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Books Businesses The Almighty Buck

Author Charles Stross: Is Amazon a Malignant Monopoly, Or Just Plain Evil? 405

An anonymous reader writes "Sci-fi author Charles Stross has a post providing insight into Amazon's recent bullying tactics against a major book publishing group. He puts the fight into perspective for the two most important parts of the book market: author and reader. He says: 'Amazon's strategy (as I noted in 2012) is to squat on the distribution channel, artificially subsidize the price of ebooks ("dumping" or predatory pricing) to get consumers hooked, rely on DRM on the walled garden of the Kindle store to lock consumers onto their platform, and then to use their monopsony buying power to grab the publishers' share of the profits. If you're a consumer, in the short term this is good news: it means you get cheap books. But if you're a reader, you probably like to read new books. By driving down the unit revenue, Amazon makes it really hard for publishers—who are a proxy for authors—to turn a profit. Eventually they go out of business, leaving just Amazon as a monopoly distribution channel retailing the output of an atomized cloud of highly vulnerable self-employed piece-workers like myself. At which point the screws can be tightened indefinitely. And after a while, there will be no more Charlie Stross novels because I will be unable to earn a living and will have to go find a paying job. TL:DR; Amazon's strategy against Hachette is that of a bullying combine the size of WalMart leaning on a much smaller supplier. And the smaller supplier in turn relies on really small suppliers like me. It's anti-author, and in the long term it will deprive you of the books you want to read.'"
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Author Charles Stross: Is Amazon a Malignant Monopoly, Or Just Plain Evil?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 26, 2014 @01:33PM (#47093355)

    The cancer analogies are VERY apt.

  • by Actually, I do RTFA ( 1058596 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @01:42PM (#47093373)

    Yes, Amazon wants no more publishers to get a cut, just them and the author. And yes, they will want to lower the author's incentive to the minimum necessary for them to write., But not lower than that.

    The publisher's aren't just representing the author. They are middle men.

    Amazon will simply replace them with one vertically integrated company.

    Worse for authors, maybe, but it owuld be beyond stupid for them to make it worse than the alternative.

  • Let me be blunt. (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 26, 2014 @01:42PM (#47093381)

    Anybody who uses Kindles to read DRM'd books has no appreciation for knowledge or art, and any author who relies on this customer base is making a grave mistake.

  • by ustolemyname ( 1301665 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @01:43PM (#47093387)

    The author's intentions could be summarized as, "Does this false dichotomy make me look smart?"

  • by jonsmirl ( 114798 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @01:50PM (#47093437) Homepage

    I have to agree with this, the need for a publisher is disappearing just like the need for a recording label. Stross should self publish and then cut a direct deal with Amazon. He'd probably end up with more money that way.

    Since he's a well know author, maybe try putting his self-published books up on Indiegogo first. He might net enough off from doing that for each book that the later revenue from Amazon is just gravy.

  • by brunes69 ( 86786 ) <slashdot.keirstead@org> on Monday May 26, 2014 @01:54PM (#47093475) Homepage

    Publishers are not "proxys for authors". They are another obsolete industry group fighting the inevitable for their survival, no different than the RIAA.

    Assume there is a world where I as an author can contract with a third party for proofreading and editing at a fixed cost, and then "self publish" to Amazon and other eBook providers, without a man in the middle publisher eating up my profits, I can sell the books far cheaper and interact directly with my audience. Many authors are flocking to self-publish nowadays and the number is just going to keep growing.

  • Re:Read his books (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 26, 2014 @01:57PM (#47093491)

    By driving down the unit revenue, Amazon makes it really hard for publishers—who are a proxy for authors—to turn a profit.

    Publishers a proxy for authors? As if their interests were the same or something?
    He just wants to conflate them so we sympathize with the poor downtrodden corporations.
    Protip: There is no good guy here.

  • by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @01:58PM (#47093499)

    Publishers demanded that Amazon use DRM... and now whine that readers are locked in to Kindle because that DRM prevents them from moving those books to a different ebook reader.

    Any publisher who wants to can upload DRM-free ebooks to Amazon.

  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:06PM (#47093581)

    rely on DRM on the walled garden of the Kindle store to lock consumers onto their platform

    It's a bit duplicitous to criticize Amazon for using DRM, when the primary reason you wish to sell your book on Amazon is to take advantage of their DRM for your ebook. Non-DRMed books from any source can be converted to work on the Kindles just fine. Set up your own website, sell ebooks there, and retain 100% of the profit. Yeah a lot of people shop on Amazon, but they search with Google, BIng, and Yahoo. If your website is the primary source for your ebooks, it's almost guaranteed to rank in the top 3 search results and people will find it.

    Oh, but you want DRM on your ebooks when people read them on a Kindle? Well, just as you have the right to use DRM to restrict what readers do with your ebooks, Amazon has the right to use DRM to restrict how authors sell their books if they want to be readable on a Kindle. Sorry, them's the breaks. Live by DRM, die by DRM. Don't expect me to shed a tear because someone is arbitrarily restricting your options, when that's exactly what you're doing to me.

  • by dreamchaser ( 49529 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:08PM (#47093599) Homepage Journal

    I can't believe this was modded up. Just because there are plenty of good old titles doesn't mean one shouldn't read new titles. Following your logic nobody should bother writing at all. Let's just give it all up.

    Talk about drivel. Your post has it in spades.

  • by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:09PM (#47093605)

    Again, it's not 'Amazon DRM'. Amazon don't care whether publishers enable DRM on their ebooks. The publishers enable DRM, then whine that it ties people into Amazon. Well, fscking duh.

  • Re:Read his books (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:18PM (#47093649)

    Protip: There is no good guy here.

    Yes. Ideally writers would eliminate publishers and Amazon, and sell direct to their readers. But that's hard to do when most readers want a central location where they can find new books to buy.

    The funny part is that the publishers could have created that location with their own online store years ago, but, instead, they let Amazon do it.

  • by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:42PM (#47093817)

    And yet somehow even books from Baen and Tor (who don't DRM their books) end up on Amazon indistinguishable from those from other publishers.

    Maybe they should stop enabling DRM on their Kindle books, then.

    When you upload a Kindle book to Amazon, there's a checkbox to enable DRM. Just don't check it. Job done.

  • by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:43PM (#47093835)

    CR, you've turned this into a "paper vs ebook" argument, but I think you miss Strosss point: Amazon's monopolistic stranglehold on distribution forces the price down which puts publishers out of business. This results in Amazon being the dominant publisher, working directly with authors. But it also allows Amazon to dictate to authors what they will pay, just as they did with the traditional publishers. This is not "free market", it is a monopoly no less than Microsoft was, and it's not good for consumer choice.

    Second point: It may not seem like it here at Slashdot, but the desire to have and to hold and to read "real" books is not dead. Certain segments of the current generation might feel that way, but I don't see it. The bookstores in my town are always busy, the library in my town is always busy, and many of the books (of the so-called "dead tree" variety) are often on hold by several library patrons before I get to check them out. I suppose you're going to say "What a quaint idea! To check out a book!", but many people still enjoy the experience of turning pages...

    I know I'm probably the minority, but when I buy a technical book in electronic form, I immediately print it out and put it in a three-ring binder, much easier to locate what I'm interested and flip back and forth between sections... And here's the high-tech sacrilege: I print them out single-sided with wide margins. I use the blank side for notes...

    Now get off my lawn.

  • by Crispy Critters ( 226798 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:45PM (#47093859)
    People who are not involved in the publishing industry think it would be great for authors to self publish. Interestingly, authors seem to think almost uniformly that it is a terrible idea. The authors, who have a very good idea just what publishers can add to the book, mostly really really like what publishers do for them.

    The authors also don't think that they will make more money by self publishing either, because they know how much less they will be writing because of the time spent on other tasks currently handled by the publisher.

  • by Richard_at_work ( 517087 ) <richardpriceNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:52PM (#47093913)

    And out of that 70%, the writer now has to supply their own editors, artwork, proof readers and layout specialists. And yes, it does indeed show when many of those professions have been involved and when they haven't (I read several major published authors such as Neal Asher, Peter F Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds et al, but also read a heck of a lot of the free or cheap stuff from the Kindle store - there can be a huge difference in quality even when you aren't talking about overall story lines etc).

  • by Crispy Critters ( 226798 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:56PM (#47093943)
    Many authors would rather write than worry about finding and paying for editing, proof reading, cover art, advertising, promotional travel, etc. They are capable of it, but would rather spend their time doing what they do best, which is write. Also, they would rather work under contract with some guaranteed income rather than shoulder all the risk themselves.
  • by CRCulver ( 715279 ) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Monday May 26, 2014 @02:57PM (#47093957) Homepage

    When writing is done to produce a product for mass consumption, the quality of literature goes down.

    While some fine modernist literature has come from people who were not targeting a mass audience and were able to depend on patronage or another line of work while writing, the English canon clearly offers abundant counter-evidence for the idea that mass-market writing results in lower quality. Shakespeare was knocking out plays at a fairly rapid pace for the plebian theatre-goers at the Globe, while Dickens was writing his novels in installments published in the ordinary magazines of his day. Mark Twain wrote for a general American public and enjoyed making a mint off it.

  • by vux984 ( 928602 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @03:13PM (#47094079)

    Is this not just precise how capitalism is supposed to work?

    Actually no. Not even close. This is how its supposed to work: the Charlie Strosses would just sell through different channels. The customers would buy through the other channels. Amazon would miss the income, and would pay what it took to get the novels (and customers) back.

    But that requires a competitive marketplace with multiple competing channels. If amazon owns enough of the market, then the Charlie Strosses can't stay solvent just selling through other channels. This gives amazon more power to DICTATE pricing than a functioning market would normally allow.

  • Re:Read his books (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @03:30PM (#47094215) Homepage Journal

    A good editor is like having a glass of a fine wine, evening out the rough edges. A bad editor is like drinking too much and having a big hangover the next day.

    The key to good editing is pointing out errors while retaining the author's voice. Unfortunately, lots of editors go way too far and think that they need to rewrite everything the way he or she would have written it. This tends to result in misery all around.

  • by jader3rd ( 2222716 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:02PM (#47094453)

    create their own distribution websites?

    In the days before iTunes that's what we had. You could browse for different stores in Windows Media Player, and pick from a variety of distributors. You could always go to different websites to find songs and books. But only the really dedicated did this. Then iTunes and the iPod came out with one place to purchase content. The existing market didn't like it because it limited choices, but it spread like wildfire to the majority of the population; finally they didn't need to make decisions on where to get content from, there was only one place to get it from. The same is happening with websites, if an app doesn't exist in Apples app store, then the company doesn't exist to most people. Browsers are feeling too nerdy, and technical for most people, and they prefer their appliance like apps.
    So the reasons why authors don't create their own distribution channels is that the majority of the population doesn't think outside of the box.

  • Re:Read his books (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Phrogman ( 80473 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:49PM (#47094733) Homepage

    In essence, Amazon is letting the authors write the books, the publishers and writers edit the books, and the publishers produce the books as well as promote them, then sidling in as the cheapest distributor with the greatest access to the customer and ensuring the prices are so low that no one makes a real profit except Amazon.

    I don't buy from Amazon, I would if I had no other access to the book I need, but by and large I get my books from physical bookstores. I *like* authors I read and I want to see them continue to write.

  • Re:Read his books (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 26, 2014 @05:25PM (#47095009)

    That's funny, I know a number of editors. They all think authors actually aren't well-placed to judge their own books, and tell me a good edit improves them immensely.

    And frankly, I agree.

  • Sorry Charlie (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Giant Electronic Bra ( 1229876 ) on Monday May 26, 2014 @06:00PM (#47095297)

    He's full of it. Charles Stross is an excellent writer, whom I will seek out and read. If he's not on Kindle/Amazon at some reasonable price THEN I WON'T BUY FROM AMAZON. Its just like you say here with buying a paperback, I will buy an iPad or whatever the heck it takes to get Charlie's books.

    The TRUE analogy here would be ESPN and Comcast. Every so often ESPN TELLS COMCAST how much they're paying for their channel, AND COMCAST PAYS IT. So, Charles, this is what you do, you tell Amazon what you ARE GOING TO GET for a royalty, and they will pass it on to me, or someone else will. Its just that simple.

    Honestly, I don't see how Amazon has more or less leverage than any other publisher has ever had. Publisher's have a good bit of weight in the market and they pretty well dictate what up-and-coming authors are going to get (and hint, it was always crap in case you forgot Chuck). However when you're Charles Stross or Steven King, etc then you pretty much have the shoe on your foot and do the kickin'. Just like Ace is going to suck it up and pay a nice advance and a good royalty or else you'll go to Tor, so Amazon will to or else you'll go to Apple.

    As time goes on this becomes less and less of a problem as well because eReaders are now pretty much a generic hardware commodity and little private walled-gardens like Apple and Kindle are really fairly silly. The whole book technology stack just isn't that daunting, In a week a guy like me can have a publisher up and running with an app that will let their customers pay for and access ebooks over the net. Yes, Amazon is big and they are slick and they'll always be an attractive marketplace, but the barriers to entry are now too low to let them rake everyone over the coals and get high monopoly rents.

  • Re:Sorry Charlie (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Giant Electronic Bra ( 1229876 ) on Tuesday May 27, 2014 @02:11PM (#47101151)

    Publisher? Distributor? Retailer? When you are talking about pure e-commerce of digital goods these are distinctions without differences. In the end the guy that has the PDF of Accelerondo gets to decide what it costs and where it gets sold. People will find it and buy it and there are plenty of places that can supply the finding and buying function besides Amazon. They have a viselike grip on nothing.

"If it's not loud, it doesn't work!" -- Blank Reg, from "Max Headroom"