Franklin Foer: "Stop Amazon, Keep Publishing Exactly As It's Always Been!"
I promised myself I wasn’t going to blog about Franklin Foer’s New Republic piece on how Amazon is an evil monopoly and must be stopped and we’re all enslaving ourselves by shopping there blah blah blah. None of it is remotely new or original or even coherent, and at some point I get tired of pointing out the same deficiencies in these clone articles. But there was one line of bullshit so breathtaking I just had to call it out.
Look, if Foer wants to claim Amazon is a “monopoly,” that’s just routine thoughtlessness, akin to a child being irrationally afraid of the bogeyman. But then he goes on to make a claim that can only be the product of shocking ignorance or brazen deceit:
That term [monopoly] doesn’t get tossed around much these days, but it should.
Holy shit, “Amazon is a monopoly” doesn’t get tossed around much these days?! Did Foer even read the George Packer piece he cites in his own article, in which Packer repeatedly plays the “Amazon is a monopoly!” fear card? Has he ever heard of the “Authors Guild” or “Authors United,” each of which has repeatedly, explicitly, accused Amazon of being a monopoly? Has he read David Streitfeld in the New York Times, or Laura Miller in Salon? I’ve seen countless posts with titles like, Amazon: Malignant Monopoly or Just Plain Evil? I’ve seen op-eds in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, all peddling the same tired, tendentious fear-mongering line about Amazon being a monopoly. Seriously, just Google “Amazon Hachette Monopoly” and see what you come up with.
I see three general possible explanations for Foer’s remarkably inaccurate claim.
1. Foer is embarrassingly ignorant of the subject he’s trying to cover. He doesn’t read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal; he’s never heard of the Authors Guild or Authors United; the blogosphere exists only in some sort of inaccessible parallel dimension; he’s failed to do even the most elementary online research… he just doesn’t have a clue regarding what he’s writing about.
2. Foer is aware of how hoary the “Amazon is a monopoly” meme has become and wants to repeat it, but doesn’t want to admit he has nothing new to say. So he pretends he’s the first person to be possessed of this refreshingly original argument.
3. Foer is aware of how hoary the “Amazon is a monopoly” meme has become, but believes no other activist, not even the Authors Guild or Authors United or the New York Times David Streitfeld, has been sufficiently alarmist about how close The Amazon Monopoly Is To Enslaving Us All (look at the first sentence of the article: “let us kneel down before” Amazon). So when he says, more or less, “No one else is talking about this,” he really believes it, because he believes no one else is adequately conveying just how terrifying it all is.
4. Foer knows perfectly well that “Amazon is a monopoly” is about as ubiquitous a meme today as “Obama’s birth certificate was faked and he is a Secret Marxist Muslim Socialist” was just recently. But he also knows you can lend an air of false gravitas to bogus claims and conspiracy theories by implying the mainstream media is too cowed to Speak The Truth, while you are doing something bold, daring, and even dangerous by comparison.
I try to subscribe to the notion that we should never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity. But really, is it possible to write a 3000-word article—with references to articles that themselves claim Amazon is a monopoly—and genuinely believe “the term monopoly doesn’t get tossed around much these days”? I’d like to believe that Foer is just ignorant, and that the correct explanation is #1. But… wow. That’s pretty damn ignorant.
All right, what the hell, we’ve come this far. Just a few more thoughts on the rest of the article, though I don’t know why I’m spending the time, because anyone who claims no one else is accusing Amazon of being a monopoly has already disqualified himself from being taken seriously.
Sure, Barnes and Noble and other chains have long charged fees for shelf placement, but Amazon has invented a steroidal version of that old practice.
Let me translate that: “Amazon offers more value than B&N did, so charges more for it.”
In other breaking news: Janet Evanovich charges her publisher more for her books than I charge mine because she sells more copies, and she is therefore a monopoly. Somebody, get the government to break up Janet Evanovich so I can compete!
(I’ll have more to say below about the reactionary tendency to blame Amazon for the very behavior incumbents like B&N have long behaved in and continue to behave in.)
The New York Times has reported that Amazon apparently wants to increase its cut of each e-book it sells, from 30 percent to 50…
Somehow, Foer left out “but of course, no one really knows. And even if we did know, it would be incoherent to discuss hypothetical percentages if we don’t also have information about wholesale and retail prices.”
Random House joined Penguin to form a mega-house, which controls 25 percent of the book business…
A “mega-house”? That’s bad, right? Because now “the culture will suffer the inevitable consequences of monopoly—less variety of products”?
Hmm, apparently not. The New York “Big Five” cartel magically ensures variety. While the company that invented Kindle Direct Publishing, enabling all authors to publish whatever they want, is killing variety. Who knew?
This upfront money [the advance] is the economic pillar on which quality books rest, the great bulwark against dilettantism…
Indeed, every first-time novel—pretty much by definition written without an advance or even a realistic hope of legacy publication—was written by a “dilettante.” Good to know. Also good to know that authors don’t write quality books—the advances do that!
This is a classic case of one of the logical fallacies I find most interesting among people fearful of change: the tendency to conflate an important function (authors making money from their work) with the traditional means by which that function has been fulfilled (the advance). I can’t believe I’m still having to repeat this to the Foers of the world, but… the advance is one way by which authors have been compensated. It doesn’t follow, either logically or empirically, that it is the only way.
But no bank or investor in its right mind would extend that kind of credit to an author, save perhaps Stephen King.
Again, could somebody help me understand how all those first books get written? No advance, no credit, and yet…
And “no bank” would extend “that kind of credit”? Does Foer realize he’s talking about an average of $5000? No bank? Really? And “no investor”? Hmm, well, if only someone would invent a modern, web-based way of raising capital. Where someone could explain the project, solicit investors… and maybe they could name it, I don’t know, “Kickstarter,” something like that.
Or if only someone would invent a means of reaching readers that didn’t require gatekeepers and advances of credit in the unreachable average amount of $5000. Something that would enable authors to publish themselves. We could even call it… self-publishing!
Amazon might decide that it can only generate enough revenue by further transforming the e-book market—and it might try to drive sales by deflating Salman Rushdie and Jennifer Egan novels to the price of a Diet Coke.
Yep. Or it might try to drive sales by putting all its marketing muscle behind Snooki and 50 Shades of Grey.
Oh wait, someone else is already doing that. The guardians of rich literary culture, the bulwarks against dilettantism, the guarantors of a greater variety of quality books, etc.
But the tendentiousness in Foer’s argument isn’t even what’s most interesting about it. What’s implicit is even more so: that it would actually be bad if more people could afford to buy books by Salman Rushdie and Jennifer Egan. How is this view any different from the arguments that must have been made against the Vulgate Bible, or the Gutenburg printing press? “Tsk, isn’t this just going to make reading more accessible to the unwashed masses?”
If you haven’t read it already, I can’t recommend highly enough this article by Clay Shirky about the aristocratic, elitist, narcissistic worldview always inherent in the minds of people like Foer.
Or [Amazon] can continue to prod the publishing houses to change their models, until they submit.
Or even until they reform, perhaps by offering authors a more equitable digital split, and paying authors more often than twice a year, and permitting publication terms shorter than “forever,” and dropping the draconian rights lock-ups from their contracts, and by finding ways to give readers greater choice and access and lower prices, and all the other things they could do if they were interested more in competing and less in complaining.
Either way, the culture will suffer the inevitable consequences of monopoly—less variety of products and lower quality of the remaining ones.
To paraphrase David Gaughran, this would be a really interesting (and possibly even accurate) point if no one had ever invented digital books and self-publishing.
As for the notion that readers are so untermenschen that they can’t determine for themselves what constitutes a “quality” book, again, you’ve got to read that Clay Shirky article.
This is depressing enough to ponder when it comes to the fate of lawn mower blades.
Not nearly as depressing as reading the same recycled, inaccurate, thought-free memes year after year after year.
In confronting what to do about Amazon, first we have to realize our own complicity.
Well, no, we don’t. First we have to read all the good free advice people like Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath have offered publishers, and ask why it’s all been ignored in favor of collusion and non-stop whining.
We’ve all been seduced by the deep discounts, the monthly automatic diaper delivery, the free Prime movies, the gift wrapping, the free two-day shipping, the ability to buy shoes or books or pinto beans or a toilet all from the same place. But it has gone beyond seduction, really. We expect these kinds of conveniences now, as if they were birthrights.
Um, okay, I guess, but couldn’t you can say the same about antibiotics and flush toilets and ice cream straight from the freezer? Why isn’t Foer up in arms that people just expect they can drive to the supermarket for fresh milk, damn it, rather than having to get up in the cold and dark at 4:00 a.m. to milk their own cow?
I could leave that as a rhetorical question, but it isn’t really. There’s an answer. Which is: people like Foer are afraid of change. If Foer had been born in a different generation, he would have written similar screeds inveighing against the horrors of the cotton gin, the automobile, the telephone, etc. Foer’s mentality is always inherent in a percentage of the population; it just expresses itself slightly differently depending on what happens to be the latest devil of progress that’s poised to End Civilization And All That Is Good.
But while that meritocratic theory might be true enough for a search engine or social media site, Amazon is different.
Oh, yes. Every new change that terrifies people inherently afraid of change is different. Every single one, throughout history. I’m serious: name a single significant social or technological change ever, anywhere, that wasn’t accompanied by Luddites and other alarmists declaring, “Yes, but this one is DIFFERENT.”
Unchallenged monopolists have little incentive to disrupt industries they already control.
True! Which is why the New York “Big Five” has long been such a boiling cauldron of innovation.
Regarding the long section on how government intervention helped IBM and Microsoft, and allowed Google to grow… actually, it was my novels that helped all these companies. The third was published in 2004, and if you’ll check the timeline, you’ll see that Google’s stock price is built on my publication dates. QED.
Still, if we don’t engage the new reality of monopoly with the spirit of argumentation and experimentation that carried Brandeis, we’ll drift toward an unsustainable future, where one company holds intolerable economic and cultural sway.
How can someone write something like that… and not be referring to the New York “Big Five”?
Another seeming rhetorical question that actually has an answer. People who are fearful of change correspondingly worship the status quo—because the status quo, by definition, doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter whether the status quo is good or bad; what matters is just that it represents the absence of change, and therefore must be supported. So even though all the bad things reactionaries like Foer fear from Amazon in the future—too much power, too little variety, too little innovation—already exist courtesy of the New York “Big Five” cartel, Foer is as happy with the present as he is fearful of the future. Because if there’s one thing the Big Five has always stood for, it’s keeping things exactly the way they are. And if you’re possessed of a sufficiently reactionary personality, there’s no better narcotic than that.