The Nameless Horror

If you ask legacy publishing’s defenders, “Which is the monopoly: the entity that charges high prices and pays low royalties, or the entity that charges low prices and pays high royalties?”, you’ll be told by those defenders (tortured logic to follow) that of course it’s the latter.

Further to the last, Barry Eisler continues to give Amazon a reach-around with a succession of bizarre leaps of logic.

The answer to the above question, incidentally, is “neither option is relevant to the first part of the question”. It’s like asking “which is the monopoly: the company whose boss drives a blue car, or the one whose boss drives a red car?”

The correct answer is, of course, the one which is the only supplier (or, stretching the strict definition for practical reasons) more or less the only supplier, of a particular commodity. Which in this case is ebooks, and if Amazon regains the market share lost when Apple offered a sweeter deal to publishers, it’ll almost certainly be them.

In the meantime, the publishing establishment wants you to believe that in order to prevent Amazon from possibly one day charging higher book prices, the establishment has to charge you higher prices today.

No, the publishing establishment wants you to believe that in order to prevent Amazon from possibly one day paying its suppliers less to keep prices low with the risk of putting those suppliers - the publishers - out of business, the establishment has to try to stop the slide to bargain basement price demands and deals based thereon (though as the maths I did the other day suggest, they have more room for wiggle than they sometimes let on).

Amazon, as Charlie Stross correctly points out, is also on its way to being a monopsony, exactly like Tesco (and the other top few supermarkets) as Nick Harkaway says.

Whether Amazon’s monopoly or near-monopoly and monopsony position, should it regain it (and eyeing the DOJ lawsuit and grumblings in the EU it seems quite possible they will) will lead to exactly the sort of supplier-squeezing fuck-you demands supermarkets routinely make “because people expect low prices” is a matter of opinion and conjecture, and Barry’s entitled to that as much as the next person. He’s right that publishing has been, and largely continues to be, slow to innovate. Right, too, that DRM is bad - though as Stross points out, Amazon has been by far the biggest winner on that score - and right that industries change over time.

But he’s wrong to couch arguments in terms of the money paid for or from ebooks, with Amazon existing as a glimmering beacon of hope in an expensive, poorly-paid authorial wilderness, with everyone else the grasping, greedy claws of the grey-suited “establishment”, because even ignoring the fact that he - and plenty of others who’ve done very well out of Amazon - have become shiny-eyed evangelical mouthpieces for the Great New Way and the language reflects that, those terms are often irrelevant (unless you’re asking “who will currently pay you the most royalties and generally charge the lowest prices (if you accept their weird-ass contract)?” in which case, rock on).

Amazon’s undoing, or the source for most competition, might prove for instance to be its own KDP offerings. To borrow from Stross’s remarks to Macmillan on DRM, “Amazon’s inclusion of masses of self-published material in the Kindle store has made it impossible for heavy consumers to browse it effectively.”

And that lack, just as everything else - monopoly position, author squeeze, more books, fewer books, etc. - could or could not happen regardless of which company pays the most and charges least, or which one sprays liquid customer service from every golden orifice, or which one tickles your private bits with a delicate feather while you shop.