Can you hear that? That’s the sound of an oligarch flexing his muscles.

4 Mar

No, I haven’t got confused. This is not my personal blog which is sometimes about politics and I’m not talking about Vlad Putin; I’m talking about Jeff Bezos.

Part of the argument that has been flitting around in the discussion of self- vs. traditional publishing centers on the elephant in the room for both sides: Amazon.

Self-publishing advocates argue that the Internet has given writers a broader range of choices. The rise of e-books means anyone can publish a book. It’s simple as typing and a file transfer. The more enlightened point out that to publish a good book, there should be some intervening steps (editing, design, cover). All well and good. But the big issues are and always have been marketing and distribution. Marketing remains a problem because, despite the claims of social marketing, the evidence remains that bookstores, word-of-mouth and, to a lesser extent, reviews are still the best way to sell your book.

Now, distribution is another matter. Amazon has done an amazing job at becoming the number one bookseller in the America. They can sell books cheaper than anyone else, using volume, razor thin (or negative) margins, and ever rising stock prices to keep their business growing. The only advantage booksellers had was they could give you the book the same day you want it. With falling inventory, shrinking floor space and Amazon’s drones, even that advantage may soon disappear.

With print books, Amazon still mostly relies on traditional publishers to supply their goods — though even there CreateSpace and their own publishing line may soon take a bite.

But in the world of e-books, they are the number one manufacturer. Not a monopoly or even an overwhelming majority but the biggest show around. And growing.

Which brings us to ACX, Amazon’s audio-book division. Having, through takeovers, cut throat deals on royalties and similar tactics, become the near-monopoly producer of audio books, they did what monopolies do — they took steps to maximize their profits.

Others have spoken more fully on this step and you can read what they had to say here and here and here.

The key lesson to learn is that this is what was always intended.

Amazon was not created to sell books; it was created to sell widgets. Bezos picked books because they fit his business model not the other way around. If fresh produce had fit his business model it would be chain supermarkets and farmers’ bazaars that would be closing — while every hobbyist gardener would be self-marketing their backyard tomatoes. Some of them would be getting rich doing it.

In the arts, every artist wants to be unique. In the widget world, everyone’s product looks the same. Amazon is just as happy having a million writers sell ten books as having ten authors selling a million. In fact, the more the merrier. James Patterson can actually change the way his publisher does business; Hugh Howey (and I use Howey, not because I have anything against him or think he is a bad guy — quite the contrary, I think he’s great for standing up for the average writer) can have no impact on Amazon’s practices whatsoever. His voice, louder than most, is still drowned in the million voice choir. His exhortation for ACX to be more generous in their audio royalty is almost certain to fall on deaf ears.

Let me finish with a political observation. Some people — not just Americans, this is a world-wide phenomenon — think billionaires are their friends. Cause unless you are also a billionaire (and even then), they probably aren’t.

Warren Buffet and Bill Gates seem like nice philanthropic guys; Ted Turner has contributed more toward conservation than anyone in America. But it wasn’t their billions that made them nice — they were nice to start with or had nice people around them they could learn from. But niceness didn’t make them rich — being hard-headed and a little bit ruthless, being good at business made them rich.

Alexis de Toqueville said this about America in the 19th century “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

Money equals morality. It’s a silly idea — if you want to see how silly try reading Ayn Rand with an adult critical mind.

Will Amazon do to self publishers what they’ve done to audio self-producers? If they get big enough to do so with impunity, I’m guessing yes. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

News of the Week

Because irony isn’t dead, you can get a free e-book from Bundoran Press, March 6th and 7th, here at, wait for it, Amazon.

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