June 5, 2014

John Green thinks Amazon is a bully; The New York Times editorial board thinks it should back off


John Green thinks Amazon is a bully.

John Green thinks Amazon is a bully.

Earlier this week, we wrote that Amazon had lost Malcolm Gladwell over its nasty fight with the bestselling author’s publisher, Hachette. Over the past few days, Amazon has gained two more high profile critics: the megapopular YA author John Green and The New York Times Editorial Board.

On Monday, Green—author of the wildly popular The Fault in Our Stars—lashed out at Amazon while promoting the sure to be wildly popular film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars:

“What’s ultimately at stake is whether Amazon is going to be able to freely and permanently bully publishers into eventual nonexistence.”

“The breadth of American literature and the quality of American literature is in no small part due to the work that publishers do, and it’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, to see Amazon refuse to acknowledge the importance of that partnership.”

In one sense, Green’s response is similar to Gladwell’s: he, like Gladwell, sees Amazon’s extortionary behavior as the betrayal of a partnership between authors, publishers, and the retailer, which controls at least 50% of the book market in the United States. But Green’s comments are also bolder: he sees Amazon’s bullying of Hachette in terms of a broader goal—the destruction of the publishing industry. As Green notes, Amazon’s predatory activity doesn’t just affect the publishing industry: it affects the fabric of ideas in this country and has very real implications for the future of American literature. Green’s comments aren’t entirely surprising: he is, as the Associated Press notes in their report, an outspoken critic of bullying. He’s also, by all accounts, an exceptionally decent person who cares deeply about the future of the publishing industry. But his boldness is refreshing, especially considering that Green is staggeringly popular—I was surprised, if not entirely shocked, by the thousands of young readers who came to BookCon on Saturday just to see Green. The line started forming hours before he even appeared. On Saturday afternoon, the basement of the Javits Center looked like a One Direction concert. 

On Tuesday, The New York Times Editorial Board piled on, joining Green, Gladwell, and hosts of other authors (to say nothing of consumers) in questioning Amazon’s treatment of Hachette:

But when a company dominates the sale of certain products as Amazon does with books, it has the power to distort the market for its own benefit and possibly in violation of antitrust laws. Legal experts say there is not enough evidence for the Federal Trade Commission or the Justice Department’s antitrust division to investigate Amazon’s treatment of Hachette. (In Germany, publishers have called on lawmakers to change antitrust laws so they can band together and negotiate contracts jointly with Amazon.) But regulators should keep an eye on this case. There may be grounds to investigate Amazon if its squeezing of Hachette drags on for months or if it engages in similar actions against other publishers.

There is precedent for government involvement. In 2012, the Justice Department sued Apple and five large publishers, arguing that they illegally colluded to fix and raise the price of e-books….

It would be best if Amazon simply dropped its bullying tactics and spent its energy reaching agreements with Hachette and Bonnier. The longer this dispute drags on, the more likely it is that some readers will reconsider their relationship with Amazon and start buying books from other retailers. That would surely damage Amazon’s goal of becoming the seller of everything to everyone.

The Times is more tepid in its criticism than Green, but the shoutout to U.S. v. Apple here is pretty remarkable, as is the related assertion that “regulators should keep an eye on this case.” Of course, the Department of Justice, as we learned earlier this week, has its eye on the publishers in this case, which is staggering, given that Amazon has, by all accounts, been the aggressor—Hachette didn’t remove any buy buttons and it didn’t raise the price of its goods. But this is yet another sign that public opinion is shifting on Amazon.

Four years ago, Amazon sent a white paper to the Department of Justice and got the U.S. government to bring price-fixing charges against Apple and five major publishers. They seem to be trying to throw around their weight in similar ways now, but a backlash is growing. The paper of record is, in many ways, parroting public opinion here: Amazon is not merely viewed as the aggressor, they’re viewed as a damaging force in U.S. culture and commerce and, as The New York Times points out—with delicious use of one of Amazon’s greatest coupsU.S. v. Apple—there’s a very recent precedent for legal action.

The Times ends its editorial by appealing to Amazon in very Amazonian terms: this is a disservice to consumers; relent, or your customers will abandon you. But the rest of the editorial carries more weight. Amazon is not disrupting an antiquated industry; they’re potentially violating the law.

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