Four Takes on the “Amazon: Threat or Menace?” Debate

Origin-712014-71734-PM[1]Love them or hate them, Amazon is a polarizing topic in the book industry. It's been the subject of numerous articles, think pieces, rants, and ravings, and a couple days ago it was the focus of a televised debate.

Two days ago the NY Public Library hosted a debate panel titled "Amazon: Business as Usual?". The event was streamed live before an audience, enabling this blogger and many others to witness what the American publishing industry really thinks and how it sees itself.

It was not a terribly well run event, unfortunately; aside from a token panelist, everyone on the panel hated Amazon. What's more, the so-called moderator kept failing to do her job. As an anti-Amazon person herself, Tina Bennett kept interrupting the single dissenting voice, David "Passive Guy" Vandagriff.

But the debate is what it is, and there is much to be learned from it and from what is written about it. I posted my take on the debate Tuesday night, but I am not the only one to post a commentary. Here are several other posts from a variety of sources, including a first-hand account by David Vandagriff.

After you read the excerpts, scroll down to the end. I have a comment on the commentary.

Chris Meadows of TeleRead:

So in the end, the panel turned into a preach-to-the-converted session, with almost everyone just reiterating the same tired old talking points to each other. Amazon is big and bad; it sees books as a “commodity” like mouthwash or toilet paper, when books are actually a special snowflake; it’s going to turn around and beat up on self-publishing authors after it finishes with traditional publishers, just you wait and see; traditional publishers are the guardians of literature and we’ll miss them when they’re gone; self-publishing authors “hate” the traditional publishing establishment; and so on. Vandagriff did the best he could with the time he had, but he just didn’t have time to refute six other people—especially since one of them kept interrupting him when he tried.

David Vandagriff of The Passive Voice:

As the title of the post indicates, traditional publishing and indie authors live in two different worlds. The business concerns, the view of the future, the willingness and ability to change, the attitude toward Amazon and the self-image of the two groups are widely divergent.

To the extent that the other panelists were representative of tradpub as a whole, PG concludes they’re terrified of Amazon. They believe that Amazon’s commitment to low prices is simply not consistent with their survival and they’re desperate to keep prices up. The idea of changing the way they operate to thrive a lower-price world is not on anyone’s radar. Neither is the concept of making up revenue and profits with higher volume.

Porter Anderson on FutureBook:

It was WME literary agent Tina Bennett who suggested to LIVE From the NYPL's curator Paul Holdengräber that the program have an evening's conversation titled "Amazon: Business as Usual?" on the New York Public Library's (NYPL) series. And as she moderated the panel Tuesday,  the point that she and the group kept returning to was the development of a marketplace controlled, as Princeton-based panelist Danielle Allen put it, by one commercial entity.


By some 50 minutes into the evening, the exercise was notable for an inability or unwillingness of the powerful to speak for itself.

On a related note, Publishers Lunch did not post a commentary, nor did Publishing Perspectives. There is a story in The Bookseller, but it's behind a paywall so I can't tell if it's news or commentary.

Now that I have had a few days to digest the event, I have realized that this was not so much a debate as it was a chorus of agreement. And on that point, I judge it a failure.

Not that we should be surprised; this debate was structured in such a way that it was guaranteed to only include industry voices.

Chris Meadows pointed out how the debate could have been more balanced: "add to Vandagriff a couple of folks like Hugh Howey, J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, or David Gaughran for the indie publisher side".

That's a good idea, but unfortunately the debate was conceived and held in too short of a time frame. Porter Anderson said that "the discussion was pulled together in about 10 days' time" (Tina Bennett confirms that the event was put together very quickly). Anderson then goes on to fault Amazon for not sending anyone, which given the time frame was simply ridiculous.

Publishing industry conferences are planned not 10 days or 10 weeks in advance, but 10 months in advance. Even press events, which are scheduled for at least 2 weeks after the invites go out, are crafted over the course of months.

To put it simply, that short time frame between conception and holding the debate made it extremely difficult for anyone not already living in NYC to come to the event.

Unlike publishing industry insiders who live in and around NYC, a lot of us from the indie side can't afford to plunk down thousands of dollars for a last minute plane ticket and hotel room. We don't all have publishing companies to fund our travel budgets, nor is it reasonable to suggest that our schedules be disrupted at the last minute.

In short, folks, this event was set up to only include people who could commute into NYC for the day. That may not have been the intent, but whoever was in charge of the schedule should have seen it coming and done something.

Or am I wrong?

About Nate Hoffelder (11464 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

6 Comments on Four Takes on the “Amazon: Threat or Menace?” Debate

  1. Frank Skornia // 3 July, 2014 at 3:22 pm // Reply

    I’m wondering at what point Amazon is going to get fed up with the constant grief from the publishing industry and decide that they’d be better off focusing their retail efforts into other sectors. Maybe they’ll keep the self-publishing side, but will just write off working with publishers. It’s probably unlikely, but it is a possible future scenario.

  2. You’re not wrong.
    But you are assuming that was *not* the intent.
    I will instead point out that lynching parties are always organized on short notice. 🙂

  3. Deborah Smith // 3 July, 2014 at 4:44 pm // Reply

    Amazon paid for Vandagriff’s way; surely they could have paid for many others, as well. Or sent a reputable spokesperson.

    • Yes, because it’s not like anyone might have issues like a mortgage, kids, a day job, or other commitments keeping them from going to NYC at a moment’s notice.

      And would you really expect Amazon to send a spokesperson to its own lynching? If the panel were more balanced, maybe. But with 6 panelists who hate Amazon, any official rep would have been shouted down.

      • And they’d only have been able to say “No comment” when asked directly about their strategy and such. Especially as regards the Hachette thing, for which they’re presumably under a confidentiality agreement. I mean, it’s rare for Amazon to say anything about anything at all, let alone confidential negotiations.

        It’s also worth pointing out there wasn’t an official Hachette representative there, either, and they’re actually based in New York.

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