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Ottakar's founder mutters publicly about Amazon

Posted by Emma Barnes on

I like it when a newspaper picks up a topic important to publishers, like the threat of an Amazon monopoly. I don't like it when someone like James Heneage steps forward to give the media a quote and blows it by mumbling about irrelevancies. Perhaps he is being misquoted or the paper is focussing on what were intended to be peripheral remarks, but this article makes it seem like his main objection to Amazon is that they're not really members of the club. Have a read. Firstly he seems to believe that great authors need to be nurtured by publishers: eliminating publishers imperils literature. I personally am quite sure that great authors will continue to emerge if 'publisher' goes the way of 'lamplighter' or 'footman'. He also seems to believe that publishers have an important role spotting those great writers: without publishers we wouldn't notice the diamonds in the rough. I agree that's a role publishers fill... for now. But if what replaces the current model is readers reading any old thing, including lots of self-published novels, and then blogging and tweeting about them, I think we'll see books with lasting appeal being taken up more not less quickly. I won't lament the loss of the 'kingmaker' role in publishing. And there will still be prominent figures who can champion new writing. Heneage also thinks that Amazon is not 'investing' enough in the industry, in (implied) contrast to the way that publishers do. He doesn't elaborate, but single-handedly developing and popularising a global e-book platform sounds like investing to me. As does allowing any solvent reader with an internet connection to get any book through the mail in a day or two - including titles that 99% of bricks-and-mortar stores never carried. And it may not be the sort of investment Heneage likes, but Amazon have also made books cheaper. In fact I would say that the problem is that Amazon is investing too much rather than too little.Heneage concludes by saying that if you have the long-term success of the industry at heart you don't undermine the competition too much. This is a terribly woolly remark. Is he suggesting that the only thing that's stopped Macmillan or Random House from grabbing 99% of the book market is a sportsmanlike restraint and a custodial mindset? The directors of publicly-traded firms would be fired if they announced they'd called a halt to growth because they were worried about the competition. Here's what Heneage should have said. We should worry about Amazon's oligopolistic power in the paper book world, and worry even more about their monopolistic dominance of the e-book sector. Monopolies are bad for everyone except the monopoly itself, which is why societies break them up or prevent them coming into existence in the first place - which isn't happening with Amazon. Geography gives local book owners some advantages with printed books. But when the product is downloaded, the biggest just tend to get bigger. Amazon hold all the cards here and DRM makes switching away from Amazon a costly and unpalatable proposition for readers. If I were Heneage, I'd be arguing for a level playing field free from some arguably anti-competitive practices. Imagine if Amazon were forced to let you export your e-book library to another platform if you wanted to: that would at least give competitors a chance. Imagine if their prices were monitored to make sure they're not routinely selling at a loss. And imagine if there was an upper limit on the market share one firm could command like there is in many sectors. The threat from Amazon is its monopoly because it risks taking away the reader's options. So long as there is legitimate room for new players we can rely on innovation and reader sentiment to do most of the work in safeguarding what's good in the world of books.

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