July 31, 2014

The Amazon Fable


Rembrandt's The Parable of the Hidden Treasure, based on Aesop's fable "The Miser and His Gold."

Rembrandt’s The Parable of the Hidden Treasure, based on Aesop’s fable “The Miser and His Gold.” (Image via Wikimedia)

Aesop is the mind, or voice, or storyteller most able to capture the story of Amazon. Some talking animal indigenous to the Greek imagination must have died from an inability to distinguish “a lot of control” from “total control,” or between an extremely profitable customer service driven online retailer and a price-obsessed market overlord. (Or, you know, the ancient Greek equivalent of those two things.) If Aesop is somehow unavailable, then perhaps Tolstoy at his most didactic, telling us that no matter how far we walk, we only need a grave’s worth of land. Given how little effect nuanced arguments based in informed opinion seem to have on anything surrounding Amazon, there’s an appeal to tackling the issues with overt analogies and heavy-handed metaphors.

But Amazon, in their most recent public relations stunt revealed the inherent flaws of fableistic storytelling; their explanation for the ongoing conflict with Hachette is simple, direct, and makes perfect sense…until you think about it for a second or know anything at all about the publishing process or are able to distinguish between projected sales and sales. (FYI: My landlord did not accept the projected sales of my book for August rent.)

The more you think about it, the more baffling it becomes. Isn’t this the kind of statement usually prevented by non-disclosure agreements? If all Amazon wants is $9.99 ebooks why didn’t they say so at the beginning? And what, exactly, does Amazon stand to lose from $12.99 ebooks or $13.99 ebooks or any price permutation between what Hachette wants and what Amazon demands? And why is the Kindle Forum Amazon’s version of a press release? And since Amazon never reveals hard sales numbers, how are we, as a general public, supposed to corroborate their claims (which I think are factual if not meaningful), and, more relevant for this particular negotiation, how is Hachette suppose to know whether those figures are applicable to the books they publish? And while I’m asking questions, who are these traditional publishers spiraling into obsolescence and bankruptcy while at time producing exorbitant profits by fleecing readers with $14.99 ebooks? Finally, why is Amazon so bad at this?

Anybody who knows anything about publishing or business at all really, knows their “math” is even more nonsensical than that weird author trust idea they threw at us last time. Do they really expect any but the already converted (Hi, Hugh!) to believe publishing is the only industry in the world that haphazardly prices their products? I suppose they might grab a few swing voters here and there or net a few articles written without the author fully considering Amazon’s statement (Hi, Business Insider!), but, for the most part, all they’ve done is given Hachette’s advocates an even better platform from which to explain the economics of publishing and bookselling. They’ve given us the opportunity to point out, yet again, that Amazon has invested absolutely nothing in the production of Hachette’s or any other publisher’s books, and thus, have absolutely nothing at stake in either of their “proposals,” or in the difference between projected sales and sales, and that investing in books, even if it isn’t particularly profitable, is a culturally vital and economically sustainable endeavor. One more question: Do they really think so little of the rest of us in the book world? OK, now, one more question: Do they really think so little of readers?

As a writer, as a reader, as an intellectual, I want to read this, um, “statement” and write some new thoughts about it, but the exhausting thing is, I can’t. I can’t really say anything more about this than I said in 2012. Nor can I really add much more to what John Scalzi said, what Chuck Wendig said, what Kathleen Schmidt tweeted, and what dozens of other authors, booksellers, publishing professionals, advocates, and readers have been saying for years now. Amazon wants market share. Amazon’s entire business model is based on growing market share. Wall Street has allowed Amazon to be a publicly traded non-profit organization because they expect it to grow market share. Amazon wants $9.99 traditionally published ebooks because no other bookstore could survive on 30% of $9.99 and as other bookstores die, Amazon grows market share. This is Amazon’s standard operating procedure.

Full Disclosure Part 1: I work at an independent bookstore. Full Disclosure Part 2: I am a writer with a book coming out from a traditional publisher. Full Disclosure Part 3: My book is coming out from Melville House, a publisher that has repeatedly spoken out against Amazon’s business practices (Hi, Dennis!). You could argue that every critique I’ve leveled at them (and I’ve leveled a lot) comes from my own biased self-interest. And you’d be right. I am advocating for my own self-interest in the exact same way everyone who wants to spend less on ebooks advocates for their own self-interest by supporting Amazon’s low-price-at-any-cost business model.

Aesop would probably resolve this issue through some form of lesson imparting compromise where The Cassowary and The Platypus would each end up with a satisfying, if not equal, slice of pie, and I think, in many ways, the cheap-ebooks advocate and the health-of-publishing advocate could find satisfying slices of pie. But the conflicts around Amazon have never been about finding compromise; they are about publishers and bookstores trying to keep the lights on and Amazon trying to control the entire books economy. It is a story of power, ambition, hubris, culture, economics, technology, and, yes, art and its relationship to society. A fable might be nice, a didactic story might be comforting, but the Amazon story is less Aesop and Tolstoy and more Dostoyevsky.


Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books. His first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, was published by Melville House in March 2015.