'One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star'- Nietzsche
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Ordinarily, the Amazon-Hachette battle over revenue streams is not something I would take much interest in, because no matter how the fight is framed by the mainstream media the fact remains the bottom line is all that counts for these corporate entities. But I have been drawn into the fray by happenstance, having recently received from my younger brother his memoirs of his glorious bank-robbing years, along with a request for me to edit the manuscript and see to its publication. As my brother is not a well-known figure, except in his own outlaw circles, it was clear that self-publishing was the most viable avenue to travel, and that, as far as I then knew, Amazon was the best option for uploading and marketing his book.

I was willing to employ Amazon’s services for my brother’s sake (he’s somewhat apolitical), but I didn’t like knowing I had so little choice. Just a couple of months ago I had cancelled my Amazon account – a feat which took me almost a week to complete, as the cancel function is nearly impossible to locate at the Amazon site and one is required to submit time-consuming requests, and hit special buttons, etc – because I was fed up with the Amazon attitude. I mean, there is abundant reason to shy away from the book-selling collossus, starting with the horror stories surrounding their workplace practices; their nose-tweaking insolence and just plain silliness regarding the use of drones to deliver books; their collaboration with the CIA in building a database – after the Snowden revelations; the creepy privacy intrusions of their algorithms; the nuissance DRM locks they place on e-books to prevent copying and conversion to other reading formats; the shock revelation that you are, in essence, not purchasing, but renting, a book from Amazon, which you may discover the hard way after you cancel your account. And I personally know an on-line entrepreneur from Perth who has spent upwards of $250,000 to defend against Amazon’s hostile attempted hijacking of her domain name.

So if corporations are now people, Amazon can seem to be what you might call a thug.

But the question remains, in this battle with the major publisher, Hachette, what is the battle about, and are their any victors other than the bottom-liners? Do readers benefit? Will writers be better off when all is said and said and said?

On the surface the issue seems fairly clear-cut. Hachette, like all the other hard copy publishers, wants to sell their e-books at a substantially higher rate — $14 –$ 20 a pop – than Amazon’s set policy price of $10. Hachette justifies its higher rates by pointing to its substantial overhead and to costs associated with discovering and promoting new writers. The extra revenue is, all in all, in support of the publishing industry’s so-called ‘ecosystem’ of manufacturing and distribution. Hachette does not deny that e-books themselves have relatively very little production costs compared to hard copy books, they just see the extra funds generated by inflated pricing as a form of subsidization of the corporate entity.

But this seems to be a real sticking point for Amazon. Aside from the fact that they don’t really give a shit about the woes of an anachronistic publishing industry who they see as competitors anyway, Amazon points to stats that seem to support their argument that lower prices are better and that higher pricing is actually counter-productive. For instance, Amazon told the bookseller.com, an industry newsletter,

We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated

measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book

would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99.

So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a

particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000

copies of that same e-book at $9.99.

Thus, according to this measurement, everyone wins, because more volume means more revenue generated for Amazon, the publishers and their authors. And it is easy to see how more fluidity among e-book sales would create a ripple-on effect in the sale of hard copy as well, since there would be more familiarity with the works out there. Hachette, or any other publisher, really cannot argue this point.

But here’s the thing. The book publishing industry has always been different than other corporate enterprises, in that there has never been an expectation of high profit yields, and many would argue that industry is still largely devoted to the continued dissemination of culture and that it implicitly pushes the meme: Books are important. It is this cultural aspect, the protective layer for art and culture, even amidst business principles, that Hachette uses to bolster its claim to keeping its eco-system intact in order to continue delivering that Greater Good.

However, people like bestselling author Richard Russo, who also heads the Author’s Guild, whose job it is to protect the interests of writers, worries that Amazon, though seeming to offer good deals to readers and writers alike, has no interest in supporting the culture that is the backbone of the publishing industry. Says Russo,

We want Jeff Bezos to say, “We share your beliefs, we’re all

in this together.” Yet even that simple statement—which

would mean so much—hasn’t come. We’ve heard nothing.

Just silence.

But the shocking fact is, Amazon doesn’t necessarily care any more about the books it sells than any of its other purchaseable commodities. Why would it, asks Jason Diamond of Flavorwire, “when you consider that books don’t even make up ten percent of Amazon’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue.” The reality is that Amazon is more closely related to what eBay does than what book publishers do.

In the end, it is the projection of attitude that most offends. When Amazon released an app that allowed consumers to go into a local bookseller’s shop and read the barcode

off shelved books and compare to Amazon prices, many were deeply offended by the underlying message of this tactic. As the New York Times weighed in, the battle with Hachette has led Amazon to engage in behavior that engages it critics’ worst suspicions:

Now Amazon is raising prices, removing ordering buttons,

lengthening shipping times and monkeying with

recommendation algorithms. Do these sound like the moves

of a man who cares about customers above all else?

No, it sure doesn’t. And since those delays and tactics slow sales and turn off readers, they hurt writers as well. Even my brother is offended by these predations and wants to take his memoirs elsewhere. Luckily, there are alternatives, like draft2digital and ganxy, where he can flout his comparably honorable days of fleecing the banks.

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