Our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation—a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to). Patronizing indies helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case. There are similar phenomena in the world of indie music fans ("Top 40 has to be bad") and indie cinema, which rebels against stars and big-budget special effects. In each case the indie label is a deliberate marketing ploy to segregate, often artificially, one part of the market from the rest.There were some strong critiques of Cowen's article when it came out, and it's probably no surprise that I'm also unimpressed by his argument. The article is valuable insofar as it points out that we can't simply have a knee-jerk reaction against large sellers and ignore the good things that they provide: greater access and visibility, algorithms that track buying in order to provide a bibliography of similar resources, and cheaper prices. This isn't nothing. But the gaping holes in Cowen's rosy picture also need to be addressed.
This morning, as if by providence, Dennis Johnson of MelvilleHouse offers a bleak sort of response to the story written four years ago by Cowen. In the publisher's blog Moby Lives (which you should all add to your RSS feed if you haven't already), Johnson points out some news on Amazon.com, including dropping stock, optimistic announcements from Bezos about e-book sales, and... most importantly... a devastating new essay from Colin Robinson in The Nation.
In "The Trouble with Amazon", Robinson discusses Amazon's relationship with publishers at length. Anecdotal accounts of strong-arming tactics reveal the extent to which Amazon has created trouble for the sustainability of the book industry. Included is the story of Dennis Johnson himself:
Dennis Loy Johnson, co-publisher of the Brooklyn-based independent Melville House, is one of the few publishers who have dared to speak openly about Amazon's bullying. His story is far from atypical. In 2004 a representative of the retailer contacted Melville's distributor demanding an additional discount. Such payments are illegal under antitrust law, which precludes selling at different prices to different customers. Large retailers circumvent this restriction by disguising the extra discount under the rubric of "co-op," money paid to the bookseller for promotional services, often notional. In this case the distributor did not bother with such niceties, describing what Amazon was after as "kickback."There is also some interesting commentary about the extent to which broad access has actually decreased the diversity of reading among customers. This problem is something that I think academics often fail to be aware of, because of the extent to which we are often the long end of the tail referenced below:
Johnson resisted Amazon's pressure and complained to Publishers Weekly about what he saw as the retailer's capo-like tactics. What happened next evidently still rankles. "I was at the Book Expo in New York and two guys from Amazon came to see me. They said that the company was watching what we were doing and that they strongly advised us to get in line. I was shocked at how blatant the pressure was." Within a couple of days Johnson noticed that the buy buttons for his books had been taken off Amazon's site, making Melville's titles unavailable.
In the end Johnson, faced with an offer it was nigh impossible to refuse, agreed to the co-op. His books' buy buttons were reinstated. Today Amazon is Melville House's biggest customer, and though Johnson still regularly flays the company on his popular publishing blog Moby Lives, he also concedes that it is highly effective at bookselling: "They make buying so easy. It's impossible to resist."
Though the overall number of titles published each year has risen sharply, the under-resourcing of mid-list books is producing a pattern that joins an enormously attenuated tail (a tiny number of customers buying from a huge range of titles) to a Brobdingnagian head (an increasing number of purchasers buying the same few lead titles), with less and less in between.Few would argue with the fact that giants like Amazon provide a lot for the customer. The question is, at what systemic cost? If publishers cannot afford to stay in business or have to charge exorbitant prices for items with lower sales (in turn creating a mess for library budgets), what will the prospects for book trade look like years from now?
Halden has brought up Amazon before, and I've also mentioned the problem of predatory pricing. I have for some time, and will continue to always link books I mention to their publisher rather than to the Amazon page. At the same time, a number of bloggers have recently mentioned the deal that Amazon is offering for students, and I confess that I signed up for it and plan on using it. One has to balance what is feasible, and in any case I don't think there's too much sense in making Amazon out to be the devil. There are good reasons, many of them financial, for buying from a large distributor (your library does, in any case, and usually at significant institutional discounts). What is most important is to be aware of the wider issues in play for those who write, publish, sell, and acquire books, and to pursue practices that are balanced and supportive of a sustainable situation for the future.
But how to do this? What are some particular problems that present themselves in academic publishing? What are some issues peculiar to the religious publishing niche that we should be aware of?
I am hesitant to make this post too long by discussing some possible answers and suggestions for these questions, so I'll continue with some of my ideas in a future post, either later today or tomorrow. In the meantime, do make sure to read Robinson's article in The Nation, subscribe to Moby Lives, and share some of your thoughts on what is happening and what can be done by individual readers, writers, publishers, and sellers.