Vanity Fair has a new article out today which takes a long look at Amazon and its effect on the book industry.
There are a number of details which I disagree with, but the article in general is worth your time. It makes a number of interesting claims, including this one from the introduction:
Amazon’s war with publishing giant Hachette over e-book pricing has earned it a black eye in the media, with the likes of Philip Roth, James Patterson, and Stephen Colbert demanding that the online mega-store stand down. How did Amazon—which was once seen as the book industry’s savior—end up as Literary Enemy Number One? And how much of this fight is even about money? Keith Gessen reports.
That’s a rather unusual historical viewpoint, don’t you think? Do you think it’s correct?
I don’t think so, but then again I wasn’t involved with the book industry in Amazon’s early years so I can’t comment directly. (Google also failed to turn up much in the way of news coverage from that period.) But based on what I know about Amazon and the book industry, I have trouble seeing what Amazon could have been saving the book industry from – obscurity?
Before Amazon came along, publishers sold books to distributors who then sold them to bookstores, or publishers sold directly to the major chains which handled their own distribution.
According to VF, that had its own issues:
The big chains were good for publishers because they sold so many books, but they were bad for publishers because they used their market power to dictate tough terms and also because they sometimes returned a lot of stock. People also worried about the power of the chains to determine whether a book did well or badly. Barnes & Noble’s lone literary-fiction buyer, Sessalee Hensley, could make (or break) a book with a large order (or a disappointingly small one). If you talked to a publisher in the early 2000s, chances are they would complain to you about the tyranny of Sessalee. No one used her last name; the most influential woman in the book trade did not need one.
I can see how that would be frustrating, but is it really bad enough to warrant calling Amazon a savior? And did anyone see Amazon as a savior way back when?
If that truly is the case then it sheds new light on the talk over the past couple years about Walmart and how it might rescue the book industry from Amazon. There have been rumors that Walmart would start a bookstore chain and speculation that it might buy B&N, and one pundit even predicted that it would happen eventually.
That desire to be rescued by a powerful retailer from another powerful retailer always struck me as a cure which was worse than the disease, but that doesn’t mean that some weren’t agitating for it.
So was Amazon viewed as a savior at some point?
image by Zarko Drincic