Amazon, Publishers, and Readers

Clay Shirky
14 min readSep 12, 2014

In the current fight between Amazon and the publisher Hachette over the price of ebooks and print-on-demand rights, Amazon’s tactics are awful, the worst possible in fact: They are denying readers access to books, removing pre-order options and slowing delivery of titles published by Hachette. Amazon’s image as a business committed to connecting readers to books is shredded by this sort of hostage-taking. The obvious goal for readers in should be to punish anyone using us as leverage.

This skirmish will end, though, and when it does, we’ll be left with the larger questions of what the landscape of writing and reading will look like in the English-speaking world. On those questions, we should be backing Amazon, not because different principles are at stake, but because the same principle — Whose actions will benefit the reader? — leads to different conclusions. Many of the people rightly enraged at Amazon’s mistreatment of customers don’t understand how their complaint implicates the traditional model of publishing and selling as well.

Some of the strongest criticism of Amazon comes from authors most closely aligned with the prestigious parts of the old system, many of those complaints appearing as reviews of “The Everything Store”, Brad Stone’s recent book on Amazon and Jeff Bezos. Steve Coll, Dean of the Columbia Journalism School, wrote one such, “Citizen Bezos,” in The New York Review of Books:

At least two qualities distinguished Bezos from other pioneers of e-commerce and help to explain his subsequent success. The first was his gargantuan vision. He did not see himself merely chipping away at Barnes & Noble’s share of retail book sales; he saw himself developing one of the greatest retailers in history, on the scale of Sears Roebuck or Walmart. Secondly, Bezos focused relentlessly on customer service — low prices, ease of use on his website, boundless inventory, and reliable shipping. To this day, Amazon is remarkably successful at pleasing customers.

Coll does not intend any of this as a compliment.

He writes about book-making and selling as if there are only two possible modes: Either the current elites remain firmly in charge, or else Amazon will become a soul-crushing monopoly. The apres nous, le deluge!-ness of this should be enough to convince anyone that the publishers are bullshitting, but if your worry is market manipulation, the publishing cartel we have today has has already created decidedly non-hypothetical harms.

Back in 2007, when publishers began selling large numbers of books in digital format, they used digital rights management (DRM) to lock their books to a particular piece of hardware, Amazon’s new Kindle. DRM is designed to transfer pricing power from content owners to hardware vendors. The publishers clearly assumed they could hand Amazon consolidated control without ever having to conspire with one another, and that Amazon would reward them by passing cost-savings back as inflated profits. When Amazon instead decided to side with the customer, passing the savings on as reduced price, they panicked, and started looking around for an alternative conspirator.

Starting in 2009, five of the six biggest publishers colluded with Apple to re-inflate ebook prices. The model they worked out netted them less revenue per digital sale, because of Apple’s cut, but ebooks were not their immediate worry. They wanted (and want) to shield expensive hardbacks from competition with cheap ebooks, so ebook prices had to rise. No one had any trouble seeing the big record companies as unscrupulous rentiers when they tried to keep prices for digital downloads as high as they had been for CDs; the book industry went further, violating anti-trust law as they attempted to protect their more profitable product.

Faced with evidence of their connivance, the publishers all settled with the Department of Justice. (Apple argued they’d done nothing wrong, took the case to court, and lost.) For all the worries about a future where Justice has to investigate Amazon, nothing that company has done comes close to conspiring against their customers. Coll concedes that these publishers did, in fact, break the law, but excuses them on the grounds that had they not colluded, they might make less money.

To defend this conclusion, Coll commits himself to an odd hypothesis: “There is no evidence that high retail book prices today discourage reading.” Set aside that fact that such a statement would contradict everything we know about the effect of price on human behavior; the book industry’s own practice produces just such evidence—the market for paperbacks. If prices didn’t deflect demand, there would be no bump in sales when the paperback appears. Instead, there is just such a bump, and for popular books, it is accompanied by a separate marketing campaign, designed to bring out the very customers previously discouraged by the high cost of the hardback.

The weaker reading of Coll’s statement — there’s always something to read for free, so no whining if you have to wait a year to get hold of Piketty’s “Capital” or Strayed’s “Wild”is an odd underestimation of the importance of reading from someone who cares about writing. Reading is especially important when a book comes along and synchronizes public conversation; the publishers’ preferred pricing model—wait a year for the cheap copy—means that people who can only afford the paperback can’t be part of that conversation.

As has been widely noted, the last time the industry panicked about increased access to reading material was with the original spread of paperbacks, an invention that occasioned similar hand-wringing about the economics and prestige of publishing. “Successful authors are not interested in original publishing at 25 cents,” said one publisher at the time, a sentiment as vain as it was wrong. Whole genres were born after the spread of low-cost publishing, a happy colloquium of new writers and new readers previously thwarted by high prices.

Although Hachette’s CEO recently claimed “The invention of mass-market paperbacks was great for all, the real story is one of co-optation. When paperback publishers were independent, prices fell for the first two decades of the new format. Agitated publishers worried that the new format “could undermine the whole structure of publishing.” They finally figured out how to restore that structure in the early 1960s, through industry-wide consolidation. Over the next two decades, hardback publishers merged with the competition and increased the price of paperbacks by almost 300%, while delaying their publication for a year or more.

All this had the effect of degrading paperbacks as a substitute for hardbacks. The industry’s idea of co-existence looks like a reduction in competition rather than a response to it. The same dynamics are playing out today. The big publishers complain about the Kindle, but they could create a competitive market for ebook readers tomorrow morning, by simply publishing without DRM (as Tor, O’Reilly, Baen and other publishers currently do.) This would make digital distribution more attractive, though, which is the last thing they want.

Ebooks return the industry to the dynamics of pre-1960 paperback publishing, but this time publishers can’t bring readers to heel by buying up the competition. This threat to legacy revenues so worries Coll that he ends his essay with a revenge fantasy of sorts, imagining that the Department of Justice itself would commit to preventing competition on price. This would presumably save the big publishers the bother of unlawful conspiracy, by making screwing the reader a matter of Federal policy, not just mercantile desire.

George Packer, the author and New Yorker writer, also takes a crack at Amazon via a review, “Cheap Words”, writing about Stone’s book paired with James Marcus’s “Amazonia”, about Marcus’s time at the company:

A former Amazon employee who worked in the Kindle division said that few of his colleagues in Seattle had a real interest in books: “You never heard people say, ‘Hey, what are you reading?’ Everyone there is so engineering-oriented. They don’t know how to talk to novelists.” The marketing executive pointed out that Amazon is a fast-moving company, but publishing is slow. “It’s like the difference between trolling and fly-fishing,” he said.

As with Coll, Packer is concerned about Amazon’s effect on the overall ecosystem. He frames his central concern this way: “[T]he big question is not just whether Amazon is bad for the book industry; it’s whether Amazon is bad for books.”

My archivist friends tell me that what’s good for books is being stored in a cool, dry place away from human hands, while what’s bad for books is being repeatedly read: The cracked spines! The bent pages! But of course that’s not what Packer means. He isn’t really asking about the books themselves, so why the coy metonymy?

As with Coll’s denial of the basic facts of the market, Packer poses his question about the fate of “books” to mask his concern for the fate of the insiders. (He quotes an old-line publisher disparaging Amazon in a tone so infused with aggrieved privilege — “I have no sense of the character of their house” — it would be almost impossible to parody.) Unlike Coll, though, Packer at least nods to the value of improved access:

Readers, especially isolated ones, adored Amazon. “We heard from people all the time,” Marcus said. “ ‘I live in some Podunk town, the nearest bookstore is a hundred miles from my house, and now I can get the most obscure book.’ ”

After devoting half a paragraph to the central fact of Amazon’s history — they are better at making books available to readers than anyone else in the world — Packer drops that line of thought. If more people having access to more books is a good idea, it becomes harder to argue on behalf of Little, Brown. The readers in Podunk towns get a cameo and are then banished from the conversation. (As usual.)

Access to books was lousy for anyone who lived in Podunk, because in the twentieth century (and the sixteenth, for that matter), keeping books in stock presented the same problem as keeping pots or shoes in stock. They had to be created in advance of demand and delivered someplace for sale. The limitations imposed by physicality and geography are so normal that people rarely mention them, but they create persistent barriers to access for anyone other than well-off urbanites.

It’s easy to see this as same old, same old, of course. Richer people in fancier cities have nicer things — surprise! — but given recent technology, those barriers could be lowered. Demand can now create supply, in the form of ebooks and print on demand. This turns books into a different sort of commodity. No book need ever be out of stock, or out of print, anywhere in the world. It used to be that if you were OK with people in Podunk having inferior access to books, you were just a realist about the difficulties of making and shipping physical stuff. Now if you’re OK with that, you’re kind of an asshole.

The fact that any bookseller ever “runs out” of a book is now ridiculous. In the twenty-first century, not being able to correctly stock or distribute a product whose main ingredient is information suggests a degree of technical and managerial incompetence indistinguishable from active malice.

The traditional industry belief — if you don’t live in a big city and have a lot of money, you deserve second-class access to books — is being challenged by a company trying to say “If you have ten bucks, there’s not a book in the world you can’t read.” If the current industry can’t keep their prices high while competing with instant distribution of a vastly expanded literature — and that seems to be their only assertion worth taking at face value — then it’s time for them to figure out how to make a business out of improved access. They can drop DRM, sell ebooks directly to readers, add or improve their subscription services, offer print-on-demand—any strategy, really, except continuing to insist that readers must accept high prices and restricted access.

Culture is a funny thing, transforming even people with otherwise democratic sensibilities into haughty patricians. Coll ran the New America Foundation, Packer wrote “The Unwinding”, the most sensitive portrayal of American hard times since Michael Harrington, yet the thought of Amazon improving the availability of books horrifies them.

The tension between their ordinary sympathies for the general public and their withholding of that support in this particular case stems from the duality of authorship as an open marketplace and a closed cultural arena. To criticize Amazon, the publishers and their defenders must simultaneously insist that literature is essential for society, and that a sudden increase in its availability would be a catastrophe. This tension was best dissected by Pierre Bourdieu in his masterwork, “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.” Bourdieu describes the dilemma this way:

Intellectuals and artists are thus divided between their interest in cultural proselytism, that is, winning a market by widening their audience, which inclines them to favor popularization, and concern for cultural distinction, the only objective basis of their rarity. [T]heir relationship to everything concerned with the ‘democratization of culture’ is marked by a deep ambivalence which may be manifested in a dual discourse on the relations between the institutions of cultural diffusion and the public.

On the next page, Bourdieu suggests that:

“An analysis of the debates which occurred when cheap paperbacks came onto the market — a promise of popularity for the author, a threat of vulgarization for the reader — would reveal the same ambivalence.”

This was a historical aside about the 1930s, but now looks like a guide to the current decade.

When Packer registers his concern for “books,” he masks the aristocratic core of his argument: fear of popular participation. Like Coll, he imagines a world where the current elites aren’t in charge, and he does not like it, ending his discussion of Amazon with a the question, “When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?”

To which the answer is obvious: Of course Amazon won’t care. That’s none of their business. And note well Packer’s concern: It is not that people will stop writing or selling books that rich, well-educated people want to buy (an unlikely outcome, in this or any market.) Instead, he is concerned that publishing will become too easy, that there will be no one who can stop the publication of dreck, and by dreck he means books he and I and our fellow members of the highly educated class won’t approve of.

Now it’s a safe bet that Packer and I hate the same books — pop psychology, turgid genre fiction, heart-warming novels with relatable protagonists: “At a hotel in the Swiss alps, a penniless young beauty guards her secrets even while opening her heart…” He and I have been bred to hate that stuff. The difference is that while I disapprove of what other people read, I will defend to the death their right to read it. In a democracy, the only test any book should ever have to pass is whether the reader likes it.

More energy is being spent right now attacking Amazon than defending the five big publishers (two have merged since the failed conspiracy), because they aren’t easy to defend. There is some handwaving around the irreplaceability of their discerning taste, an argument undermined by their recent habit of acquiring ebooks they passed on the first time around, like “Still Alice” and “The Toiletpaper Entrepreneur”; their willingness to produce print editions of books that initially found their readers electronically, like “Trylle” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”; and by their building or acquiring self-publishing platforms, as with Penguin’s Author Solutions and Book Country.

Similarly, the idea that only the Big Five will fund speculative work for small audiences doesn’t jibe with the growth of niche publishing enabled by lower publishing costs. (A quarter-million titles have appeared on the Kindle in the last 90 days.) Nothing here is magic. Books are large chunks of writing. Digital publishing creates many new ways to get those chunks from writer to reader. Only some of those new ways require the services of people who work in lower Manhattan.

Even talking about that prosaic reality, though, diminishes the aura of necessity the current cartel prefers. They tend to avoid practical discussion of new models of publishing, sticking instead to the rhetorical mode they know best, hysterical narcissism. Andrew Wylie, the agent, is widely quoted as saying “The book industry is overwhelmingly the repository of our nation’s culture. To destroy it is to destroy the culture.” This is rich, coming from someone who founded a business in partnership with Amazon in 2010, but the combination of dire warnings and vague rationales is common to defenses of the incumbents. Obliqueness is necessary, because the essence of the argument — the only people in the world competent to oversee the publication of good writing are the executives currently employed at five large companies—won’t bear much direct scrutiny.

I say this as a beneficiary of that older system. I earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in advances for my last two books, to say nothing of the opportunities those books opened up, so the system has worked admirably well for me. However, I am a WASP, an Ivy League graduate, a tenured professor, and a member of the Sancerre-swilling East Coast Media Elite. Of course the existing system works well for me — it’s run by people like me, for people like me.

Despite my benefitting from it, I am unwilling to pretend that this system is beneficial for readers or for writers who lack my privilege. I’d always aspired to be a traitor to my class (though I’d hoped it would be for something a bit more momentous than retail book pricing), but treason is as treason does, so here goes: The reason my fellow elites hate Amazon is that Amazon refuses to flatter our pretensions. In my tribe, this is a crime more heinous even than eating one’s salad with one’s dessert fork.

The threat Amazon poses to our collective self-regard is the usual American one: The market is optimized for availability rather than respect. The surface argument is about price, but the deep argument is about prestige. If Amazon gets its way, saying, “I published a book” will generate no more cultural capital than saying “I spoke into a microphone.”

Given their deep ambivalence about expanded participation in the making and selling books, it’s worth noting some scenarios Amazon’s critics aren’t afraid of: They aren’t afraid that books will become less accessible. They aren’t afraid that there will be fewer readers. They aren’t afraid that fewer books will be published.

Bezos understands that running a great bookstore is more like running a great grocery store than running a great opera company; it enrages my people that he’s unwilling to pretend otherwise. The ‘character of his house,’ plain to anyone willing to spend half an hour studying his varying publishing efforts, is a commitment to help any writer who thinks she can create something people would pay to read. Could be the next “To The Lighthouse.” Could be the next “Fear of Flying.” Could be the next “Wool.” Doesn’t matter.

When making things public becomes cheap enough, this openness is the right answer. Packer mocks self-published authors, noting that half of them earn less than $500 a year, without noting that the average payout for anyone sending a manuscript to a traditional publishing house is $0. The legacy system is mainly characterized by a refusal to deal in small-batch authorship, a model that made sense when the unit price of a book was any number above zero, but makes no sense today. If ten million people think something is dreck, and fifty people like it, those fifty should get what they want.

Bezos is proposing taking Earth’s biggest bookstore (a phrase that used to smack of hubris but is now merely descriptive) and using it to move the world closer to that state of affairs. He wants to increase access to ebooks in order to make money, of course, just as the publishers want to restrict access in order to make money. Bezos doesn’t love books (something his critics never fail to note, as if selling things designed to be sold is an atrocity) but his motivations are producing better outcomes than those of the dominant cartel. If we have to pick between two corporate strategies for making money, the one offering more access is better.