When celebrities like J.K. Rowling and Stephen Colbert are both involved in something, most people assume that it is a big story. When the story also involves Amazon, the world’s biggest bookseller, then the story reaches epic proportions. That is exactly what has happened over Amazon’s negotiations with Hachette, the publisher that both Rowling and Colbert are affiliated with. The online bookstore has employed some seemingly dirty tactics by slowing or stopping Hachette’s book sales, removing pre-order buttons and even encouraging buyers to buy used copies of Hachette books that do not generate profits for the publisher. Colbert used his show to motivate his audience to boycott Amazon. Rowling, who has a new book out under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, took to Twitter to do much the same thing. This may have made people sympathetic to the authors and annoyed with Amazon, but is Amazon really as bad as it sounds? More importantly, is having Colbert and Rowling fighting Amazon the best way to go?
Right now, Amazon is in negotiations over ebook pricing. Amazon wants to keep prices low so it can sell more books and make a bigger profit. That puts publishers in a bind, however, because it affects their profits and their ability to publish more books. In what is being called dirty tricks by some, Amazon has slowed the delivery of certain books, including Colbert’s America Again and J.K. Rowling’s The Silkworm, which she published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. This has motivated the authors to weigh in and ask readers to boycott Amazon. Sherman Alexie appeared on Colbert’s show to talk about the fight and together they popped bubble wrap in anger while discussing the problem. Like Rowling on Twitter, they encouraged readers to buy books from other sellers than Amazon.
These kinds of appeals are having an impact. When Alexie and Colbert plugged the book California by Edan Lepucki, it became the number one seller at Powell’s Books in Portland. Star power is apparently also market power. It is unclear whether it will have a big enough impact to change Amazon’s mind in the negotiations. The company itself apparently has 50 percent of the book market. The success of California or even a host of other such books at other booksellers is a drop in the ocean compared to Amazon’s monolithic industry.
Perhaps it is this “bigness” that is contributing to people’s newfound animosity for Amazon. Colbert labeled the company’s founder Jeff Bezos as “Bezo-mort,” a play on Rowling’s he-who-shall-not-be-named villain in Harry Potter. The dichotomy is clear: Amazon is the bad guy and publishers and authors are the little guy fighting the good fight. But good and evil might not be as clear cut in this real world situation as it is in Harry Potter. Hachette, the primary publisher involved in this argument, is itself a big corporation, and it is trying to maximize its profits. It is not like it is a book world version of David. No one involved in the brouhaha is working for free.
The people who are really suffering through all this are the authors whose books are affected. Colbert and Rowling are fighting Amazon because, specifically, of their books. As Colbert pointed out on his show, first time authors will be the most affected. Unlike big time counterparts like the Harry Potter author, they do not have a brand name associated with them. Without a reputation, publishers will be less inclined to publish books by unknown authors, because they are not a safe bet. Rowling and Colbert might be fine, but authors like Lepucki, who is a first time author, will not be. That is one reason Colbert plugged the book California Wednesday on his show.
In reality, Amazon is negotiating so that it can lower prices on books, which is good for readers, which may seem to some like a good thing. Others have argued, however, that Amazon is really doing this so it can have a complete monopoly on book selling. There have even been allegations that Amazon is breaking the law. Publishers, however, who are on the other side of this, are also not innocent of possible wrongdoing. Publishers were found to have colluded with Apple over prices on iTunes for their books. They had to change how they worked with Apple in order to be in line with the law. Apparently, both sides have skeletons in their closet regarding this issue.
Still, there will be people who agree with Colbert’s rage with Amazon. Like the purveyor of truthiness, Colbert fans will not be just mad, they will be “Mad Prime.” Should they be mad because Amazon is trying to give them cheaper books? Probably not. But everyone who wants to buy books from Hachette, including the pseudonymous Robert Galbraith’s newest, The Silkworm, should be mad that the company is keeping them from getting their books faster or in some cases at all. This kind of argument will not hurt Amazon or the publishers, but it does hurt readers and that is a very good reason to be “Mad Prime.” While Colbert and Rowling are fighting Amazon over this injustice, readers will be able to read at least the first two chapters of The Silkworm, which is available for download. Even Amazon cannot slow down that delivery.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury