Opinion

Alex Beam

Is Jeff Bezos really the bad guy?

istockphoto/amazon.com/globe staff illustration

The literary-industrial complex cannot abide Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. To paraphrase Oscar winner Sally Field: They hate him. They really hate him.

Here are the latest developments in the ongoing morality play called “Hand-Wringing Writers Fulminate Against Seattle-based Book Monopoly Bent on World Domination.” When we last tuned in, a small group of authors angered by Amazon’s roughhouse tactics against the publisher Hachette had mushroomed into a movement a thousand strong. Literary superagent Andrew Wylie has jawboned many of his successful clients, including Philip Roth and Orhan Pamuk, into calling for a Justice Department investigation of Amazon.

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“If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America,” Wylie told The New York Times. Ungraciously, the Times reminded us that as recently as 2010, Wylie himself was negotiating sweetheart e-book deals with Amazon. How times do change.

Now comes author and New Republic editor Franklin Foer with the stirring philippic, “Amazon Must Be Stopped.” The breathing is heavy, (“a new golden age of monopoly;” “a trail of destruction;” “There seems to be no limit to Amazon’s demands’’), but the logic is light. I’m not the first to point out that, with 41 percent of the consumer book market, Amazon isn’t a monopoly.

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I’m also not the first to point out that, in battling the French conglomerate Hachette over e-book pricing, Amazon isn’t exactly kicking sand in the face of a 96-pound weakling. Hachette has profit margins of over 10 percent on $2.6 billion of annual sales. It’s not exactly running a writers’ cooperative, if you gather my drift. How did it get to be the good guy?

What are Amazon’s sins? It has changed the terms of trade in BookWorld, and the Establishment is ticked off. Amazon loves its customers — hey, I’m a writer; they are my customers, too — and it loves to shake up marketplaces. By championing self-published authors and providing them with an efficient, online marketplace, Amazon has shrewdly incited a range war between the Manhattan-centric minions of Big Lit, and the diffuse guerrilla armies of do-it-yourself writers, whose names often pop up in Amazon’s aggressive web promotions, such as the Kindle Daily Deal.

It is true that deep discounting by Amazon (and by Barnes & Noble before it) has eaten into writers’ incomes. “Author economics keep deteriorating,” Simon Kuper wrote in the Financial Times earlier this month, citing Amazon, the thriving used book market, and electronic piracy as contributing factors.

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“I’ve found [electronic copies] of my books free online,” Kuper wrote. “ ‘Information wants to be free’ says a modern mantra. Well, my information doesn’t.”

Last week I was running my mouth at a book event in Arlington, where someone asked me: What’s up with the Globe’s new owner? I answered that there are three fascinating media ownerships right now: John Henry in Boston, the ascending new generation at The New York Times, and Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post.

“Bezos is going to be interesting,” I said, cautiously. “Their website is crackling with great stories, and now they’re offering annual subscriptions for $19 a year.” I knew there was a bookseller in the room, so I chose my words carefully. “Amazon has caused some serious pain to bookstore owners,” I said, “but Bezos is the devil to compete with.”

“He’s a genius,” Mike Buglio, the owner of The Book Rack, piped up, unprompted. Buglio later elaborated: “Bezos trained consumers to wait for shipments, figured out how to make those shipments faster, and figured out how to warehouse better than anyone else.”

Ludwig van Beethoven was a genius. Jeff Bezos? He’s one smart guy. And his competitors really hate him.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.
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