Two Cheers for Amazon

And I for one welcome our Bezosian overlords

And I for one welcome our Bezosian overlords

There’s something of a ruckus in the book-writing and book-selling worlds because Amazon is playing hardball with the publisher Hachette over ebook sales. At least, that’s what appears to be going on: Hachette is complaining and Amazon is standing firm, but no one is really getting into specifics. The consequences thus far seem to have hit the book publisher far harder than the book seller. Here’s the New York Times piece that initially highlighted the spat:

Among Amazon’s tactics against Hachette, some of which it has been employing for months, are charging more for its books and suggesting that readers might enjoy instead a book from another author. If customers for some reason persist and buy a Hachette book anyway, Amazon is saying it will take weeks to deliver it.

The Wall Street Journal notes that Amazon has escalated the conflict:

Last week, Amazon increased its pressure on Hachette by not allowing users to preorder coming titles. That decision will make it more difficult for some Hachette titles to hit best-seller lists, and could depress overall sales of individual titles.

Hachette’s writers are, needless to say, nonplussed. Rod Dreher called for immediate government action to break up the monopoly that is Amazon:

I know this is going to sound like special pleading, but Amazon’s outrageous behavior has to be stopped, somehow — preferably by consumer outrage, otherwise by antitrust legislation.

Hm. I’m ambivalent. On the one hand, I’m not a big fan of Amazon messing with its customers by artificially inflating delivery times (hence the two, rather than three, cheers in the title of this post). On the other, I’m not a big fan of presuming that the government has any business telling Amazon what it must sell or how it should sell that thing or at what price it should sell that thing. This is especially true since Amazon is in no real sense of the word a monopoly.* Consider the D.C. area: If you don’t want to—or can’t—buy a book from Amazon, you could buy it at Barnes and Noble or Politics and Prose or, if you’re in a hippie dippie anti-American sort of mood, Busboys and Poets. Let’s say you want to order it online: bn.com or abebooks.com Powell’s to the rescue! Despite being an Amazon Prime member I use those sites with some regularity, depending on my needs. And if Busboys and Poets refused to stock the latest Limbaugh I wouldn’t go squealing to the feds to force them to do so.

The idea that Amazon is under some sort of obligation to sell your product at the price you want them to strikes me as pretty insane. And not terribly good for the consumer, that silly little pest antitrust laws are designed to aid. I’m old enough to remember the last time Amazon and the publishers got into a spat and Kindle books went from a flat $9.99 fee to variable fees set by the publisher, most of which were way more than $9.99. I’m sure that’s great for publishers and writers. For the consumer, not so much. Speaking of screwing consumers: Hachette, you may remember, was itself hit with an antitrust suit for conspiring against their readers to keep prices at an unduly high level. (For another view of the ways in which Amazon helps smaller publishers and readers alike, check out this blog post by Martin Shepard, copublisher of The Permanent Press.)

Might Amazon jack up prices once every other bookseller has been crushed under its merciless heel? I suppose. But maybe we should worry about that once Amazon has, you know, actually managed to crush every other bookseller under said heel. As it stands now, consumers have plenty of alternatives—and the government has no business getting involved with a business dispute of this nature.

*One might argue that they are a monopoly when it comes to ebooks. This opens an interesting philosophical/legal can of worms—For instance: if you can buy a physical copy of a book does it really matter if Amazon dominates the electronic market?—that this author is not qualified to comment on.**

**”When has that ever stopped you in the past?” Shut up, smartass.

Update: I had no idea AbeBooks was owned by Amazon. Like the Kochtopus, its tentacles are everywhere! Also like the Kochtopus, I don’t really care because it’s improving my life on a daily basis.