Amazon knows the price of everything. But does it care about its value?

In his recent piece about Amazon on Techcrunch, John Biggs argued that ‘Books are about to go the way of magazines and newspapers. The value of a large hunk of text in prose form is diminishing and the price people will pay for it is also falling.’ This echoes the views of Russell Grandinetti, Amazon’s senior vice president for Kindle, and now one of the most influential people in world publishing. Here he is in the New York Times earlier this month: ‘If you charge high e-book prices, ultimately what you’re doing is making a slow, painful slide to irrelevancy. You have to draw the box big. Books don’t just compete against books. Books compete against Candy Crush, Twitter, Facebook, streaming movies, newspapers you can read for free. It’s a new world. It’s so important not to simply build a moat around the industry the way it is now.’

Grandinetti is right. The competition for our attention is greater than it has ever been. However, overall book sales have held up well in recent years, despite competition from other media and a long recession. There is still a cacophonous din about books in our culture, whether that book be called Capital in the Twenty-First Century or Fifty Shades of Grey.

Warren Buffett once said: ‘Price is what you pay. Value is what you get’. Deflationists like Biggs and Grandinetti don’t recognise that books have a unique place in our civilisation. After fourteen years running the British independent publisher Atlantic Books (I left in June 2014), I have come to think that they occupy this valuable position because they are the only medium for thick descriptions of the world that human beings possess.

By ‘thick’ description, I mean an extended, detailed, evidence-based, written interpretation of a subject. If you want to write a feature or blog or wikipedia entry, be it about the origins of the first world war; the authoritarian turn in Russia; or the causes and effects of the 2008 financial crisis, in the end you will have to refer to a book. Or at least refer to other people who have referred to books. Even the best magazine pieces and TV documentaries — and the best of these are very good indeed — are only puddle-deep compared with the thick descriptions laid out in books. They are ‘thin’ descriptions and the creators and authors of them will have referred extensively to books to produce their work.

In this sense, authors and publisher-curators are in the ‘civilisation business’, trafficking in the knowledge that provides the building blocks for culture and society. They probably shouldn’t go around talking about ‘civilisation’ too often, but it’s true nonetheless. Books are a different class of object, profoundly unlike magazines, newspapers, blogs, games or social media sites. The world they evoke is richer, more dense and, literally, more meaningful.

It is true, of course, that copious amounts of junk with little or no value pours out of publishing houses each year. I have often leafed through the catalogues of publishing firms without seeing very much I want to read. But several hundred times a year, important books that alter our understanding of the world are published all over the world by good imprints. And even if a year were to pass when not a single thing of any epistemological significance appeared, books would still be the only medium of thick description human beings have.

Social media reminds us every second of every day that opinion costs nothing. The Guardian publishes a crowd-sourced opinion blog called ‘Comment is Free’. Talk is cheap, but facts are expensive (they are also, as Orwell observed, ‘subversive’, but that is for another time). They cost money to make and the eco-system that enables author-experts to research and interpret these facts and write them up in book form is being transformed. To a significant extent, this is because Amazon has taken the lead in subjecting books to the economics of Information.

In the last twenty years, pretty much everything has become a lot more expensive. It’s a fun parlour game to get baby boomers together and ask them to guess the average price of a house (approx £68,000 in UK / $120,000 in US) or a gallon of petrol (£2.52 / $1.09) in 1994. People are always shocked at the increases.

What has got cheaper in that period is information, which has been subjected during the digital revolution to massive deflationary forces. It is now wonderfully easy to find things out. Another by-product, however, is that book pricing (and especially e-book pricing) has been enveloped by this economy of information.

To price a book in the way information is priced is based on a rather one-eyed view of its value. As any textbook author will tell you, information is undoubtedly part of a book’s utility. But that is only part of the story. A second purpose is to provide readers with transporting experiences, usually from reading fiction, which enable us to glimpse oursevles in ‘the other’. (The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur said of this: ‘As a reader, I find myself only by losing myself’.)

The third thing a book does is impart current knowledge. When TS Eliot asked plaintively in ‘The Rock’: ‘Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ he was reminding us that these two things are not the same. Knowledge comes from the interpretation of information, experience and facts. It comes from the stories we tell about those things. Perhaps it is the capacity to create these stories that make us human.

Generally speaking, ‘Experiences’ and ‘Knowledge’ have also increased in price over the years, yet publishers have been very slow to reflect that in the prices of their physical books, especially their paperbacks. (Since 1994, consumer prices in the UK have risen by around 105%, whereas the price of a paperback novel seems to have increased by around 15%.) Publishers have been slower still to argue that books are a different class of object, and that they should not be priced (or perhaps given away) like information.

The current disputes between Amazon and its suppliers concern the retailer’s demand for better margins. Despite trail-blazing innovation and vast revenue (nearly $75bn in 2013) Amazon needs to arrest its losses and calm its stockholders. This explains why the company is reportedly making requests for substantial additional terms from publishers, big and small, which will result in a significant reduction in profits for the firms concerned. Many smaller publishing houses are not that profitable to start with, but the retailer seems indifferent, at best, about whether it drives its suppliers out of business. And because Amazon is capable of demanding new terms every year, it is difficult for publishing executives to plan ahead, or adjust their business models quickly enough.

Amazon’s disruption of the publishing industry is likely in the end to be bad for most authors too. Although the company, at least for the moment, is offering a bigger share of revenue to authors who work with it directly, by driving prices downwards across the board (rather than simply for price-promoted items), it will also reduce the overall size of the cake. Authors also have little or no leverage with Amazon over terms of trade, and certainly less than a big conglomerate like Penguin Random House (which in turn is something like 1/15th the size of Amazon). Consumers may like lower prices, but the decline of a well-curated and diverse publishing industry may not be to their liking.

The result of these changes will be a much dimished eco-system for stories and ideas, with many fewer publishers and authors earning anything. Ultimately this may benefit a small number of people who hold stock in Amazon, but it will do precious little for our wider culture.

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