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Alex Beam

Writers love to hate Amazon, but why?

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Writers are an excitable lot; like skittish colts, they can be easily stampeded in one direction or another.

On May 10, just as the dispute between the world’s third-largest publisher Hachette and Amazon was warming up, bestselling author and then-president of the Authors Guild Scott Turow declared: “I stand with my publishers at Hachette in standing up against the Darth Vadar [sic] of the literary world, a.k.a. Amazon.”

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A few weeks later, Turow’s successor as guild president, Roxana Robinson, said on TV that trying to deal with Amazon was “like trying to negotiate with Tony Soprano.” As in the Mafia; geddit?

Let’s do a little experiment. I want to buy a paperback copy of Robinson’s wonderful 2009 novel, “Cost.” Two of the area’s five premier independent bookstores carry the paperback for about $17. Robinson’s website asks you to buy the book from bn.com, Barnes & Noble’s online home. With shipping, that costs about the same. (The book is out of stock at the B&N stores at the Prudential Center and Burlington, so you can’t opt for in-store pickup.)

Amazon will offer you a similar deal, except its Prime customers get free shipping, as well as access to streaming movies and TV shows. And for less than half the paperback cost, you can read it on its Kindle, which has decisively trumped B&N’s de-funded Nook in the e-reader wars.

Amazon is competitive, to put it mildly.

I’m a member of the Authors Guild, and I accept that Amazon is a fact of life in the bookselling trade. Just a few years ago, Amazon accounted for 30 percent or less of a writer’s sales. Now, if you include Kindle sales, it often accounts for 50 percent or more. Of course I love bookstores. But it behooves me to love Amazon, too.

(I do love how Amazon has enriched my social interactions. As a recently published author, I’ve learned that “I’m going to download your book” actually means: “I have no intention of buying or reading your book, and — short of searching my Kindle — you’ll never know.”)

The anti-Amazon crowd frames the current debate as authors and publishers versus Amazon. But the interests of authors and publishers do not always align. The reason authors have literary agents, for instance, is to protect them against publishers, not against booksellers.

By coincidence, I met three writers last week who all used Amazon to publish books. Amazon printed Stephen Davis’s fascinating mini-book, “William Burroughs/Local Stop on the Nova Express.” Ellen Leopold used Amazon’s CreateSpace program to publish her collection of essays about breast cancer, “My Soul Is Among Lions.”

Amazon’s famously impenetrable algorithms detected some sales strength in Tom Waite’s self-published novel, “Terminal Value,” and twice offered it as a “Kindle Daily Deal” — at no cost to him. For a while, he was selling more e-copies than “The Hobbit” or “Gone Girl.”

Be careful what you wish for. Waite’s forthcoming novel, “Lethal Code,” will be published by Amazon, which has an execrable record as a publisher, as opposed to a seller, of books.

Could Amazon be a better citizen of BookWorld? Of course. It should pay to advertise in newspapers’ floundering book review sections, which channel plenty of business its way. (The Hachettes of the world hardly ever do this.) Amazon could even invest in a high-quality book review, such as the Barnes & Noble Review.

I hope you buy every book mentioned in this column. How you do so is your own business. Boycotts are for the birds.

Globe contributor Alex Beam is the author of “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.”
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