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Has Amazon Ever Been Seen as the "Savior" of the Book Industry?

2117512295_24e409bf9d_z1[1]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

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fjtorres November 6, 2014 um 8:53 am

Amazon as savior?
Not from the industry insiders.
But I’ve seen a few pundit comments that the only thing keeping the industry from imploding over the last decade is Amazon.

The industry has been in slow, steady decline since before Amazon came about, losing readers and new book sales continually, while used book sales grew. Remember, before Amazon became the devil, the devils were used book dealers and eBay.

Much of the Amazon angst comes from the vulnerability the BPHs feel from their dependence on Amazon.

The thing you never hear is that Amazon isn’t just their biggest volume channel but also their most profitable by far. The difference is so big that if Amazon went away and their sales spread among B&M retailers at their normal terms,sales volumes would be lower and aggregate BPH profits would vanish. And a couple of the smaller ones would be bleeding red ink. And if Amazon had never existed (and nobody else had stepped up) things would be even worse.

There’s a lot if bluster on the BPH side. After all, nobody enjoys depending on the "kindness" of strangers. Especially when those strangers can survive without you. Amazon is no hero but they do hold the lifeline keeping them from going over the cliff.

Will Entrekin November 6, 2014 um 8:55 am

As I remember it, yes. It was the late 90s; the internet was still delivered to your front door via CD-ROMs that enabled a certain amount of hours free access to something then new to most users, and which still came with the modem sound. Buying things online was just about unheard of. Amazon and PayPal were about the only two companies most people thought you could trust with a credit card.

Nobody had really seen anything like Amazon before then, and it took off fast. First with books and then with other categories as it added inventory. But remember at the time what a giant Barnes & Noble was. They’d just beaten Walden and B Dalton and were on their way to taking on Sam Goody and others. I think that’s why malls died, mostly.

I wasn’t as involved with publishing back then as I wanted; back then I was just querying my first novel. So I don’t know what agents and such thought about them. But I remember that for readers, Amazon was huge.

That much hasn’t really changed.

Nate Hoffelder November 6, 2014 um 9:13 am

Amazon has always been great for readers, yes.

fjtorres November 6, 2014 um 8:58 am

By the way, publishing has always been at war with their biggest distributors going back a century or more.
For a good detailed look at that history, mostly pre Amazon, check out RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS by Laura J. Miller.
Price is not nice do I recommend buying used. I did. 😀

Nate Hoffelder November 6, 2014 um 9:24 am

So would that mean that publishing has a King Log and King Stork complex?

fjtorres November 6, 2014 um 10:00 am

That’s one possibility.
Another is they suffer from terminal entitlement; they want all the benefits of efficient, consolidated distribution but resent having to deal with the consequences of having it.
When the big department stores were their biggest channel, they happily took the orders and the money but resented that books were sold next to clothing and housewares at a discount.
When "jobbers" and distributors became the most efficient way of distribution they sniffed that they cared nothing about books and they were just a bunch of truckers.
When mall chains became tops, they complained about how the staff was more interested in promoting loyalty cards and cheap books.
Then it was the warehouse chains, and now Amazon. Any day now they’ll start on Apple and Google.
And through it all, their own process in getting the books to channel is the same as a century ago.
Because it is never their fault that books fail to sell or that retailers want to move whatever book’s the public wants to read instead of what the establishment wants them to read.
Really, it is an amusing book to read. Dry and scholarly, dripping with facts, do it should be anathema to tradpub apologists but it will make you chuckle to realize all the accusations they threw at Amazon they threw at Macy’s a century ago and Walden 50 years ago.

DavidW November 6, 2014 um 9:24 am

Since the article didn’t post the link, here it is:

Nate Hoffelder November 6, 2014 um 9:26 am

Thanks for pointing this out; I had a link which disappeared. It’s not there now, but I did put one in.

DavidW November 6, 2014 um 9:57 am

In the 90s yes amazon was the savior. The bookstore chains were shutting down indie stores and forcing terms for publishers.

Chris Meadows November 6, 2014 um 10:12 am

I don’t know about Amazon being the savior through reducing returns, but I do know that the bookstore returns system was a lethal trap for the unwary. As I was reading through the ’70s and ’80s volumes of the Designers & Dragons industry history, I was struck by just how many RPG publishers—including TSR itself—got torpedoed when their ambition to put their game books in traditional bookstores turned sour when they had to deal with most of the inventory being returned to them unsold. The big publishers were set up to deal with that—they already accounted for those costs in their usual way of doing business. The newbies…weren’t.

Mackay Bell November 6, 2014 um 4:24 pm

The article is long, and mostly filler. Virtually no new information here. No real reporting. (Other than long quotes from the writer’s own agent.) Almost identical in tone and ultimate message to the George Packer piece in the New Yorker six months ago. Amazon is evil, publishers are trying to protect art and are helpless. Something must be done or culture will be destroyed. The anti-Amazon PR campaign gets these long "serious reporting" pieces published in the big magazines so they can quote them in the more blatant anti-Amazon hate commentary. "As a detailed investigation in Vanity Fair recently reported, the threat by Amazon is real…"

Note there is absolutely nothing negative about the big publishers. He paints the DOL conspiracy as their innocent attempts to deal with Amazon. Says nothing about their forcing "standard" contracts on writers (another conspiracy). Says nothing negative about the consolidation of publishing houses. In fact, it’s good news that there is even more consolidation, because maybe that will help them fight back. Like all the other Amazon fear mongers, somehow the end of advances to writers will mean of civilization. That meme has been completely discredited, over an over, but he throws it out again. Everyone is supposed to support high prices for ebooks so the giant publishers have money to pay advances to "biographers, urban historians, midlist novelists… " so they don’t become more dependent on "on the universities and foundations than they already were."

Excuse me? We’re supposed to pay $12.99 for a crime thriller in the hopes that the big publisher will give a nice advance to the writer of a book about George Washington? First, they don’t pay big advances to those kinds of writers. Never in amounts that allow them to make living. And why is it so terrible that universities and foundations have to fund books no one wants to read? (And that publishers don’t want to finance.) And seriously, profits for all the big publishers are up. Why are these people being squeezed? Why should we believe they wouldn’t be squeezed anyway? It’s drivel.

He tries to pretend he’s presenting both sides, but his slant is obvious. AU and Douglas Preston are trying to protect culture, they are people who " feel very strongly about books." Self-publishers are dismissed as people who rise "to the defense of their benefactor (Amazon)." Self-publishers are also just bitter people who "lashed out at traditional publishing, they often spoke with the passion of the dispossessed. " Dispossessed? How about they’re talented writers and business people who carve out a living on their own without begging for government intervention to put money in their pocket? How about they share information to help each other even when it doesn’t put any money in their pockets? How about they point out the fallacy of the arguments being made to blackmail Amazon with the absurd threat of government action? How about they also criticize Amazon, but not for fake "censoring."

Nope, self-publishers arguments "… were self-interested or disingenuous or silly…" Though he does grant that they show some that there are two sides to it. Yes, the right side "Amazon is evil" and the wrong side which the self-publishers are on. Because, after all, self-publishers just don’t care about books like Douglas Preston.

He also disputes the idea that rich writers are the one’s complaining, because after all, tech people are even richer. Whale math. (And of course, evil rich tech people are simply using those silly poor self-publishers.) By the way, publishers, you know, those poor guys that have been merging and merging into bigger and bigger media companies that have rising profits, they are obviously the good guys in the battle because "… publishers were finally standing up for themselves.” (Against, Amazon.) Yes, for so long, big giant publishers have been helpless victims.

He even makes a trip to a desert warehouse, I guess looking for dying Amazon warehouse workers. He must have not found any, because all he can say is that it’s sinisterly well run and the workers have to walk a lot. Messengers, waitresses, post men, and a lot of other workers also walk a lot. He fails to mention whether it had air-conditioning. I assume because it did.

I can’t wait to run it through the Fear-O-Matic.

Timothy Wilhoit November 6, 2014 um 5:39 pm

AU, what’s that? Now I remember, the Astroturfing Ubermensch. 😉

Nate Hoffelder November 6, 2014 um 6:17 pm

No argument. I just couldn’t criticize the post without undermining my question.

Greg Strandberg November 6, 2014 um 4:45 pm

When a company gets the idea in its head that its going to save something, I cash out my stock.

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