In Cheap Words, an interesting article in The New Yorker this week, George Packer claims that Amazon is “good for customers,” but wonders whether the online leviathan is “good for books.”
It’s hard to tease out the salient points of Packer’s voluminous essay, but he seems to believe that Amazon’s corporate culture and impact on the publishing industry have not been “good for books,” not that he clearly defines what, in his opinion, is good for books or what would be definitively bad for books. His evidence that Amazon has “no real interest in books” is anecdotal (that a former Amazon employee recalls never hearing his/her colleagues say, ‘Hey, what are you reading?”), based on stereotypes about engineering-oriented folks (as though people like that don’t read), and based on sources in the publishing industry who have the most to lose from Amazon’s continued success.
He portrays Amazon as a greed machine without bestowing equivalent contempt on the largest traditional publishers, who, along with Apple, are no saints. For example, Packer is critical of the antitrust claim brought by the Department of Justice against Apple and five large publishers because they conspired (there really isn’t any other word for it) to switch to a different pricing system overnight for the purpose of forcing Amazon to charge more than $9.99 for e-books.
Packer claims that, as of early 2010 (when the conspiracy to introduce the different pricing system to e-book pricing occurred), “Amazon effectively had a monopoly in digital books and was selling them so cheaply that it resembled predatory pricing—a barrier to entry for potential competitors.” But there’s a much more obvious explanation than “predatory pricing” for why Amazon controlled 90% of the e-book market in early 2010: the Kindle was introduced in late 2007 (and was in its third version by 2010), while Barnes & Noble didn’t introduce the Nook until late 2009 and Apple didn’t release the iPad until April 2010.
That timeline also puts into perspective Packer’s claim that the subsequent decline in Amazon’s power in the e-book market from then onward shows that, “before the feds stepped in, the agency model introduced competition to the market.” That’s just plain wrong: as of early 2010, the Nook had just come on the market and the iPad was about to be introduced regardless of whether the new pricing system was used. If the publishers hadn’t switched to the new pricing system, the iPad would have had the iBooks on it just the same, only it would have been forced to compete with Amazon’s low prices. The new pricing system did nothing to help competition, it was just a scheme to raise prices for ebooks from the big publishers because the publishers thought that Amazon was selling their books too cheaply. That’s not something worthy of praise — it’s an antitrust violation, just as U.S. District Judge Cote decided it was. I hope the Second Circuit affirms the verdict against Apple on appeal (all the publishers already settled the claims).*
None of this is to say that Amazon is without fault. Rather, whatever its faults (which certainly include its ardent opposition to unionization), Amazon is really no worse than its competitors, like Apple or the big publishers. They are all on a hegemonic quest to dominate the market, except that, while the big publishers and Apple colluded to raise prices to the detriment of consumers, Amazon has been expanding consumers’ access to books by introducing new products for readers (like the various Kindles), having an open market for virtually any writer, and pushing publishers to reduce prices.
Packer claims that Amazon’s pro-consumer tactics have resulted in “unparalleled selection, price and convenience,” a combination that is so good that “even [Amazon’s] bitterest critics reluctantly admit to using [it].” At the same time, though, Packer questions the desirability of Amazon’s continued success if it results in the disappearance of the traditional publishing industry (the “gatekeepers”). He ends his essay by asking, “When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?”
There are at least two big problems with this question.
First, it’s based on the faulty premise that the traditional “gatekeepers” are actually worth keeping. What is “good” literature or nonfiction is largely a matter of taste, and quite frankly, much of what the major publishers force into the market rarely interests me. Why should I care if “Racist Penguin House” or “Simon, Schuster, & Shame” disappear? Anyone who claims that these goliaths are choosing the best of what authors are writing is fooling himself, and towards the end of the article Packer struggles unsuccessfully to make the case for why these middlemen should exist at all.
Second, the question is also based on the faulty premise that Amazon’s foray into publishing inherently lowers the quality of books and somehow precludes the publication of good books. Let’s not forget that grammatical errors and “cheating on the plot” aren’t limited to self-published books. I purchase both self-published and traditionally published books, and most of the time I cannot discern a difference between the two (so much for the gatekeepers!). I read reviews from bloggers I trust, and I always skim the sample, and I thus end up with a far better selection than if I blindly believed that a particular publishing house would only release books that are worth my time. Plus, when it comes to self-published books, if a book happens to be far worse than it appeared, at least I’ve only wasted $2.99 or $4.99 and not $12.99, $17.99, or more.
A “gatekeeper” to the world of books is a problem, whether it’s Amazon or anyone else, which is why we have antitrust laws in the first place. At some point, even a purportedly pro-consumer company like Amazon could turn on customers who have nowhere else to go for books. However, the means of limiting Amazon’s domination of the market isn’t to permit the big publishers and Apple to fix prices through collusion (as Packer implies). Rather, it’s to make sure we have the tools to deal with Amazon — or any other monopoly or trust — if they use their power to harm the market and exploit the consumer. If, for example, the Supreme Court had a majority of pro-consumer Justices who believed in vigorous antitrust laws, we would have little to worry about.
*For more background on the issues in the DOJ lawsuit, see In Defense of the DOJ’s Antitrust Lawsuit Against Apple and the E-Book Publishers (which was written when the DOJ filed the complaint).