The SPECTRE/Hachette controversy continues to burble. With the annual national book trade show last weekend in NYC, it's stayed a raging conversation. Here's more:
May 28 - David Streitfeld wrote another detailed account of where the battle stands. Hachette and Amazon Dig In for a Long Fight Over Contract Terms. He notes "Amazon wants to do away with gatekeepers. It promises a world where books are cheap, where anyone can publish anything, where there are no editors or distributors saying this is not what is selling now, go away." The nauseating irony is, of course, that SPECTRE is now the bullying gatekeeper it has always denounced.
June 1 - David Carr's column in the NYTimes reads as if he can't quite decide which side of the battle to cheer on. In Amazon Absorbing Price Fight Punches, he opens by mentioning how lively the book convention was over the weekend. He goes on to say selling books is vastly different than selling tires or tube socks. "By blocking inventory, Amazon has become the less-than-everything store. Books may be a small fraction of what it sells, but books are precious, troves of speech, not just products for commerce. They were also the linchpin of the company’s early march to retail dominance. The symbolism is profound." Here he highlights that books are nothing like any other item that anyone sells. Yet, later in the column, he trumpets the ease of ordering from, and saving money with, SPECTRE. He doesn't seem to understand that buying anything from SPECTRE says you support what they do and how they do it.
May 29 - writing in The Guardian, Suzanne McGee's subtitle would lead you to believe she's grasped the larger picture ("Is Amazon Wrecking Your Beach Reads? The retail giant has been good to customers so far, but its petty fight with a publisher should make fans nervous about the future") but fails to make it clear if she does. "Amazon is collecting millions of dollars revenues – which it has poured into marketing and infrastructure development, growing the company to making us more reliant on it to meet our needs." Yes - reliant is a synonym for dependent. Dependent people don't think to shop anywhere else, can't imagine shopping anywhere else, and if SPECTRE continues to rule the roost and drive out competition, those that are reliant on SPECTRE will have no alternative but to shop there. You only have choice when choices are available.
But McGee goes off the rails with her last sentances: " It’s worth taking minute to remember that while the publishing industry may indeed be inefficient, as its critics have claimed, Amazon isn’t a crusader for consumer rights. It’s in business to make money for its shareholders. If it can help us save money along the way, well, that’s great. But we’d do well to remember that Amazon, like any other business, has no higher moral purpose at stake here." While it is true that any business must make profits to pay the bills and continue in business, as others are noting, selling books is not at all the same thing as selling tomatos or tricycles. Books are many things - forms of entertainment, works of art, messengers of ideas, tomes of warnings, methods of education, and forms of shared thoughts. It is worth repeating what David Carr wrote: "...books are precious, troves of speech, not just products for commenrce."
But back to her point about shareholders: see James B. Stewart's April 25 column, "Amazon's Shrinking Profit Sets Off a Seismic Shock to its Shares"
May 30 - in Slate, Evan Hughes' column ("Bringing Down The Hachette: Publishers could have thwarted the latest Amazon power grab. They didn't and books will suffer for it.") clearly deliniates the core of the threat: "If Amazon prevails and gains revenue that could have—and should have—gone to writers, that would be a lamentable outcome for literature. The available pot of money in the publishing business is essentially divided up among three key players: the retailer, the publisher, and the author. To the extent that the retailer—in this case, Amazon—wins a bigger share, the other two parties collectively lose. Amazon disputes this point by arguing that its low prices and convenient Kindle platform make people buy more books, thus “growing the pie.” But it’s hard to imagine that people are going to spend more and more of their finite income on books just because Amazon is getting its way and thriving. Among the three key players, the author and publisher are the ones devoted to producing interesting books, or at least trying. Amazon just sells the end product. (Its beleaguered publishing division remains a sideshow.) At heart, Amazon is basically a Walmart with some tech-company trappings. It is not truly a part of the book world. Amazon’s executives have never seemed sensitive to the fact that constantly squeezing the people who write and edit and publish the books could easily damage the quality of the books. Don’t you get what you pay for?"
June 1 - David Streitfeld published an interview he conducted with one of the Hachette authors affected by the fight. In "Amazon vs. Hachette fight 'heartbreaking to Malcolm Gladwell'". As a bookseller, I have to say Gladwell's egocentric view is stunningly narrow. He never once voices any concerns about questions of free speech, the dangers of monopolistic influence, or the impact all of this is having on other authors or his publisher as a whole. "It’s sort of heartbreaking when your partner turns on you. Over the last 15 years, I have sold millions of dollars’ worth of books on Amazon, which means I have made millions of dollars for Amazon. I would have thought I was one of their best assets. I thought we were partners in a business that has done well". Nowhere does he speak about any other type of bookseller than Amazon - as if it is the only game in town, certainly the only one of importance:
Q: Amazon’s critics would say you were naive about this being a true partnership.
A: I don’t think it was destined to blow up. And I don’t think it’s entirely impossible that it can’t be fixed. We need Amazon and Amazon needs us. That’s a classic partnership.
Mr. Gladwell talks about it like it is an romantic relationship that allows no others. If that is the case, perhaps other booksellers should respect the relationship and stop stocking and selling his books. As a specialty shop that doesn't do either, I'm glad I can stand out of that spat. He does not appear to need independent booksellers at all. He comes off as tone-deaf to the larger issues of the fight and sounds concerned only with his own centrality.
All of this uproar about books may be eclipsed by other battles. June 3 - "Why Amazon Can Toy With Booksellers" by Timothy Stenovec points out 'Twice as many [Amazon] customers buy electronics as buy books these days,' said Mike Levin, a partner and co-founder of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP), a Chicago-based research firm. What's more, Levin said, it may not be long before books, which are the retailer's second-biggest category, get eclipsed by groceries, a category that includes diapers, cereal and toilet paper. CIRP's findings about the shopping habits of Amazon customers come from a survey of more than 1,000 people in the U.S. who purchased an item at Amazon between August 2013 and March 2014. 'People are as likely to buy groceries as buy books at Amazon,' Levin said. 'That should scare the s*** out of Kroger and Safeway.'"
To end, I include Paul Constant's column from The Stranger's website, "It's Time To Turn Your Back on Amazon: Why the Online Giant's Fight with a Publisher Signals the End of Guilt-Free Amazon Purchases." He rightly compares SPECTRE to Walmart (they treat their employees similarly and are both contributing to the 'Aspenization' of America) and how folks will give money to one company but not another even though there's not a nickle's worth of difference between them. "Seattleites who would never set foot in a Walmart are passionate about their love of Amazon. Ideals become easy prey when convenience is at stake. And it’s a matter of perception, too: Walmart puts its low-paid employees up front, parades their lack of dignity around for customers to see. Amazon gets to hide its poorly treated employees in warehouses, far from public view. Walmart’s cheaply made goods, all lined up and hanging on a rack, evoke the assembly lines of China. Amazon’s cheaply made goods, delivered individually in an attractive cardboard box to your door, seem like something magical; they don’t bear the fingerprints of people working for pennies a day in slave-labor conditions. All the ugliness of Amazon is behind the scenes, hidden behind a thick wall of corporate silence, and for that concealment, any number of people who consider themselves good citizens are willing to trade their loathing of Walmart for a deep and abiding love of the Great Walmart in the Sky. Turns out, that love might not be unconditional, after all."
As we've been saying for years - you can't shake the devil's hand and say you're only kidding.