisher Dennis Johnson put it in The New York Times a few weeks ago: ‘It’s been about art-making and culture-making and speaking truth to power.’ The Independent article’s comments section illustrates the divide beautifully: while some commentators praise Amazon as working in the customer’s best interests by competing on price, others point out that those knock-down prices are the product of a business model that is not sustainable either by publishers or, very possibly, by Amazon itself. Cheap doesn’t look so cheap any more when you factor in the threat to the futurity of the very products you’re buying.
Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.