March 23, 2012

Indie publisher: Beware Bezos bearing gifts


MobyLives reported last week on Bryce Milligan, the publisher of Wings Press, an indie that’s represented by IPG and so caught in the IPG/Amazon ebook conflict. That report was inspired by a robust statement released by Milligan, saying that the publishing industry was in a state of undeclared war instigated by Amazon. He was in fine form again on Publishing Perspectives yesterday, discussing Amazon’s charitable giving. For those not acquainted with philanthropy a la Bezos, in recent years Amazon has given a number of grants, normally of $25k, to non-profit organisations related to literature and literacy. ‘In recent years’ means since 2009, when Slate and The Stranger called the company out for its total lack of charitable giving: the memorable line from Slate‘s report being that ’there are lemonade stands that donate more to charity than does’.

When these Amazon grants started appearing, a lot of people in the literature industries were delighted. After all, nobody would dispute that Pen American Center, Poets & Writers or AWP are deserving of the cash. Some of us were a little more wary, though: in 2010, Melville House pulled out of a competition partly funded by a $25k sponsorship from Amazon, reasoning that:

It’s clear to us that Amazon’s interests, and those of a healthy book culture, whether electronic or not, are antithetical. As most of us here at Melville House have also worked at indie bookstores — including such biggies as Booksoup, Shaman Drum, Brookline Booksmith and others — we feel this especially keenly: Taking money from Amazon makes about as much sense as a medical researcher taking money from a cigarette company.

While some applauded our decision, it also attracted criticism from some quarters. In the LA Times, Carolyn Kellogg  wondered:

Could a translator of a novel published in, say, Estonia really be destroying book culture by accepting a $5,000 grant for their work from Open Letter, the University of Rochester and Three Percent, which present the 4-year-old Best Translated Book Awards?

That comment goes to show how deft Amazon’s maneuvering had been: in backing individuals and institutions that are well-loved in the literary industry, they borrowed some much-needed credentials, basked in some reflected glory, and — crucially — attempted to make continued objection to their practices seem curmudgeonly, stubborn, counter-productive. As Milligan observed in yesterday’s Publishing Perspectives piece:

There is clearly a case to be made that this is marketing masquerading as philanthropy — not unusual — but with the double intent of encouraging silence from the very organizations most likely to be vociferous in objecting to Amazon’s predatory actions against independent publishers, distributors and bookstores. In short, a Trojan Horse?…

And if that seems overly suspicious, he remarks on Amazon’s selection process for beneficiaries of the grant:

Amazon’s grant program seems to an outside observer to be a gambit played in advance of a frontal assault. If that sounds cynical, notice that there is no application process at all. Instead, Amazon asks for “nominations” while also stating clearly that they will not “respond individually.” Amazon says upfront that it is looking for ”innovative groups with a proven track record of success; an ability to work effectively with us to execute on the organization’s goals, including appropriate public outreach; and an established presence and voice in the publishing community.” So far, these grants have basically landed like cash-laden storks on the doorsteps of otherwise unsuspecting organizations…

Before 2009, Amazon was criticized for its lack of philanthropic giving. Suddenly Amazon began giving money away, but only to specific organizations of its choosing. Many worthy organizations have benefited from these grants. Unlike any reputable foundation or other grant-giving organization in the country, however, Amazon apparently sees no need to involve panels of objective experts to help select the recipients of Amazon’s largesse — only Amazon employees with Amazon’s interests in mind.

Another reminder that, at least where Amazon’s concerned, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.



Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.