The Amazonian Gorilla

How does the online book vendor's power affect publishers? Scott McLemee asks around in university-press circles.

July 28, 2010

My ambivalence about Amazon seems a lot easier to manage now that the Golden Age of Impulse Buying is over. In 2007, at least half of my book-buying was a matter of snap decisions abetted by Visa. But the economic upheaval since then has broken me of this habit, and friends report much the same.

Shouldn’t my money go to a local independent bookstore? Given that Amazon offers both extremely specialized and out-of-print books, don’t my preoccupations oblige me to use Amazon? The luxury of pondering these questions was once part of succumbing to the acquisitive urge. But that was then.

Now, in any case, the questions seem largely moot. One of the best-established independent bookstores in my neighborhood went out of business in the fall of 2008 -- leaving thousands of feet of prime commercial real estate unoccupied in the meantime. Over the past decade, membership in the American Booksellers Association (the trade association for bookstores) has contracted by 50 percent.

A couple of months ago, the ABA announced a slight growth in its membership. But the long-term trend is clear. At this point, I’m not even sure that the big chain bookstore in my neighborhood will be around for another year. Temptation soon will be easy to resist, or at least harder to find.

While you might not be thinking about Amazon, rest assured that it is constantly thinking about you. That is one of the points to take away from a recent article by Colin Robinson in The Nation that deserves wide attention. (A very condensed version is also available on video.)

Robinson (formerly an editor at various presses, and founder of the new OR Books imprint) describes the cumulative and carefully-strategized impact of Amazon on publishers. Books now account for only a quarter of Amazon’s revenues, but this is the area where its power may be the most worrisome.

I wondered how people in the university publishing world would respond to the article. The first person to come to mind to ask was Sanford Thatcher, a former director of Penn State University Press, who is also past president of the Association of American University Presses. (These days he is an independent contractor, acquiring books for a couple of scholarly publishers.)

“I would describe the relationship of university presses to Amazon,” he told me by e-mail, “the same way I would describe their relationship to chain stores and Google: love/hate. There is no question that the development of these three phenomena, combined with the gradual disappearance of serious book reviewing from major newspapers, has transformed the landscape of both trade and academic publishing enormously over the past two decades.”

In the 1990s, chain bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble were viewed with favor by university presses as many of them began trying to publish “trade” books as well as monographs. “But the bloom went off the rose quickly,” he says, “once presses realized that standard operating procedures like the 90-day inventory turnover ended up creating lots of returns and not enough sell-through.”

That is, a new title had about three months to sell before a chain could return it. With the decline of general-interest venues for book reviewing, “not enough of these many new trade titles got reviewed in general media so that people would even know to look for them in the chain stores before they were returned in the 90-day cycle.”

At first, Thatcher says, Amazon had a similar appeal -- creating “much wider exposure for university press books generally, including lots that weren't even getting into the larger stores.” An AAUP survey of librarians showed that they were starting to purchase titles through Amazon. The online bookseller became “the second largest vendor for most, perhaps all, presses,” he says, “right behind the major library wholesaler Baker & Taylor…. For Penn State, as I recall, B&T accounted for about 50% of gross sales and Amazon for about 35-40%.”

So what’s not to like? Well, when Thatcher discuses the bookseller’s “hardball tactics,” his comments echo Colin Robinson’s article. Amazon launched its "Look Inside the Book" feature (giving customers a glimpse at some of a volume’s content) without consulting with presses, on the grounds that this was “fair use.” It was tireless in pressing for discounts, even as university presses have been squeezing pennies. (Academic publishing was the gasping canary in the economic coal mine, well before the recession hit.) And when Amazon acquired the print-on-demand vendor BookSurge, he says, it threatened to de-list books from publishers that didn’t agree to do business with it.

“I don't think anyone in university press publishing is happy with Amazon's strong-arm tactics,” Thatcher told me, “and you'd find pretty universal agreement with the complaints that Robinson quotes from various anonymous sources among press directors.”

Further confirmation came from the chief editor of a Midwestern university press who asked not to be identified. (This is understandable. Half the art of dealing with the 800-pound gorilla in the room may be keeping from drawing too much attention to yourself.)

“The single greatest advantage of selling through Amazon,” he said by e-mail, “is the reach of the company. A close second is the lack of returns, the bane of publishing. These factors aside, Amazon is a predatory corporation -- maybe not in a strictly legal sense of the word, but in practice, a shark. And swimming with sharks is dangerous.”

He noted last week’s announcement of an arrangement between Amazon and the powerful literary agent Andrew Wylie, who has launched a new digital imprint for his clients. Their e-books will be available exclusively for Amazon’s e-reader, the Kindle -- cutting publishers out entirely.

“As the recent agreement with Andrew Wylie demonstrates,” the editor told me, “Amazon is willing to go against its ‘partners’ -- their term of art -- whenever it chooses, and the fact that they're publishing Kindle editions directly from authors to readers underscores the contempt with which they hold publishers.”

He also pointed to “the striking contraction of independent booksellers in the United States” under the cumulative effect of online retailers. “The independents are our real allies,” he said, “because they know our work and know readers and are genuinely responsive. Amazon sells everything, from books to tablesaws.”

I had hoped to include comments by others from the university-press world – including whatever they might want to say in favor of Amazon. But my timing was perhaps bad. People seem to have been on vacation, or indisposed. But we’ll return to this topic in a future column.

Full disclosure: I did buy a book from Amazon just this weekend. It’s something that may never be available in a brick-and-mortar shop, nor that easy to find in libraries. But then you can rationalize anything, with a little time and practice.


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