Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ruth Franklin and Scott McLemee on Amazon

Two more articles on Amazon out today... Ruth Franklin writes in defense of Amazon in The New Republic and Scott McLemee focuses on the relationship between Amazon and university presses in Inside Higher Ed.  Both articles are quite good and address some of the questions I raised last week, although I'm not sure McLemee offers so much new to the picture.  Franklin raises some important points:
The real trouble with Amazon, it seems, is that nobody truly believes we were better off without it. This is where the often-made comparison of Amazon with other monoliths such as Wal-Mart falters. Wal-Mart is not known for its catalog of obscurities; the merchandise it sells is all available elsewhere. It put the mom-and-pop drugstores and hardware stores and grocery stores out of business by offering the same items that they sold, just at lower prices.

This isn’t the case with Amazon. Before it appeared on the scene, if you lived in a part of the country that happened not to be served by a great independent bookstore, you were out of luck when it came to getting books other than bestsellers. As a child growing up in suburban Baltimore—not exactly a backwater!—I felt keenly the lack of ready access to the books that I wanted. (Remember the joke of a selection at your local mall’s Waldenbooks?) And with the quirkier independents—such as the great Louie’s to which I paid tribute above—you were at the mercy of the owner’s idiosyncrasies, which meant that you might find shelves stocked with contemporary poetry but nothing by, say, Tolstoy. Let’s not even get started on how difficult it used to be to get foreign-language books, which normally required going to a specialized store with stratospheric prices. It’s hard to complain too much about the shipping rates on sites like and when they offer access to so many of the books of Europe.
 I think the problem of distribution is pretty serious in the U.S.; outside of university towns and cosmopolitan centers, it seems much more difficult to accomplish the sort of critical mass of a reading public that would be necessary for the sort of decentralized, independent book trade that Franklin rightly points out as something of a nostalgic ideal.  The point about and .de also repeats a point that has been expressed by theology bloggers before- that Amazon provides access to books published elsewhere that might otherwise be inordinately expensive.  Speaking from the perspective of library acquisitions, even the large book distributors like Baker & Taylor don't offer great access to continental European titles... we receive these titles through Harrassowitz rather than Yankee Book Peddler, our normal distributor.  Mention of Amazon's non-U.S. branches also made me wonder how the publishing and book trade situation is faring overseas.  Are there any readers who could share their perspective on this?  Is the same sort of battle going on outside of the U.S.?

These qualifications about the threat of Amazon to the book trade also shouldn't be taken as a critique of those who are calling for support of Indie sellers or reform of the system.  As Franklin herself points out, "if Amazon is truly endangering [publishers'] ability to bring out their books, it is their responsibility to take a stand against it."  Folks are free to make of the market what they will, and a decision to work with Amazon for financial reasons by either publishers or book consumers isn't much different than Amazon's own business decisions.  No one is coercing the current state of affairs, and nothing but the inertia of certain incentives is stopping anyone from doing things differently.


  1. It's a good point that Franklin makes, but it seems to me that Amazon isn't the solution so much as the internet.

    If access is the problem then the solution is making distance irrelevant. But you don't need Amazon to do that.

    What Amazon actually contributes, I think, is some price competition. Is that a good or a bad thing? It depends. If it destroys book diversity its a bad thing. But isn't book publishing exploding exponentially? How can one claim that diversity or nuance is being strangled? Perhaps that explosion of publishing is paired with a homogenization? Maybe.

    Anyway - I don't think the access point alone necessitates Amazon. Not that I have a problem with Amazon, I just wouldn't defend it on those grounds.

  2. I think you're right, and I think this touches on what is really a pretty naive criticism of independent bookstores. Brick-and-mortar stores are certainly important- I think they provide necessary space for community and for critical discourse... but it's not like small bookstores don't know how to use the internet. A lot of them have a web presence, and list their books in various marketplaces like Abe or even Amazon. Small publishers are also often distributed through the websites of larger publishers. There's plenty to do on this front apart from using Amazon... the biggest problem that I see is that, even if distance is technically made irrelevant, in practice it is still a real problem because of Amazon's sheer size-- more people are familiar with it, and so go to it without thinking. Again, this is why having a thicker network of discourse about books and other published literature seems to be central for any solution. Absent that, people are going to turn to the warehouses because they are unaware of the more complicated landscape of smaller sellers, even if they are online and technically accessible at much greater distances.

  3. Evan,

    I can't tell if those last two sentences are fully reflective of your position, or just continuing to summarize Franklin. "Folks are free to make of the market what they will..." I haven't gotten the impression that you would endorse a statement like that; the whole problem seems to be an approach to "the market" as if it were actually and totally "free," and we just have to make up our mind in a world in which "No one is coercing the current state of affairs."

    Let me know if I'm over-reading you here, or if you would, clarify how you understand "the market" in relation to the buying and selling of books.

  4. "It put the mom-and-pop drugstores and hardware stores and grocery stores out of business by offering the same items that they sold, just at lower prices."

    That point is arguable at best. Growing up in a rural area I remember what Mom & Pop stores were like, and they had nothing like the variety that Wal-Mart and Target have.

  5. Also, Mom & Pop stores really weren't the "victims" of Wal-Mart or Target - they had already gone by the wayside for the most part by the time either became big chain stores. No, what they whacked were somewhat smaller, regional chain stores or national chain stores.

  6. Daniel,

    Amazon is a middle-man - any remotely functional economy needs middle-men.

  7. To Brad- that is actually meant to be my position.

    I would certainly acknowledge that there are larger factors in play and that we're not totally "free" to do anything whatsoever in the face of corporate action. But on a mundane level, I'm trying to say that no one is forcing me to buy any given book from Amazon as opposed to elsewhere, just like no one is forcing any publisher to work with Amazon... Colin Robinson of OR Books has been mentioned in these articles as someone who made the decision to not to business with Amazon.

    Many of the problems related to Amazon... huge discounts that leave publishers with a loss of profit and consuming individuals with a cheap option difficult to refuse... seem to be a matter of incentives that we can take or leave (though perhaps with some relative difficulty) rather than any sort of veritable coercion. Issues like displaying content without permission from copyright holders strike me as more obviously an issue of actual infringement on someone's freedom.

    By saying this I wouldn't want to minimize the power of capitalist interests or the extent to which people are victimized by its abuses, but I also want to avoid demeaning our perfectly-intact dignity and autonomy as users and buyers of books. No one's holding a gun to our head in this situation, is all I'm saying.

  8. Xenophon -
    Sure, I'm not using that as an argument against Amazon. I personally don't have a problem with Amazon. I'm just saying that if you were confronted with the problem that Franklin presents, a behemoth like Amazon is by no means a necessary solution to that problem. In other words, if one felt the need to justify Amazon that alone would not justify it.

  9. ruth franklin in the intrests of closing the defecit should demand that congress and the individual states require amazon to collect sales taxes.why is amazon not required to collect and pay taxes?since amazon pays twice what gooogle pays and the head of amazon is rumored to be worth 11 billion dollars, i don't want to hear the internet is a struggling new industry.
    level the playing field make amazon pay taxes!