Amazon’s fraught relationship with the traditional publishing industry was on full display this past week as publishing CEOs took the stand during the DOJ/Apple e-book trial. (See this post for background on the trial).
Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster (disclosure: I work at CNET, which is owned by CBS, which also owns S&S. Opinions here are my own) and David Shanks, CEO of Penguin (disclosure: my publisher. I am a walking conflict of interest!!) essentially accused Amazon of being a bully during their testimony, even as, it must be said, Amazon eventually caved to their terms.
Many publishers and agents make no secret in public and private about their fear of Amazon and what they view as its monopolistic status (see agent Andrew Zack’s recent post as an example).
I have never really shared this fear, either when I was an agent or now as an author. I’ve long felt that the industry’s fear of Amazon is knee-jerk and distorts its perspective, leading to bad decisions (such as, well, alleged collusion).
What’s your view of Amazon? Is it a rapacious hyper-capitalistic company that will destroy us all or an impressive innovator on the side of consumers? Is it a positive challenger or a destroyer of ecosystems?
What do you think?
Matthew MacNish says
Somewhere in-between, but getting worse.
CS Perryess says
It seems to me that Amazon is another victim of our societal elevation of capitalism as The Religion of Choice. The rules of capitalism simply aren't kind, & Amazon is following all those rules. Their site sure is helpful as a reference, though.
Johanna Garth says
I think either view is probably too simplistic. Amazon is hard to categorize and, like the best written characters, contains both good and bad.
Personally, I find the fear of Amazon silly. Publishers, agents, and authors should be thinking about how to innovate rather than whining that someone else did it first.
Is Amazon intense? Yes. Are they unstoppable? Depends. Are Publishers, agents, and authors not willing to be more creative?
Publishing is a business. Amazon is so successful because it doesn't forget this.
Publishers lived a long time in a comfortable state, and so did Traditionally published authors…But the status quo is flipping on its head in many ways.
The answer isn't lawsuits. It is innovation. Capitalism, baby.
JR Holmes says
Amazon's pursuit of market share and disregard for profit have proven to be a threat to the normal way of doing business for traditional publishers. As such, those publishers have some valid reasons for being fearful of the moves that Amazon makes as it wields greater power in the marketplace. This is no different than same fears that manufacturers have regarding Wal-Mart that is similarly dominant in its market.
When any single retailer becomes a significant portion of the market, the publishers (or manufacturers) lose the ability to set their prices as they wish and it should make them fearful. Combine this with Amazon's willingness to move into or create new disruptive tools and the incumbents have every reason to fear Amazon now.
As far as an aspiring writer and long term high volume reader, I have a generally favorable opinion of Amazon. To date they have been doing things that have benefited me. While I'm concerned that too much power in a single player will likely lead to problems for consumers, thus far Amazon hasn't abused their position and aren't showing signs they might do so in the future.
Carmen Webster Buxton says
I think Amazon is a company out to do whatever it thinks is best for Amazon. I don't see them as radically different than any other company, certainly not any better or worse than, say Apple. Apple sees its best strategy as keep quality (and prices) high and making itself into a brand to be admired and coveted. Amazon goes for winning the customer over with price and customer service, so they keep buying from Amazon. Amazon Prime is a stroke of genius, as it gives customers a huge incentive to stick with Amazon for everything from books to pet food to appliances. The book business is freaked out by Amazon because they have been used to a single business model for decades and they can't figure out how to adapt it to the digital world. Expecting any for-profit company to do anything other than follow its own best interests is naive, in my opinion. The publishers are doing the same thing, but I'm not sure they're as good at taking the long view as Amazon is.
Ken Moraff says
As a (soon go be) first-time novelist, I can testify that Amazon is very good to writers. I'm especially gratified by the investments they have made in the editing process. I'm working with skilled and insightful people, and the process has been a pleasure. I had heard that this is an area where publishers have begun to skimp, but I've seen no evidence of that.
I agree with a lot of what JR is saying. As a writer and reader, I've benefitted from what Amazon is doing. However, I do see signs that they are moving to crush the opposition (anyone who has recently published on both the Nook and Kindle may easily see who's winning that race!) and once they've succeeded, they may change what they're doing . . .
Until then, I can admit to loving watching the publishers sweat it out for a while! >:)
M. Louisa Locke says
As someone who reads ebooks, I really have appreciated how Amazon made ereaders affordable, and ebooks available, and the buying process consumer friendly.
As an author, I have been treated very well by Amazon, in their technical support, in how effective their search, recommendations and KDP Select opportunities have been in helping my sell my books.
Do I worry they are going to take it all away? No. Do I worry that they will continue to dominate the market-yes-but not because of anything nefarious that they are doing, but because I have been so disappointed in the other ebook platforms in terms of customer and indie book support.
If the other booksellers would make faster progress in both customer and author support, the market would become more competitive, and that would be good for everyone.
Love it when the big dogs play the "poor little us, underdog(s)" card.
Laura K. Curtis says
IMHO, Amazon = Walmart. They're capitalist and monopolistic. I find their attitude toward books as products problematic in all kinds of ways, but the bottom line is that they're just a business doing whatever they can to make more money than anyone else in their sandbox. That's what businesses do.
Donna Hosie says
I've never conformed to the Amazon hate. As a reader, they give me access to more books because I get more for my $$, and as an author, they have given me an instant platform.
I watch and learn.
Peter Dudley says
Both, and neither. Corporations are made up of people, and I believe people fundamentally want to be good and do good. But corporate environments don't always incentivize people in the best way, or have the best definition of "good." As long as they are doing good things for me, I will like them. Just like everyone else.
Robert Michael says
I am not a purveyor of hate. Towards either party. However, I am acutely tuned to irony. I feel that the traditional publishers have exerted an ironic observation that Amazon is capitalistic and monopolistic. Their collusion (alleged, cough-cough) to join together to force Amazon to tow the line of the agency model for books demonstrates their doggedness to remain status quo.
Their interest is not innovation. It is a persistence to maintain the book business model of "Hard Cover = $25 to $35 and that rules all." This paradigm ignores the obvious lack of love for the fact that hard cover sales revenues have been crashing. They don't care. The MARGINS are still the same.
Again, I am not a purveyor of hate. I love me a hard cover book. I have hundreds of them. Most bought at retail (discounted, of course). However, to ignore the ebook form of publishing or to allow it to remain as a secondary publishing model is completely foolish.
All forms of publishing (hard cover, ebook, paperback, and mass market paperback) should remain, but the focus of marketing strategies should keep in mind not only the MARGINS, but what the MARKET will bear, the VALUE of a particular publishing format, and the COST of that particular format.
In a logical and objective light, this would mean that publishers would price their books in a step-down formula and publish in most forms simultaneously. It would be a win-win for the consumer, the retailer, and, in the LONG RUN, the publishers.
Chris Bailey says
I lean toward impressive innovator and positive challenger. Amazon is driving change. Some of the change will be good, and some will be not so good, and we can change the not so good for the better.
Disclosure: I worked in public relations for the phone company when it was THE phone company. Anybody else remember that? Anybody think the rapid introduction of cellular transmission technology destroyed a way of life? (Okay, maybe a little. People, stop texting while driving! Don't use your phone as an excuse for antisocial behavior!)
I'm sometimes concerned about their tough tactics but I love getting the books I want, when I want them, for cheap.
Melissa Petreshock says
While I can see why there are concerns about them eventually monopolizing the industry, I can't complain since they ARE the easiest way to shop for books (and about everything else under the sun). I adore my Kindle Fire and its simple interface to browse, shop, and download books. Amazon's Kindle app for my iPhone is excellent and allows me to keep everything synced when I don't feel like carrying multiple devices, and if I'm on my computer, I can purchase and send to my Kindle or read on the PC version of Kindle if I want. Plus, when I need to order physical copies of books for my kids, especially my teenager in AP classes, Amazon has them to my door in roughly 2 days. Since I live far out in the country, an hour away from the nearest bookstore, Amazon is definitely a lifesaver for me in the age of spending a fortune on gas to get anywhere!
On a personal note, Nathan, my kids just ran across your books at our local library. While I expected my 9yo son to latch onto them first, it was actually my 17yo daughter who fell in love HARD with them and stayed up late into the night to finish after her brother was too tired to read in one sitting. She says she's now found another series she wants to buy and hold onto for when she's older and has children of her own. 🙂
My problem is this: I came looking for clues to the ebook industry a few months back. I have no plan to publish a book RIGHT THIS MINUTE. That's a filter I see a lot of people have. They're in such a hurry to be seen; they're in such a hurry to be rich and famous.
That isn't my plan, presently. It may never be. I think that genre of people are causing some problems for the indie industry which, in my view, is quite legitimate and a force to be reckoned with.
A lot of ebook writers were here a few years ago. Maybe Amazon was doing something different when they arrived. I'm coming at this with very little history of Amazon. (But listening to people, I am learning more history every day.)
I went to the normal places people go when they're browsing a new subject. I met people like you. Through browsing.
i have no agenda here. I have no plan to start a website to get people to buy my book. All I am doing is transmitting what I have seen and heard.
And I keep hearing too much about Amazon and the problems it causes ebook writers, marketplace sellers, reviewers AND customers.
I didn't go to the promotions page of any of these industries. I have no friends who write. I simply started thinking about ebook publishing and started questioning what I saw.
And I'm still doing it. And this current anti-trust trial, I feel, is yet another diversionary tactic taking place, to remove the focus from a company that appears to be setting up a monopoly.
It's very odd to me why it's being condoned.
And even more recently, because I went to a customer forum on Amazon, I started hearing complaints from regular customers about Amazon's new requirement to have a 25 dollar minimum order. That's Amazon's customer base; the customer base that someone 'from Amazon' keeps trying to tell me they are so concerned for.
Why is this happening?
Anybody wanna show me otherwise, I'm glad to listen. But I'm amazed, right now, at some of the policies Amazon has. If you submit a book, which they want you to make exlusive, contractually, (it says it right in the contract) they don't even have to promote you.
What is happening here? Am I the only one asking about this? I'm confused.
What's the point of leaping off the trad publisher ship to climb up on another one that doesn't really seem any more concerned for your welfare than the ship you looked at before?
Did you know that there is even a famous 'fake reviewer' who is part of the top reviewers?
This confuses me.
I'm no big capitalist, but apparently I'm a big fan of Amazon because I use it all the time. ALL THE TIME. What does Paul Krugman say? I usually agree with him.
I start my comment with a disclaimer. I really like Amazon as a consumer. I've shopped at Amazon for more than a decade now. And it has never let me down. In fact, I've become more impressed with the way it operates every year.
As a writer hoping to get published one day, I'm fully aware of what Amazon is doing to the publishing industry, what people SAY it's doing, and what they want it to do.
In short, I think Amazon is capitalism at its best. Everyone else is just whining because Amazon figured out the magic formula first.
Hyper-capitalistic company AND impressive innovator. But they're not on the side of consumers. They're on their own side, the way any company is.
They have learned how to woo customers and authors by offering lots of things that people want at the right price, and making it very easy to shop with them, publish with them, have an author page with them, etc. That is smart. Their expansion and forward thinking is also smart.
But they're not doing it because they're all mushy-hearted for authors or consumers. They're doing it because it's good business for them. Will they always offer as good a deal as they do now? Only as long as it serves them to do so.
I use Amazon myself (although I still buy more books at brick-and-mortar stores). I like much of what Amazon does. But I'm cautious about the future. I don't understand people getting sentimental about Amazon, or longing for them to take down the publishers. When any one company gets too much power, ultimately that it isn't good for anyone but the people at the very top of that company.
Magdalena Munro says
That's an especially interesting question for me since I was (to borrow the word from your posting) personally bullied by an interview team for a leadership HR/TA role at Amazon. As a professional I rather dislike them and as an artist I hold them in disdain (a close second to my professional opinion). If I were Pop with the Spurs, I would have simply answered your question with one word: NO!
I will inevitably have to sell my product on Amazon. As a recently retired independent bookseller I’m not entirely comfortable with the paradox that presents.
When I closed, customers were shocked. People expressed grief, they bemoaned the internet as the purveyor of death and destruction. It’s not really like that. Traditional publishing was riding for a fall.
Here are three business strategies – which one is more effective?
‘Sell ’em what they want for as much as you can charge.’ – Standard model
‘Sell ’em what they want as cheap as you can till you own the game. Then charge what you like.’ – Amazon model
‘Sell ’em enough of what they want to stay in business but try and publish something “good” while you’re at it.’ – Publishing model
Bezos saw this fatal weakness in publishing and exploited it. Digital disruption of retail is a fact of life and traditional publishers were ripe for disruption.
Prue Batten says
I'm inclined to agree with this earlier comment. "Chris Bailey said… I lean toward impressive innovator and positive challenger. Amazon is driving change. Some of the change will be good, and some will be not so good…"
I'm a historical fiction writer, published independently. Two things: I live in a remote part of the world far from shops purveying in-depth research texts. Amazon fills my needs perfectly. The other thing? As an independent writer, Amazon provides me with a platform and a good one at that. On that basis I support them and have no fear of them. Yet…
Hope Clark says
I. ADORE. AMAZON. I tire of the negativity about them. They are a sound business, making sound business decisions. Time and time again, they prove they are longlasting due to those sound decisions. I love them as a reader and as an author. If publishers would wake up and come into the 21st century, they may realize that Amazon is their ally. They are innovative, savvy and business smart. I like that.
Cyndy Aleo says
Amazon doesn't bother me. While everyone is going on and on about brick & mortar's demise at the feet of Amazon, the reality is that no company lasts forever, no matter how monopolistic it may seem. I watched my favorite indie bookstore go out of business when Borders & B&N came into town, and now one's gone and one is on rocky ground.
Amazon is innovating an industry that hasn't seen innovation since Gutenberg. And some day, I'm positive another company will knock Amazon off its perch.
I am an aspiring writer, a constant reader, and a perpetual student. As such, I purchase books constantly (not eBooks), and I LOVE Amazon. As others have said, traditional publishers should be afraid of Amazon; unless those publishers decide to cater to readers the way Amazon does, they will keep losing their customer base. I would shop for my books anyplace that could offer me the ease of locating any book within moments, and send it to me within two days for free.
"Amazon Ends Program That Gave Authors a Buck for Each Audiobook Sold – Will Look For New Ways to Disrupt Publishing"
Here's a post from the Digital Reader on an Amazon related update.
Suzanne Anderson says
I love Amazon.
As a writer, I am incredibly grateful that Amazon made self-publishing an affordable and acceptable option for getting books into the hands of readers.
I spent years chasing agents. Thanks to Amazon, I've published 4 books in the past year and love the freedom and flexibility of building my own business.
Thanks to Amazon, I am a full-time author and my success is no longer dependent on the whims of an agent or publisher. It's where it belongs, in the hands of readers.
Cab Sav says
I personally find some of what Amazon does morally repugnant, but that's a symptom of the capitalist society we live in, rather than specifically targeting Amazon. Apple, Microsoft, Walmart and many other big companies, they're all the same.
And yes, I do think Amazon is a bully.
However, I don't think that's the real problem for mainstream publishers. I think their problem is more that they are still using business practices from decades ago. The world is changing, but they're not changing with it. I know it takes time to turn a behemoth, but the change in publishing has been coming a long time now and the big players seem to only now be reacting, and reacting by trying to retain the status quo rather than innovating and working with the world as it is now, rather than the world as it was 80 years ago.
Trying to stop change seldom works. You usually get left behind.
It's not just Amazon that's changing the world for publishers. It's all those innovative new publishers/booksellers/other industry people who have adopted new ways of creating books.
I'm a self-published author and am thankful for Amazon and all that it has done to democratize publishing.
However, blind allegiance to Amazon by authors is, in my opinion, misplaced. Amazon can giveth, but Amazon can surely taketh away.
Two examples. First, book reviews. When the John Locke fiasco hit, Amazon went on a rampage of pulling reviews, many of which were legit (especially ones given my book bloggers to self-published authors). They didn't pull paid reviews given for traditionally published books. Amazon was absolutely unwilling to listen to authors OR the people who wrote the reviews who insisted that they were legit. Amazon's answer was a threat to close their accounts.
Second, Amazon basically got the finger from big publishers when it rolled out their lending to Prime customers. So in order to have books to lend their customers, they vetted self-publishers and promised lovely things to get us on board with KDP Select. And hey, for about six months it was the bomb. Authors gave Amazon an exclusive, could offer their book for free for five days, then they'd get a huge bump on the paid charts and ride the tail for a while for some really good sales.
Spring of 2012, Amazon revamps their algorithm and virtually eliminated the benefits to the KDP Select program for authors (though many authors are still in the program assuming it will benefit them).
Authors should not put all their eggs in the Amazon basket. It's a large corporation that has no altruistic mandate to help authors. If it's profitable to help Indies, it will. It it ceases being beneficial to Amazon, it will change course.
Is Amazon a bully? Probably as much as every mega corporation. Seems to me the answer is to at least have 3-4 bullies on the block to beat up on each other thus keeping each other in check. I think there is reason to fear a world where there's only one bully left.
Ted Cross says
All I know is that I've used Amazon since the beginning and always loved it (wish I had trusted my gut enough to buy stock in them way back then). They don't get everything right, but they do enough right and make it all intuitively easy to use, so I support them strongly for now.
As a reader I love Amazon. It's my go-to place for everything; I'm a member of Prime and loving it and find Amazon to be a book lovers Paradise. As a self-published author I have two feelings: first, extreme gratitude that I was able to hold my physical book in my hand ever, that it was a quality product, that I was able to publish it as an e-book easily, and that I've found my audience in such a huge "bookstore" as Amazon. But, again, as an author, there's this funny little way that Amazon takes away all of our royalties. The second a book is published, long before there's a used copy anywhere in the world, there are "used" copies available cheaper than the list price from xyz corporations and which reduce the writer's royalty by 75%. Maybe that's not them, right? However, they have Prime agreements with many, many booksellers to offer a writer's books for competitive pricing to their own, effectively also reducing the royalties by 75%. So there it is, a complete dichotomy. Amazon, a great place to hang out and buy books, and a place where, perhaps, something is going on that could bear closer scrutiny.
Impressive innovator. But I wish they had a strong competitor (or two, or three).
Kristi Lea says
I have a hard time hating Amazon. I've been a customer for over 15 years now, because various parts of their business model work well for me.
They are huge because they keep finding ways to provide services that people want. Yes, their size is getting a little scary. To smaller places, they probably look like a NFL linebacker in a room full of toddlers.
As others have said, Amazon looks out for its own interests. I don't believe that they are inherently evil–I don't honestly believe that companies go around smashing their competition for the sheer joy of the wet squish sound. They do it in order to further their own interests.
As long as you realize that they work for themselves, and you deal with them accordingly, there is nothing to fear. I wish they had a strong competitor or two also, and I think Apple is trying to be that competitor. In some ways, Google is also. And Microsoft may want to be one (but they just aren't anywhere near there).
Amazon sets a high bar. In the beginning, they were competitors too, but they found a way to become industry leaders. It's up to other companies to figure out how to rise above. From what I can tell, Amazon does not suffer from shortsightedness.
Amazon is my very good friend. I love what they do, how they do it, and it's up to somebody else to show me a better way and to change my mind. Litigation just makes me dig in my heels.
I agree with you, Nathan. I think fear of Amazon leads to some very bad decision making on the part of Publishers, although I understand the temptation. I think it is comfortable to have an 'enemy' one can focus on and blame. It means there is something that 'could' be done. If the enemy would only change or go away, things would get better. And, if nothing else, focusing on an enemy can create a sense of community and a sense of 'goodness' as a member of the community.
The reality is that the actual 'enemy' of Publishers is the technological change from print to e-book that will make their primary product obsolete. Without the e-book, Amazon would just be an efficient print distribution center.
But with the Kindle and e-books, the whole game changed, and it opened the door for authors and distribution to leave Publishers out, which is a great threat to their survival.
However, the reality is that if Amazon hadn't done it, someone else would have. It may have taken a bit longer, but it would have happened. And if Publishers have quiet dreams that they could have controlled the transition, this is an illusion – no one can control the internet.
My feelings about Amazon, or perhaps it's better to say my feelings about Bezos, since he is the one setting the direction, continue to be extremely impressed. The innovation of Amazon is to builds its business not by competing against anyone, but by accessing the consumer and making the consumer happy. It does not fight, it meets needs. A really good example of this is what happened in England. Amazon was being given a very hard time for not paying taxes/taking money out of the Country, etc. So, what does it do? It opens several centers in England and literally brings thousands of jobs to a Country that is economically depressed. Brilliant.
It's a fundamentally different way of doing business, and may lead to broader system changes; no one has ever done this before, and a new vision is powerful.
Whether that vision will stand or be replaced by a more power hungry vision is yet to be seen. But I'm not worried. The moment Amazon stops being customer service oriented, it will open the door to competition.
As for the lawsuit, there is a very basic point that Publishers are not understanding here. Anti-trust laws are not in place to protect business from competition, even aggressive competition. Anti-trust laws are in place to protect the public. They protect the public from businesses that try to control the marketplace. That's why Publishers and Apple are considered to have broken the law, while Amazon is not.
I don't like one company with that much power and control. There should be balance.
I do like what they've done for authors, readers and consumers. Most authors will tell you most of their sales come from Amazon.
And no one can fault them for one thing: they've been on target with every publishing move they've made while big publishers have been clinging to the past…in many cases unwilling to even learn about technology.
What I'd like to see is someone come long and give them a little competition. But so far no one seems capable of doing this and they just keep getting stronger while CEOs at big publishing houses cling to their print books and tell us at BEA that e-book sales are flattening out…or declining…which we don't believe for a moment.
So it's not that I like them. I respect them for what they've done right.
More power to them. They're a good company, well-run, and provide excellent service. I'm currently publishing my first fiction novel with CreatSpace and have found it to be an outstanding experience. Looking forward to my second.
Nancy Kelley says
In pure capitalism, a business's choices are always what's best for the business, with no thought to the consumer. That's why business ethics exist, to make sure businesses don't follow pure capitalism. Even with that, we have to assume that a company as large and successful as Amazon has their own interests at heart, first and foremost.
However, I think they understand something many corporations don't: Making customers happy is in your best interest as a business. Their customer service is superlative, and that makes them one of my favorite companies to deal with as a consumer.
So… somewhere in the middle I guess.
As a consumer, Amazon does a lot of things right. People afraid of amazon need to meet my needs as a consumer. For example: I only buy music through Amazon MP3 and NEVER NEVER NEVER iTunes. Because Amazon makes it easy (even when they are the same price or even if Amazon is more, I will shop at Amazon MP3). The cloud player is fantastic–I can access my music anywhere and get it on my phone without having to go through the process of connecting my phone to the computer and updating it. I just don't have time to do that every time I buy music. Plus Amazon will back up all of the music I purchased.
Amazon's success is not just about buying, it's about making it easy to be an Amazon consumer.
Neurotic Workaholic says
I don't know a lot about the business side of Amazon, but I do know that I like the fact that there are a lot of hard to find used books on that site. I still like the bricks and mortar bookstores, but when I can't find what I'm looking for there, I turn to Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
Sarah Hipple says
My opinion of Amazon is that they are crazy convenient when I want to buy something but don't want to leave the house – especially if it's something a little unusual.
I'm a little afraid they'll turn into the Walmart of the internet – bullying people int giving them certain prices and not needing to pay people a decent wage, but I haven't heard the same sort of horror stories as I have with Walmart, so I'm good for now.
Toby Flatbed says
I am not a particular fan of Amazon. They have Walmart feel about them in that they have everything on a mass scale that they can sell cheaply.
However I have respect for their logistical ability and making things easy for the customer. But for the writers case, it creates turmoil.
Rebecca L. Boschee says
Do I like Amazon? Absolutely. Does that make me love B&N or the publishers that enable my beloved books any less? Not at all. But, my affinity for Amazon goes beyond just books, and that’s the tricky part. Amazon has a long history of taking risks to do things differently and fill a need we may not have known existed until they came along to fill it. Ultimately, if it’s good for the consumer, how bad can it be?
Still, not all their innovations are winners—their new ‘Add-on’ policy has cost them my business on more than one occasion (I don’t want to shop now and wait. Most of my online purchases are impulse buys…especially paper books. If they don’t want to cash in on that, it’s their loss.), but what Amazon does really well is tap in to their customers. They provide a forum they monitor where customers can talk about their problems and serve up solutions, and they provide an easy way to give direct feedback…and here’s the kicker…they usually respond (and in a timely manner)! How many publishers do that?
Any company as tuned in to what their customers love and hate, any company as nimble and willing to take risks as Amazon, is going to have my business for a while.