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Video Debate: Amazon – Business As Usual?

5563763393_c377938ba6_b[1]Earlier this evening the NY Public Library hosted a publishing industry debate on everyone’s favorite malevolent retailer. That debate was streamed live, and I have just confirmed that the archive of the debate is also available after the fact.

The video is embedded below, and I encourage you to watch. I just finished it watching it for the second time, and I am having trouble understanding the viewpoints of the industry insiders.

  • They keep talking about how they support book culture by publishing books that won’t be successful, and I remember that they are taking money away from successful authors to do that.
  • They say that they bring authors along, and I recall the many authors who don’t even get in the door or are dropped after their first or second book (or in the case of Val McDermid, her third).
  • They say that books wouldn’t be published without copyright law, and I remember the millennium without it. I also remember the case of Charles Dickens who, when he was being flagrantly copied by US publishers who were taking advantage of a British author not having a US copyright, still worked out deals with certain publishers so they would get the earliest access on the condition that they paid a royalty.
  • And then there’s the worst case scenario (at about 30:00) where one pundit predicts Amazon, after killing off major publishers and independent publishers, will become a vanity press and start extracting fees from self-published authors. Edit: As one commenter pointed out, "How is Amazon maybe becoming a vanity publisher any worse than the current situation with Randy Penguin and Author Solutions?" Thanks, Greg!

I will add, though, that the point that was raised about the analogy between Agency and ASCAP bears further investigation. I’m not sure it’s valid, but I need to look further.

The panelists for this debate were almost universally against Amazon, with the token neutral voice added at the last minute.

  • Moderator: Tina Bennett, literary agent at WME.;
  • Best-selling author James Patterson;
  • Morgan Entrekin, publisher and president of Grove Atlantic;
  • Bob Kohn, attorney and founder of;
  • Tim Wu, law professor and theorist of “net neutrality;”
  • Danielle Allen, political theorist, author of a new book on the Declaration of Independence and elected chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board; and
  • David Vandagriff, intellectual property lawyer (aka the editor of The Passive Voice blog).

image by cjjaz

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fjtorres July 1, 2014 um 11:36 pm

Notice how they shut up and switched the topic at the mention of predatory contracts.

They act as if Amazon is a public utility that exists for the convenience of the BPHs.

And, of course, the meme du jour was front and center: indies are angry because they couldn’t make it in corporate publishing. Never mind that a big portion of indies are hybrids who were tradpub and jumped ship the first chance they got.

Pretty much as expected from such a stacked panel.

Nate Hoffelder July 2, 2014 um 12:01 am

I think I may have lost that during one of the times I was rolling a SAN check.

William D. O’Neil July 2, 2014 um 12:15 am

The deliberations of a hanging jury.

It is interesting that they can be sure of the motivations and feelings of independent authors when independents are excluded from the panel and no one on it knows many (if any).

Greg Strandberg July 2, 2014 um 12:25 am

How on earth could you watch that two times? I thought some of the panelists would die from boredom!

Lot of preaching to the converted. Everyone’s made up their mind as to what side their on by now. Who are these folks trying to convince?

Things like this make me shake my head. I really feel sorry for the authors just starting out that don’t know anything and don’t know how to get rolling or see some gains. Instead of talking about helpful things, all people in the know just keep droning on about the same subject that fascinates them so.

Some people talk about a split in publishing, and I think they’re right – it’s been split into many different pieces and divisions. There are those that advocate for self-publishing and those that go for traditional. Within both of those is a further division, one that I think is larger than both when combined, and this is the group that’s not winning no matter which one they claim as their own. These are the forgotten or undeserving.

Of course the market will choose which books are best and those authors will succeed. Gosh, tell that to the 2 million plus book authors that James Patterson mentioned. No one really cares about them on either side.

So I think you’ll see this third side arise that realizes these two groups represented on that stage tonight really have no advice that will help them at all. What difference does it make how your book got to market if no one is buying it? The vast majority of authors fall into that camp.

Nate Hoffelder July 2, 2014 um 5:25 pm

I watched it twice because my brain kept resetting itself the first time through.

And I think you’re right about the preaching to the converted; this debate was, as Chris Meadows put it, a discussion over whether Amazon was a threat or a menace.

Deborah Smith July 2, 2014 um 3:15 am

Vandagriff may not work for Amazon but he’s an Amazon mouthpiece. It would have been a better event with just him and Tim Wu arguing over Wu’s point about Amazon shilling for co-opt clients by recommending their books through its Search function. I side with Wu on that point.

Chris Meadows July 2, 2014 um 5:21 am

Wu was confusing the search function and the "if you like this book, you might also like…" recommender. It’s pretty clear the latter is what the co-op fees thing was about, but Wu was acting as if it was the former.

Chris Meadows July 2, 2014 um 5:29 am

Also, I don’t think that being opposed to the big publishers and in favor of indie publishers necessarily need make one "an Amazon mouthpiece."

Will Entrekin July 2, 2014 um 9:16 am

Everyone on the panel besides Vandagriff was a corporate publishing mouthpiece.

SpringfieldMH July 2, 2014 um 9:47 am

Actually, Vanadagriff is an author mouthpiece, no doubt due to the abusive exploitative trad pub contracts that he has studied. You know… non-compete, lifetime loss of rights, vanishingly small advances, inability to retrieve rights in event of publisher malpractice and incompetence…

Anne July 2, 2014 um 5:01 pm

@ Deborah- Even though Wu got this particular part wrong, I appreciated his contributions to the panel. I don’t know how a couple of the others even got invites. Well, I can guess why one of them did.

Speaking of the author mouthpiece (Vandagriff), what do your contracts look like? What do you pay in royalties? Do you require non-competes? How long do you require rights to be assigned? How much are your advances? Do you require DRM on your books?

Your animosity towards Amazon is palpable through the internet. Why do you continue to do business with them? Two days ago you tweeted about three different books that are on sale on Amazon. Why the sale and why the Amazon promotion when you dislike them so much? Why not tweet that they’re on sale at B&N and Apple (assuming that they are on sale there) without mentioning Amazon at all?

You could take this space to actually educate the rest of us rather than just posting the same old "Amazon is evil" without explaining anything. I don’t think any of us would disagree that more competition is needed but it was agency pricing that put my used to be preferred retailers out of business so I ended up at Amazon. Do you have anger against the price colluders because they ended up reducing competition? Is there any particular reason why you don’t have your own ebook shop? Why is Amazon listed first on your site? Why do you still have Fictionwise on your site? Help us out here.

Anne July 2, 2014 um 7:08 pm

I just watched the Q&A so am now taking back the good stuff I said earlier about Wu. While I think he was still confusing search with recommendations, he stated some things as fact that I don’t think are true or at least not been proven. Feel free to correct me but please be sure to include citations.

tubemonkey July 2, 2014 um 5:23 am

Tina: "…but I think we are all here tonight because we feel strongly that this is an issue that involves all of us, and it involves America, and it involves democracy."

You’ve got to be kidding?! Talk about a sense of over inflated self-importance! We’re talking about books, not national defense. I don’t know how to break this to you Tina, but democracy won’t crumble if traditional publishing goes under.

fjtorres July 2, 2014 um 5:59 am

It might actually improve if politicians stop getting millions of dollars of campaign contributions in the form of "advances" for books that end up pulped.

Nate Hoffelder July 2, 2014 um 8:16 am

Yes, that was one of the points I couldn’t address because it was simply too crazy.

Dan Meadows July 2, 2014 um 7:12 am

The agent who was moderating also got very defensive when PG mentioned the idea that authors could possibly fund their own work or find new models to finance it not involving publishers. Threatened much?

Will Entrekin July 2, 2014 um 8:47 am

That’s because as an agent, she represents non-fiction and investigative journalism. Exactly the sorts of books she was noting couldn’t be written without those $200,000 advances. She never mentioned when those books get those $200,000 advances, she gets $30,000.

She also represents both Malcolm Gladwell and Tim Wu. The former has been vocally anti-Amazon; the latter we saw last night, discussing ball bearings and misunderstanding how search works. I thought it was particularly funny when he (I think) noted something like "But Google doesn’t charge for search. When people search Google, it’s about relevancy."

Google’s entire business model is based on advertising and paid search.

Greg Weeks July 2, 2014 um 8:56 am

How is Amazon maybe becoming a vanity publisher any worse than the current situation with Randy Penguin and Author Solutions?

Nate Hoffelder July 2, 2014 um 9:03 am

Good point, and you’re right. I had trouble wrapping my brain around that scenario so i couldn’t refute it. I’m going to use your argument.


William D. O’Neil July 2, 2014 um 9:02 am

An interesting data point regarding Amazon’s promotion policies. Amazon periodically sends out e-mails to customers recommending books in a category they think you’re interested in (based on your purchases). This morning there is one on military history with a mix of Kindles published by traditional publishers (mostly) and a few KDPs. At the top of the list is my KDP book ("The Plan That Broke the World"), ahead of any number of commercially-published titles.

I’d long wondered what it took to get your book promoted in this fashion and now I know. I haven’t paid them a penny to push my book, nor even urged them to do so—this is simply what they think is going to sell at the moment, based on their sales patterns.

Amazon makes it possible for KDP (and other) authors to track sales day by day. Needless to say, I will be keenly interested in seeing how this affects mine!

Chris Meadows July 2, 2014 um 11:02 am

By the way, in case people want to provide direct feedback on the panel, pro or con, you can use the email address [email protected].

Chris Meadows July 2, 2014 um 11:03 am

Whoops, munged the link. Here it is fixed: [email protected].

Diane July 2, 2014 um 8:49 pm

What I heard was BPH needs to make a profit because they use these profits to provide great literature. Amazon is evil because after the great work they did growing the ebook business, they now have the nerve to want to make a profit.

Lumen July 12, 2014 um 5:19 pm

So, I’m just a reader. I stumbled onto these things because I started reading Hugh Howey’s blog and he was offering a completely different POV on this topic than I had gotten from any other news source. It’s interested me enough to start following links, and that’s how I wound up here.

I was very skeptical of amazon up until now. But I’m having a very bad response to this video. With the exception of the pro-amazon guy all the panelists came across as horrible elitists, who seem to think that cheap books is going to bring about the fall of civilization.

Basically what I got out of all this was:

I should be thrilled to pay more and see my favorite authors get less while the bulk of the profit goes to a middle man. Because? Books are different.

Also amazon is doing horrible unproven things with searches, and that’s just as bad as what other retailers do but we hate amazon more so it’s worse when they do it.

And then the end seemed to be something like this:
Wu : "How dare Amazon guide your search based on your past preferences and what you want and seem to value? Don’t you feel manipulated?"

Me: "I guess it bothers me a little. But what exactly do you publishers do again?"

Rest of panel: "We decide what you should have available to read and guide you to books based on what WE think is important and valuable. Aren’t you grateful?"

And of course the idea that amazon is pushing is a "simple" argument. Cheaper books are better. But the people on this panel all know that it’s much more complex than that. But they aren’t going to bother to explain it. I guess because books are "different".

Also, books are different.

I’m not saying what these people do doesn’t have value. But they themselves have convinced me that they are WAY overpaid, and have a very inflated sense of their own importance in the culture. If you can’t articulate what the value is you bring with something other than arm waving and vague platitudes about the importance of books, even when given a full hour and a clearly slanted panel to do so…then I’d say you have some soul searching to do.

Nate Hoffelder July 12, 2014 um 6:34 pm

Things look very different from outside the industry, yes, and most insiders don’t realize just how they sound.

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