The changing marketplace

My favorite librarian sent me a tweet this week:

Hi, Lise! I like buying books from Amazon, but am concerned about its multiple efforts toward dominance/monopoly. Your thoughts?

Lately Amazon seems to be taking drastic measures to destroy its competition. This isn’t exactly news. They’ve been in that zero-sum game for some time, where they spent vast amounts of money to expand into everything from diapers to lawn mowers, not to mention their bestselling Kindles and exclusive deals on e-books. They undercut everybody else’s prices, hoping to drive everyone else out of business. And then what? Are they going to raise their prices? Are they going to be sued by the government like Microsoft? Or just sit back and rake in the cash?

This week brought the news that both Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million will not carry Amazon Createspace titles in their stores. As far as I can tell they will still carry them on their websites. E-books are a different story, not apparently affected. But for the library market, well, often librarians buy directly from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. It’s faster and cheaper. But will it stay cheaper if Amazon is the only game in town? The future is murky, my friend.

I told my librarian friend that things are changing so fast in publishing that I couldn’t get riled up about any particular change. Tomorrow there will bring something else. Jeff Bezos of Amazon said: “As a company, one of our greatest cultural strengths is accepting the fact that if you’re going to invent, you’re going to disrupt. A lot of entrenched interests are not going to like it. Some of them will be genuinely concerned about the new way, and some of them will have a vested self-interest in preserving the old way.” He says they plan to disrupt themselves. They can be something different next year, next month. They can change on a dime, and plan on doing so. Are bookstores entrenched interests? Absolutely. Are publishers? Without a doubt. Are libraries? I hope not.

Let’s face it: the old way of publishing, where you as a publisher bribe bookstores to carry your book then take it back at full price (hardback) and/or encourage them to tear the cover off and throw it in the garbage (paperback), was fundamentally broken 50 years ago. Entire forests have died for unloved literature. Yet the broken system continued plodding along, until the Internet and Amazon turned it on its head. Thank God for Amazon!

But if you don’t like the changes, you can always squawk about them — everywhere. This week showed again the power of social media when the Susan Komen Foundation decided to blacklist Planned Parenthood, pulling over half a million dollars in grants for breast cancer screening. Three days later they got the message loud and clear: petitions on Facebook, rants on Twitter. The outcry was deafening and they backtracked. News travels at warp speed on the Internet. Public opinion of your decision, good or bad, is democratic and widespread. Everyone has a voice. Like the revolutions in the Mideast, you can’t keep a good opinion down, no matter how much money or power you have. As an old sociology major I find this fascinating — and encouraging.

The biggest change this past year for Amazon is expanding into their own publishing with Larry Kirshbaum at the helm. (An interesting article about him here.) The ultimate insider, Kirshbaum brought Jeff Bezos to a publishing meeting way back in ’98 when Amazon started as an “internet bookstore.” (Another article, on Bezos, here.  Wired Magazine, by the way, is full of great writing!) As much as publishers (and some authors) talk about Amazon’s business strategies being evil, they are making money there. (Full disclosure, I made about $11,000 on e-books at Amazon last year, much of it on books that had been traditionally published years before.)

Every year won’t be like 2011. It was a wild ride for e-books, e-readers, publishers, self-publishers, and authors. But it’s hard not to be excited by all the changes. The author is now in the driver’s seat, (even if your book is proclaimed by Publishers Weekly to be “The Worst Novel Ever.” At least you can upload it and get a reaction.) Nobody is forcing readers to buy your book but at least they have a chance to see it and decide. You have to write the best book you can, get it edited and proofread, put your baby out into the world all fresh and shiny. You have the opportunity with Amazon — and Barnes & Noble and Smashwords and Apple. May there always be choices in the marketplace. Lots of competition out there, from great writers, mediocre writers, and crap writers. Amazon and those who followed them have leveled the playing field. Will the cream rise to the top? I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Monday 2/6: We didn’t have to wait long for the next part! Over the weekend Indigo Books in Canada also decided to not stock Amazon books. And this just in: Amazon will open their own bricks-and-mortar store. Reportedly to open in Seattle in the next few months. As the worm turns…