The Independent Publishers Group, a principal distributor of about 500 small publishers, recently angered Amazon by refusing to accept the company’s peremptory demand for deeper discounts. Amazon promptly yanked nearly 5,000 digital titles. Small-press publishers were beside themselves. Bryce Milligan of Wings Press, based in Texas, spoke for most when, in a blistering broadside, he lambasted Amazon, complaining that its actions caused his sales to drop by 40 percent. “Amazon,” he wrote, “seemingly wants to kill off the distributors, then kill off the independent publishers and bookstores, and become the only link between the reader and the author…. E-book sales have been a highly addictive drug to many smaller publishers. For one thing, there are no ‘returns.’… E-book sales allowed smaller presses to get a taste of the kind of money that online impulse buying can produce. Already e-book sales were underwriting the publication of paper books-and-ink at Wings Press…. For Amazon to rip e-book sales away is a classic bait-and-switch tactic guaranteed to kill small presses by the hundreds…. There was a time not so long ago when ‘competition’ was a healthy thing, not a synonym for corporate ‘murder.’ Amazon could have been a bright and shining star, lighting the way to increased literacy and improved access to alternative literatures. Alas, it looks more likely to be a large and deadly asteroid. We, the literary dinosaurs, are watching to see if this is a near miss or the beginning of extinction.”"Vertical control" is an important phrase. As the article details, Amazon has now entered the world of regular book publishing. This means they can now cut out the meddlesome publishers who had the audacity to demand they, Mighty Amazon, pay the going rate for corporeal books. Since Amazon has already cornered 60% of the digital market with Kindle, they've cut out the meddlesome bookseller as well. They are now in a position to produce the content and sell the means of reading it (on proprietary machines). Or, if you're really a damned luddite, they will still deign to sell you a dead-tree copy on a site they've managed to keep largely sales-tax-free. Production, distribution, and retail all under the same roof--and with a few anti-competitive perks just to hasten the deaths of pesky competitors.
Jacob Stevens, the managing director of Verso, the distinguished independent press spawned by the London-based New Left Review, says of Amazon: “Having our backlist instantly and immediately available has so far outweighed the problems. For me, the problems become worse as Amazon moves from ‘just’ being a big player in selling books to vertical control of entire sections of the industry. It all gets a bit Big Brother. It’s easy to imagine Amazon muscling existing publishers out of the picture altogether and inviting authors and agents to deal directly with them. What would that do for the richness and diversity of our culture?”
The genius of capitalism lies in the healthy function of the market. Companies compete for our dollars by producing excellent goods at cheap prices. Amazon finds this tiresome. Vertical control is so much easier to manage than all that meddlesome competition.
*I have interpreted the dead silence in this case as rapt interest.