Promises… Promises…

As of this Friday morning, Amazon still isn’t selling any Macmillan [or Tor] books, despite a statement six days ago that they would capitulate. Now… to be fair, Amazon didn’t say when it would resume selling Macmillan products; it might be in the next hour, or it might be a year from now. [NOTE: As of Friday evening, sales of hardcovers and paperbacks resumed, but not the majority of e-books, and the issues raised below still are open questions.]

Some who know the book industry and Amazon have speculated that the promise was designed to mute the reaction from readers and authors, while the reality was to punish Macmillan for not falling into line with Amazon’s future view of how e-books and books in general should be sold. Certainly, there’s a case that can be made for this. Amazon was willing to lose tens of millions of dollars in establishing itself, and if Amazon believes that, by losing more tens of millions of dollars to “punish” Macmillan in order to shape the future of bookselling, then that’s a small price to pay for eventual success and market domination.

Another possibility is that, because Amazon has not updated its software, except on a piecemeal basis, since its founding, the abrupt “re-structuring” of the “Buy” buttons produced a cascade effect that has overwhelmed the programming capabilities of its staff and technicians.

And a third possibility is simply that Amazon was lying when it said it had to capitulate. One small fact that supports this view was the phrase in the Amazon statement of “capitulation” that declared that Macmillan had a “monopoly” over its products. Duhh… Every producer has a monopoly over its specific products. Ford can’t sell brand-new from the factory GM products. Kroger doesn’t get to sell Wal-Mart’s “Great Value” store products. Tor doesn’t get to sell Berkeley or ROC books. What the Amazon statement reveals is Jeff Bezos’ view that Amazon has the “divine right” to sell all books from all publishers on his terms. Not that this is really anything new; it’s been obvious from the beginning that such was his goal.

In addition to the fairly obvious use of strong-arm techniques and misleading and/or misinformative statements, what also disturbs me about this “vision” is the hypocrisy behind it. Amazon has positioned itself as a champion of readers, claiming that it wants to make low-cost books and e-books available to everyone at the lowest possible prices, as well as trumpeting the widest possible selection. Yet the tactics used by Amazon are designed, or will have the effect, as I suggested earlier, of reducing the diversity of books available to readers, because books which sell in smaller volumes will either have to be priced higher or subsidized by better-selling books. Yet, if Amazon is successful in forcing price levels down so that the better-selling books have far lower profits, publishers will reduce the numbers of “different” books that do not fit in whatever the “flavor de jour” of the marketplace may be at any given point, because either their prices will be comparatively too high and readers won’t buy them, or because the profits from better selling books won’t support subsidizing them. There is already tremendous pressure in the publishing marketplace to “homogenize” and “popularize” publishers’ offerings, and Amazon’s tactics, if successful, will increase that pressure, because, in order to compete, other booksellers will have to follow suit.

Readers are already a minority in the United States, and intelligent readers more so, and whether “accidental” or deliberate, Amazon’s failure to resume sales of Macmillan books does tend to suggest to me that its agendas are anything but good for the future of different, thought-provoking, and diverse books — no matter what Jeff Bezos may claim. And, if the problem is “merely” technical, then should we really be quite so trusting of Amazonian pronouncements? Should we really trust a multibillion dollar entity that can’t fix its “Buy” buttons?

4 thoughts on “Promises… Promises…”

  1. Brian says:

    This reminds me of the cable TV controversy between paying for channels individually versus ordering packages. By forcing every cable subscriber to purchase certain channels, they assure their continuance. So, the minority TV audiences are subsidized, as you propose the minority readers should be subsidized.

    I'm surprised at the anti-choice sentiment even as I see the reasoning behind it. The book subsidies allow publishers to correct a free-market "flaw" of imperfect visibility by the consumer; they can experiment with diverse offerings without the guarantee of profit of focus-group tested populist fodder.

    An alternative solution to the problem of ensuring profit would be to lower the investment made in editing, typesetting/formatting and marketing. Perhaps you already see this happening? I won't say that this is a positive development, just a possible accommodation to market pressures.

  2. Ashley says:

    Do you see reducing the quality of books by investing less in their production as a likely outcome? If so, then I still think Mr. Modesitt is spot on.

    There are writers out there who need very little help from their editors, copywriters, typesetters, etc. – but they're in the minority. Reducing the quality of books seems like it would only exacerbate the problem: in a market where the general quality of books is collectively lowered, high visibility authors would soak up even more of the sales. (If you can be pretty sure any book will be junk, why not go with the junk you already know?)

    I see the current publishing model not quite as subsidizing; I see it more as a reinvestment of profits by publishers in an attempt to be innovative and either respond to changing markets or create new ones. It will be a sorry day indeed when publishers have to turn away new authors and force another "bestseller" out of their overworked stars just to turn a profit.

  3. Brian says:


    I'm not an economist and my economic training is limited to my reading list. So, take anything I say as an uneducated guess.

    Having said that, I fear that we will see a reduced quality along with an increased focus on a few blockbuster authors. Unrestrained competition probably does produce the same results as pure democracy: lowest common denominator wish fulfillment without thought. I'm not sure if it was Lord Thomas Macaulay or someone else (the sources I have are unclear), but here is an interesting quote.

    "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.

    Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage."

    Is the publishing industry any different from government? I don't have any sure solutions for either, except the persistent efforts of well intentioned and well educated leaders. So, strive for excellence.

  4. David says:

    Much of what Mr. Modesitt said about the idea that people have a right to cheap goods was also said in a February 1998 radio broadcast by Dr. William Pierce. The title of the essay form of the broadcast is "Thoughts on Free Trade." It can be found at

    All Dr. Pierce could do was identify the problem and cry a warning. He was ignored, of course, and ever since the United States has continued along the same ill-advised trajectory, because nobody with the requisite knowledge and power has had any interest in changing things.

    Dr. Pierce, though he was perhaps the loudest of those who knew what was happening, was no match for the malevolent tricksters who control and infest the mainstream media. Their confident-sounding voices continually assured Americans that they were Doing the Right Thing, that the government's policies on free trade were wise, that it would get them low prices on everything and that the "downside" would be very, very minor.

    What really happened, since 1998, is that America lost its industrial capacity and at least tripled its actual unemployment. Things are so bad now that the government cheats blatantly in such things as its estimates of the cost of living, the rate of unemployment, and nearly everything else the old Soviet Union also once lied about.

    Jeff Bezos seems to be trying to do to the book publishing industry what the leftists did to America's electronics and machine-tool industries with "free trade" and promises of cheap consumer goods.

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