February 2, 2012

When will big publishers speak out about Amazon?


Free speech about Amazon: It's out of the box now ...

Barnes & Noble‘s dramatic statement on Tuesday that, no matter what, it wouldn’t, under any circumstances, including beards, sell books published by Amazon, ever, come hell or high water — eh, except for, well, ebooks on its website — has certainly been the talk of the industry the last few days, and continues to draw interesting observations … For example, we just noticed that the statement said, precisely, that B&N had decided “not to stock Amazon published titles in our store showrooms.” Showrooms? Beyond what that word might signify — hint — didn’t the nationwide outrage over Amazon encouraging readers to think of brick-and-mortar stores as “showrooms” for its price check app mean anything to our nation’s largest brick-and-mortar bookseller? (And note that at least one significant report, in the New York Times, suggested that outrage over the price check app may have actually been a factor in the huge drop in Amazon’s earnings for the quarter.)

Well, be that as it may, B&N’s statement was encouraging — finally, a big player has responded logically to Amazon! — and resonant with the larger feeling, in the wake of the price check app scandal, that not just industry but public perception had turned a corner; something could happen.

And interestingly enough, a long essay from the Authors Guild, issued on the same day as the B&N statement, posits that public perception — read media perception — has indeed turned. The article — “Publishing’s Ecosystem on the Brink: The Backstory” — observes that, finally, mainstream media is starting to report about Amazon more critically. The story has no byline — and really, shouldn’t something posted on the website of the Authors Guild give credit to an author? Isn’t giving credit to an author what the Authors Guild is all about? — but as it observes, some big recent stories “capture pretty well the state of book publishing: this appears to be no ordinary, cyclical crisis that future authors and publishers will shrug off.”

It goes on to dissect those stories, giving particularly smart attention to the recent Harper’s Magazine cover story by Barry Lynn examining how Amazon’s success is due in large part to the failure of the government to enforce antitrust laws — “a story that hasn’t previously been told in a major periodical, to our knowledge,” says the anonymous Authors Guild writer.

Well, it’s certainly a recent phenomenon, although not unprecedented in major periodicals — the New York Times let me talk about Amazon as a monopoly in a guest column just before the holidays. And of course, some excellent smaller periodicals have certainly touched upon the lack of antitrust investigation (such as this in-depth investigative report by Onnesha Roychoudhuri for the Boston Review).

Even more interestingly, beyond the print media, some far bigger broadcast media is covering the story with far greater critical range: NPR’s Morning Edition let me call for an antitrust investigation just last week in this report by Lynn Neary, and the BBC World News television report by Michelle Fleury let me discuss Amazon as a monopoly two days ago.

Which brings me to my point: Where are the big publishers in this scenario of rising revolt against a monopolistic tyrant? Indie bookstores seem to be uniting in a stand against Amazon publishing; one of the biggest players of them all, B&N, has just joined suit; the mainstream media is finally on the story as never before; and so is the Authors Guild …

Fellow publishers, where are you?


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives