In a Shatzkin Files blog about the Amazon-Hachette dispute that I posted on July 15, I wrote this:
The “damage” to society that results from results being gamed in fiction is probably minimal, and restricted to Amazon promoting either its own published titles, its favorite self-published authors, and books from other publishers that have paid to play. But, with non-fiction, the consequences could be much more severe and of real public interest.
Imagine a persuasive book arguing that the government should sharply increase the minimum wage and let’s also imagine that Amazon corporately doesn’t like that idea. Is it really okay if they suppress the awareness of that book from half or more of the book-buying public?
My scenario was hypothetical and published at a time when the meme in place was that Amazon chose what it recommended to you totally by neutral algorithms which simply tried to discern what you would want to have promoted to you. (After all, that’s how you make the most sales.)
Now, Paul Krugman of The New York Times has published an op-ed on Amazon, arguing that it is time for the government to look at whether they are operating as a monopsony — a market player with the concentrated power to bully the suppliers into lower and lower prices — where he has cited an example first reported by The Times’s “Bits” blog (on September 30, well after my post) very much like the one I dreamed up. But this is real.
Specifically, the penalty Amazon is imposing on Hachette books is bad in itself, but there’s also a curious selectivity in the way that penalty has been applied. Last month the Times’s Bits blog documented the case of two Hachette books receiving very different treatment. One is Daniel Schulman’s “Sons of Wichita,” a profile of the Koch brothers; the other is “The Way Forward,” by Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate and is chairman of the House Budget Committee. Both are listed as eligible for Amazon Prime, and for Mr. Ryan’s book Amazon offers the usual free two-day delivery. What about “Sons of Wichita”? As of Sunday, it “usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.” Uh-huh.
It is definitely not the government’s job to step into commercial disputes to save big publishers. But if, as Krugman argues (with far more knowledge than I, so I will leave it to more informed people to support or dispute the claim) the marketplace power Amazon is wielding for books is comparable to what Rockefeller’s Standard Oil did for oil a 100 years and more ago, then they apparently would have the legal justification to intercede in the public interest. (To my limited knowledge, no anti-trust laws that were on the books then that would have enabled the government to intervene have been repealed since.)
Perhaps monopsony behavior that relentlessly pushes down the revenues of publishers and their authors is legal or not a legitimate government interest. Perhaps Michael Tamblyn’s recent series of tweets about what Amazon’s “true” intent would be toward indie authors in the end is incorrect and, whether or not it is, perhaps it is not something the government need be concerned about.
But elevating books that favor your political friends — even when you’re fighting their publisher — and burying political books that promote ideas you don’t like is not something that society can comfortably accept from a retailer that is the principal book retailer in the country. (No other retailer has ever had comparable market share so this “problem” has never arisen as a public interest question ever before.) Whether they like it or not, Amazon (like Google) has virtually become a public utility, providing a service most of us depend upon to be objective and catering primarily to the interest of the individuals it serves, not its own.
The problem with Amazon’s market share isn’t just commercial, it is political. It is a legitimate topic of public concern. If Hachette chooses not to publish a book, even for political reasons, there are four other mammoth publishers and hundreds if not thousands of others that can bring it to the public. If Amazon chooses to bury a title, half the book buyers will not see it when they’re shopping for books. In my opinion, that’s not good for our democracy. I think this is a much more important question than how the pie is divided among author, publisher, and retailer.
Like Krugman, I shop at Amazon (not PRIME, like he is, but most of my books are read on the Kindle reader on my iPhone) and I admire the fabulous execution and customer service they provide. Their position of power wasn’t stolen, it was earned. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a special responsibility to be the book recommender for more than half the book purchases and allowing that to be used for one entity’s political and social preferences is potentially a very dangerous thing.