Thoughts on Amazon vs. Hachette

Amazon is apparently playing hardball in negotiations with the publishing conglomerate Hachette, and as usual people are outraged.  As usual, I find it hard to understand what the problem is.  Certainly some Hachette authors will be hurt in the short run, but that’s not really Amazon’s concern.  Authors are always buffeted by changes in the marketplace. There is certainly a possibility that Amazon will become something of a monopsony — the only place to which publishers can sell their books.  But the remedy here is legal, not calling Jeff Bezos an extortionist.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times sums things up like this:

No matter what you think of Amazon’s tactics, they surely don’t violate any laws. It is acting the way hardheaded companies usually act — inflicting some pain on the party in a dispute to move it toward resolution. On some level, the book industry has never fit comfortably in the contours of big business. But over the years, as one house after another was bought by conglomerates, as they merged with each other, as they tried to increase profits with the kind of regularity that pleases Wall Street, they began the process of commoditizing books.

Jeff Bezos? He’s only taking that process to its logical extreme.

One other thing: Nocera mentions Walmart and cable companies as examples of big companies that squeeze its suppliers.  But books are not fungible, the way air conditioners and other things you buy at Walmart are; if you want J.K. Rowling’s latest book, you’re not going to accept a substitute.  And there are way more suppliers for books than there are cable providers for your home.  If Amazon makes it hard for you to buy a Hachette book, Barnes & Noble will happily take your order — and, if they have any brains, they’ll give you a special discount.

The only issue here is that Kindle users are more or less tied to Amazon for their e-books.  But if they find that they can’t get a lot of their favorite titles on the Kindle, maybe they’ll buy a different e-reader.  This is no different from Netflix, which has a large but incomplete selection of movies and TV shows to stream.  If their selection doesn’t satisfy you, you have to go to Hulu or some other vendor.  Not having their books available from every conceivable bookseller is not great for authors and their readers, but it’s also not the end of the world.

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