The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

January 30, 2010

The Big Bully

"Monopoly is business at the end of its journey." - Henry DeMarest Lloyd

WARNING: RANT FOLLOWS. Proceed at your own risk.

I awakened this morning to the roar of cannons, as fired a direct broadside at the MacMillan publishing ship. For those out of earshot of the battle, it seems that MacMillan has had the temerity to object to the lowballing of ebook prices. And amazon, one would guess, took exception not only to a producer attempting to have some say in the pricing of its product but also to that producer signing on for that higher pricing with amazon's ebook device competition, the Apple iPad (with bookstore to come). As punishment, amazon has removed the buy buttons from all of MacMillan's offerings. In short, amazon had an e-tantrum.

What does that mean to a reader/buyer? Books by Donna Andrews, Linda Barnes, Joe Barone, SJ Bolton, certain titles by Ken Bruen, Chelsea Cain, James Doss, Alan Glynn, Chris Grabenstein, John Hart, Steven Hockensmith, JA Jance, four titles by Michael Koryta, Roger Smith, Craig McDonald, and hundreds of other authors ARE NOT AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE AT AMAZON. Well, that's not strictly true. You can buy used copies of those books, in which neither MacMillan nor the authors will make any money on that sale. Just amazon and the used-book dealer  Amazon is hoping you won't notice and that MacMillan will shut up, just to get their books selling on amazon again. Shades of Wal-Mart! Same strategy, same tactics. (And do you see where the walmartization of America has got us? Ahem. But that's a different rant.)

What does it mean to the authors? It means that the very people who write the books from which amazon makes a lot of money (considerably more than most authors will ever make), those are the people who will most feel the sting from this venomous act of corporate bullying. And don't you believe for a minute that amazon has the interests of the consumer at heart. Oh, no. This is all about market domination. As in cornering the market. As in monopoly.

Maybe it sounds strange to you that a consumer would support higher pricing at any time. But in this case, those lowlow prices help only the consumer. Try to see beyond what's in your pocket right this second.  If the publishing industry is to survive, pricing has to be a win all around, from authors to consumers and all points in between. I want a low price, sure, but a fair price. But still, that's not the main reason I'm supporting "Big Mac" in this war. I'm not a fan of what the big publishers have done to their own industry. Not at all. They've helped make this mess, and done it willfully, just as amazon is doing.

No, I oppose amazon in this war because (full disclosure) I LOATHE amazon. My initial experiences with them were great, but repeated exposure has cured me forever. Hallelujah, brothers and sisters! I have been redeemed!

I have not forgotten amazon's prior bad acts, the repeated displays of a staggering lack of ethics and integrity:
  • That their Kindle is a proprietary device designed to further CEO Jeff Bezos' megalomaniac dream of a complete monopoly on ebooks (and from there to a lock on books, period).
  • That amazon has the power and the will to remove books, whenever it pleases and for whatever reason or none, from a consumer's Kindle. You won't be told in advance either.
  • The "glitch" that resulted in the removal of over 57,000 titles from both sales rankings and search offerings which just happened to include a large number of gay and lesbian themed titles.
  • That amazon once pulled all POD titles in an attempt to force POD publishers to exclusively use amazon's CreateSpace tool for printing.
  • That Amazon's customer service would be a joke except there's nothing funny about the way they treat their customers. Google "I hate amazon" or "amazon sucks," sit back and enjoy the reading. If they sent your book via US mail and you never got it? Tough, they still expect you to pay for it. If you placed an order for books "in stock" four weeks earlier and the status of that order has been "in shipping" for three of those weeks? Tough, you can't cancel the order and buy elsewhere. If you want to talk to a customer service rep, you'll actually get the chance to talk to several, none of whom talk to each other. So they wear you down with making you explain your problem over and over, until you just give up and go away.
  • Their hidden hooks and misleads. Beware of promotions that say your savings won't show up at check out. If you're an amazon customer and haven't been stung by these yet, your turn will come. Be patient, they have a lot of suckers customers to process. And think how much fun you'll have working with their customer service afterward.
  • Did you miss amazon's attempt at charm last November, when they flew a dozen top literary agents out to Seattle in an attempt to persuade the agents that amazon "is not trying to destroy publishing as we know it." Now why do you suppose they would want to persuade agents that is their mission, rather than persuading, say, the publishing CEOs? Are you thinking Amazon wants to turn the agents into fifth-columnists?

The publishing industry is currently writhing with its business model, trying to find a way to move forward in this age of technology, while amazon is doing its damnedest to become the industry, from publishing to retail. No kidding. David Young, CEO of the Hatchette publishing group, told NPR that the future of the $9.99 prices from amazon and the big box stores means ruin for the industry. Guess who would step in to "save" all those authors if that happens? I hope Young backs up his words by making the same demands of amazon that MacMillan has. I hope all the big publishers will stand together on this. It's kind of like what old Ben Franklin said about hanging together. If they don't, rest assured that the publishers will be hung (out to dry) separately.

For those authors who have supported the Kindle ebook phenom and made money via the same, enjoy. It feels good to actually sell your product and get royalties, doesn't it? But don't get accustomed to it, because based on amazon's culture and previous actions, once (if) the monopoly becomes a reality, you authors will also have to start playing by amazon's rules. I bet they have some already written, just for the big day. Just for you.

As for me, I went out to a local store today and bought a copy of Brad Parks' Faces of the Gone and Rosemary Harris's Pushing Up Daisies. I have to stock up against the day when the only books available will be by Dan Brown, James Patterson, John Grisham, and a few others. And the only places to buy them will be at amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target. Probably won't even be books as I know them, just bits and bytes. For an extra $1.00, each book will come with a special digitized graphic, like the ISBN, as the equivalent of an author's signature. For another $5.00, the graphic can be customized using the name on your credit card. .

"If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism, we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism." - Vladimir Lenin

                        Heil, Kindle!

End of rant. For a better-balanced (read: sane) and well-reasoned perspective, please read Cory Doctorow's post on the subject. We will now resume our regular programming.


  1. Naomi, I think you're right on target with this. Amazon want to own everything--they want to be the only bookstore, eReader provider, and publisher. It drives me crazy when I see authors rushing to provide cheap books for the Kindle so they can earn a few shekels, without any care over the fact that long term they're cutting their own throats. Once amazon owns everything the only authors who are going to make any money are the current megh-bestsellers, the rest of us will be resigned to the backpages of the kindle store, mixed in with 100s of thousands of self-published books.

    BUT the above is only what I believe amazon is striving for, and I don't think they'll be successful. The Apple iPad to me looks like a killer device, one that will eventually win the ebook reader wars. And I'd rather have Apple win out that Amazon since I don't think Apple has any intention of putting publishers out of business, or brick&mortar stores either.

  2. I'll agree that this is all a snit over Macmillan coming to an agreement with with Apple before they did with Amazon (If you'll notice, Macmillan never offered any of it's material as Kindle editions.) and all this is, is a pissing match between one giant corporation versus another with the authors and the readers in the middle saying, "What the Hell?"

  3. I agree that all publishers have to stand together. Let's hope the rest draw the same line in the sand. Until then, I plan on buying a lot of MacMillian books at my local indie bookstores.

  4. Naomi, Naomi. Calm down a minute and tell us how you really feel.

    That's a good assessment by Cory Doctorow (name like that, what else would you expect?). This time next month MacMillan and Amazon will probably making kissy faces at each others, having found some new way to screw the authors out of a couple more bucks. Any bets?

  5. Great post, Naomi. BTW, don't forget about Amazon erasing an ebook whenever they feel like it. I'm also with Dave Z with regard to Apple's iPad. B&N's Nook was limp competition. The iPad is a game-changer. Thanks.

  6. Wow. Amazon UK must be really different to Amazon US, cos I love those guys.

    A lot of what you're describing above is "capitalism", and nobody has come up with a viable alternative to that yet.

    Amazon does want to own everything, correct. The one thing a true capitalist business hates above all else is competition. Pesky thing.

    The iPad/Apple/MacMillan deal is a clear threat to Amazon and it's a clever move by them to cut MacMillan off. Amazon is a big chunk of the book market and until Apple starts selling paper books that's going to hurt MacMillan far more than selling e-books on the iPad will help them.

    Oh. I checked for a few of those authors on Amazon UK and they seem to still be available to buy there. Minotaur Books is a division of MacMillan, right? They mustn't have gotten the memo yet.

  7. Naomi,
    Ironically, I had just looked on Amazon because someone who wanted to buy my book found it not for sale there. I wondered why.

    This is a beautifully-written rant. To me, it is kind of like the battle of the dinosaurs. Things are really changing in the publishing industry. It is possible both entities (Kindle and MacMillan as they now function) will finally cease to exist (have to change greatly) and something different altogether will emerge.

    I don't see Amazon being able to corner the market and become an I-tunes. I expect the Kindle as a proprietary book reader to be out-of-date within a couple years. It will just be a step along the way.

    One reason is because of well-written and deserved rants like yours. Another reason is--
    Wal-Mart established its dominance in circumscribed small communities. Other competitors couldn't afford to come in, and local small stores couldn't compete. Book readers may not have local bookstores (I live in a town of 100,000 and all we have for new books is one B&N, another Wal-Mart of a sort), but I buy books from all kinds of local bookstores over the Internet.

    Also, nowadays, I try to be careful to read at least one in three of my books from small publishers. I made that resolution recently when it occurred to me how important small publishers are if there are to books by people other than Patterson and Robb.

    How do I feel about this as a writer? I am not a good one to answer this question. I never expected my book to sell. It did because of one editor who promotes new writers (Ruth Cavin, God bless her!). I doubt I will ever have another published novel, but I will keep on writing.

    Full disclosure: I own a Kindle, and I suspect when the IPad gets its act fully together, I will own that to use to read books too. Of the one hundred books or so I read each year, I read about half electronically and half in traditional book form.

  8. Since I'm not an author or publisher (I just read or listen to books for enjoyment), I appreciate the discourse this post has created. It helps me better understand it (something I'm woeful at sometimes). I really liked Charlie Stross take (c/o John Gruber's blog) on this fight, what the models are, and what it means to us consumers:

    Amazon, Macmillan: an outsider's guide to the fight

  9. I'm with Corey Wilde on this. What's the point of taking sides here? Neither publishers nor Amazon nor Apple nor book stores care about authors. And consumers only care about the lowest price.

  10. Great post Naomi - I was all ready to make some pithy comment about where you can go buy books without having the faceless conglomerate automaton on the other end (your local independent bookseller, of course), but I'd rather address the above bizarre comment from I. J. Parker. I get the part about not bothering to take sides in this mess, but... book stores don't care about authors? Consumers only care about the lowest price? Wow, way to cruelly generalize & bite the hand. I guess all of your books are going back to Penguin on Monday.

  11. Louis Armstrong was wrong. It's a horrible world.

  12. I nominated you (both) for the Kreativ Blogger Award and the "Creative Writer" Blogger Award. Congrats!

  13. Unfortunately, I have to take an alternate view here. First, let me say that I have no vested interest whatever in Amazon, I'm not particularly a fan of theirs, and if they went broke tomorrow, well...I wouldn't cheer, but I wouldn't sob all day either.

    Everyone here needs to read Joe Konrath's latest blog on this topic. It's extremely insightful and deserves a thorough reading by everyone in this business. I read it, and here's my thoughts on it.

    Overpricing of digital material is NOT going to have a positive impact on anyone. It's only going to result in MORE piracy and FEWER book sales. That's just an economic fact of life. And all the hand-wringing and whining about Big Bad Amazon is not going to change that immutable fact. More piracy and fewer book sales translate into less income for publishers AND authors. Want to make less money? Jack up the price of your eBooks.

    The digital world is coming. It probably won't be all-digital in our lifetimes, but it's coming and it can't be stopped. Digital material has a different value structure than tangible items. This can't be disputed, since digital items exist in abstraction, where they can be reproduced to infinity at almost NO cost, UNLIKE real books, which I love, but have a finite supply.

    Think about it.