The negotiations between Amazon and the Big 5 publishers is often framed as a war between David and Goliath. What’s strange is that who gets to play David depends on who you’re talking to. Both sides claim him. The rare moments when people equivocate between the two parties, they state that this is really a case of Goliath vs. Goliath, which is far closer to the truth. We’re talking about multi-billion dollar corporations on either side.
But I’m still interested in how people who normally agree on a wide range of social issues find themselves on opposing sides when it comes to Amazon/Big 5. Of course, it’s not uncommon for people to agree on a lot of ideas and then hit a snag on some major topic. What is strange is when they use the same language to buttress diametrically opposing viewpoints. Both sides in this case say they’re trying to protect the little guy against the big bully. It’s like we’re on opposite sides of a valley, and we can barely see the two people duking it out down below on our army’s behalf, but our guy is definitely the underdog. Both sides think that ours is the champion of the little people.
And we both think we’re right. Where I might be a little crazy is that I believe the people I disagree with are sincere. I’ve had a number of exchanges with outspoken people from the anti-Amazon side, and I think these are good people who believe they are on the right side of history for taking their stance. I have some very close friends who vehemently disagree with me. So how do I square what I know of these people with how wrong I think they are?
It starts with questioning my own beliefs and positions, of course. I’m open to being the fault in this paradox. But as I look at the entire scope of this debate, and what is being said on either side, I think I’ve finally hit upon how both sides think they are championing David. It all has to do with how we frame our view of both Amazon and the major publishing houses. And I think we all get this incredibly wrong.
When I think of Amazon going up against the Big 5, I think of the publishing divisions of Amazon going up against the combined might of Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. That is, I don’t think of Amazon Web Services playing any role in this fight. Nor do I think of Amazon Fire TV or the Amazon Fire Phone divisions as playing a role. I don’t even think of the distribution centers and the sale of physical goods, including media. I think of the people at Kindle Direct Publishing, Createspace, Audible/ACX, and Amazon’s publishing imprints. The book people.
I’ll get into why this is a mistake on my part in a minute. But first, let’s look at a mistake made by those on the other side. When these people think of Simon & Schuster, they don’t think of CBS, which owns the publisher. When they think of HarperCollins, they don’t think of Rupert Murdoch, Fox News, and NewsCorp. They just single out the book-publishing division that they love, and they compare that to the entire Amazon empire. They think of diapers, TVs, and how un-fun warehouse work sounds. They take everything that isn’t books out of their David’s army and forget all about that. And then they pit what’s left against the entirety of their foe.
Those of us who work with Amazon’s publishing divisions — either as self-published authors or as authors with their imprints — don’t think of the same “Amazon” when we’re talking books. What we’re thinking about are the men and women who work at Amazon who love literature. Many of them came from New York publishing. We think about what they’re up against compared to just the publishing component of NewsCorp or the American book wing of Lagardère Group, which owns Hachette.
In practically every way, Amazon is the clear underdog here. The upstart. The newcomer. They’ve published roughly 5,000 titles across their imprints to date, which is the number that the Big 5 might publish in a year. Meanwhile, the Big 5 have banded together to establish price floors with other retailers in what the DOJ found to be illegal collusion. And bookstores have refused to carry Amazon’s works, banning these titles from a large sector of the marketplace. For many of us, this is bullying far more severe than removing pre-order buttons.
When it comes to size, the publishing divisions at Amazon represent a tiny sliver of Amazon’s overall revenue. It’s quite possible that all of these divisions combined earn less than each of the Big 5 publishers do individually. The David from this point of view — not only in earnings but also in marketplace challenges that are either illegal or a result of book banning at retail — would seem obvious.
Compound this with the fact that Amazon pays authors more than publishers (anywhere from double at their imprints to nearly six times as much with their self-publishing platforms). Or the fact that they charge less to the consumer, where publishers have banded together to artificially raise prices, and the David is not only clear, but so is the side who is fighting for the little people. At least, from one perspective.
Publishers, meanwhile, are fighting for the health of large bookstore chains and for the top 1% of writers who benefit from massive distribution. They also benefit from a system that bars 99% of applicants from even entering. Again, this is the way those who support Amazon and other digital disruptors see these parties as David and the combined might of the Big 5 as Goliath.
But this view is just as wrong as the view that sees Amazon as Goliath and the publishing division of NewsCorp as David. Simon & Schuster proved this view to be false last month, when they agreed to a multi-year distribution deal with Amazon for both ebooks and print works. The major publishers have operated lockstep in some ways (from boilerplate contracts to digital royalties), but they aren’t the cartel we accuse them of. They enter subscription services variably. Some of them work out terms with their distributors while others don’t. Some have dabbled in print-only deals and have embraced genre publishing and lower ebook prices to a greater degree.
The truth is that there are a lot of Davids, all fighting for a place on the battlefield. Various alliances have cropped up over the years, but just as often, these Davids compete. In my view, the smallest David of them all is without a doubt Amazon’s publishing wings. To harp on the support they have from the larger company, again, is to make the same mistake of ignoring NewsCorp or Bertelsmann.
None of this is meant to settle any of the disputes, of course. It just helps explain (to me, anyway) how both sides can claim to be fighting on behalf of the little people. It all depends on how you frame and clump the people, and it’s usually done — by both sides — in order to buttress previously-held beliefs.