October 30, 2014

Wylie: Amazon is an “ISIS-like distribution channel.”


"The Jackal," Andrew Wylie.

“The Jackal,” Andrew Wylie.

Andrew Wylie is not one to mince words—he isn’t known as “The Jackal” because he’s overly diplomatic after all. Recently, he’s been especially, um, to the point, when it comes to Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos.

Last October he compared the retailer to Napoleon.

In March, he had a great deal to say, including:

In May, he doubled down, saying that he is “against Amazon because they are a monopoly, they have the government’s support, and unlike the music business, I think that if you destroy publishing, you destroy culture.” He also accused the company of being in bed with the federal government and of convincing the Department of Justice to bring antitrust charges against five major publishers and Apple: “The DoJ was fed by Amazon. They offered documents, evidence, and they had so many lobbyists that the DoJ became Amazon’s toadie.”

Last month, he put his money where his mouth is—or more accurately, started walking the walk as well as talking the talk—by backing Authors United.

On Monday, Wylie delivered a keynote address at the Toronto and served up what may very well be his harshest criticism yet: he described Amazon as a “sort of ISIS-like distribution channel.” How you can be “sort of ISIS-like” is beyond me, given the Islamic State’s horrific tactics, but it’s definitely a step up from being a refrigerator salesman or Napoleon.

Nevertheless, Wylie’s comments were more nuanced and interesting than that admittedly extremely grabby quotation suggest. In the keynote, Wylie excoriates the retailer and describes publishers’ decision to partner with them as a “mistake.” Given Wylie’s own history with the retailer—he famously briefly partnered with them in 2010—it seems he may very well be speaking about his own history as well.

In his speech, Wylie makes the case for publishers to “stand firm” against Amazon. That’s a welcome sentiment, especially given Simon & Schuster‘s new deal with Amazon—a united front is crucial for publishers to maintain leverage, and Simon & Schuster’s new contract, whether it’s the result of cunning or capitulation, almost certainly hurts Hachette, and possibly other publishers.

Publishers Weekly has an excellent report on Wylie’s speech. Here’s the best part:

Wylie warned that finally under some pressure to “show the prospect of making a profit, Amazon might want that 30% to become 50%. “Now of course, I can’t know this,” he said wryly, referring to the chill in the industry about talking about pricing following the Department of Justice rulings on e-book pricing. “I’m not allowed to talk to publishers. Publishers can’t talk to each other. No one can have lunch, which is wonderful for everyone’s waistline, but it strains credulity.”

This, however, in Wylie’s view is a turning point. “The publishing industry, up until now has cowered and whined and moaned and groaned and given Amazon pretty much everything they want. Now I think that’s going to stop. …Hachette to their great credit drew a line in the sand,” he said. The deal that Simon & Schuster made with Amazon, which “no one is allowed to know anything about… basically… is back to the agency model and it’s pretty good for authors,” he said.

Wylie added that he thinks there is a strong chance that in the end “Amazon will be told you either do business on our terms or we are going to develop other channels of distribution.” He acknowledged that developing other channels might be costly for publishers, but “the brutality … of Amazon’s negotiating tactics” has made the necessity clear. “If you lose 25% of your sales in developing that other channel, the system gets restored to health after a period of time,” he said, adding with a cutting aside, “as far as I’m concerned, there are at least 25% too many books being published.

The ISIS comparison is overblown—it’s the exact kind of rhetoric that doesn’t do anyone any favors in this debate. But the overall message here—that Amazon’s created a climate that benefits Amazon and no one else; that Amazon doesn’t give a damn about culture; that, most importantly, Amazon is destructive to publishers—is a good one. Now is a time to stay firm, not because Amazon is like ISIS, but because Amazon is like Amazon.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.