Amazon: Evil Demonic Corporation or Convenient Scapegoat?

A lot of people have a LOT to say about Amazon.com lately. Most of the pitchfork and torch burning attitude seems to be coming from brick-and-mortar booksellers, publishers, and authors who still put their loyalty behind traditional publishing models. Amazon has made waves in recent weeks by encouraging people to go to bookstores and price check merchandise (thereby potentially leaving said store and ordering online at Amazon if they offer a better price) as well as its new Kindle Select program, which asks for a 90-day exclusivity for those authors that wish to opt-in.

Judging by the war cries on my Facebook news feed, as well as the infuriated tweets I’ve seen, one would be inclined to think that Amazon is some evil corporation hell-bent on gaining a monopoly.

Maybe.

Before I put my own perspective on display, I should mention that I love bookstores. And given my choice, I’ll shop at one rather than go online. In my town, we have an amazing indie store called Park Street Books and the owner, Jim, is one of the greatest dudes I’ve met in the bookselling business. Jim’s got over 500,000 books in-stock. New, used, toys, games, and more. My family drops a good amount of coin in his place. I’m a firm supporter of indie bookstores and always have been.

That said, I personally feel that the hostility toward Amazon is misplaced.

Sure, Amazon engages in business practices that I don’t always agree with. And certainly, its agenda might well be suspect.

But consider the real cause of the problem: traditional publishing. This is the elephant standing in the room that people would rather pretend isn’t there. From my perspective as an author who has published with a number of the largest houses, the problem isn’t Amazon at all – it’s outdated, woefully archaic business practices employed by traditional “Big 6″ publishers who desperately cling to obsolescence like it’s a life preserver.

Consider this: if traditional publishers offered a better e-royalty rate instead of the laughable 25% that is currently the norm, would we be seeing the mass defection for indie publishing that we currently see? Or would the numbers be far less as more authors strove to get a traditional deal rather than strike out on their own?

Further, if traditional publishers changed their accounting systems to more frequent reporting rather than twice a year, it would go a long way toward proving they were serious about adapting instead of clinging to the “old ways.” Or how about the notion that an editor is hardly that any longer? Editors pitch/beg for the projects they like and then watch as accountants and higher-ups make final decisions. Usually, it’s a pitched battle to get a project acquired and then – and only then – the advance is routinely about $5,000.

That’s five thousand bucks, people.

Think you can quit the day job on that? It’s laughable. In fact, despite the logic that dictates that without writers, your business has no product, publishers have routinely and methodically tried to carve more and more away from their very reason for existence.

Is it any wonder why there are so many authors opting for the indie route?

But instead of viewing these problems logically, the biggest rally cries for Jeff Bezos’ head on a pike come from the publishers and booksellers who refuse to admit the real problem is with traditional publishing. Last week, the Hachette Book Group – arguably one of the largest – had an internal memo leaked that argued the company’s own relevancy in the 21st century world, but came across more like some whiny loser in a corner begging for someone to play with them. Corporatese lines like “we nurture authors” and related crap plagued the memo from start to finish and only underscored the point that publishers have failed to change the way they do business.

And instead of admitting their mistakes, making corrections, and moving on as a viable 21st century corporation, they’ve done the easier thing: blame Amazon.

As I said earlier, I don’t agree with everything Amazon does. But neither do I fault it for doing what it does.

Think about it: if you owned a corporation like Amazon and saw the massive mistakes your competition was making, wouldn’t you in all likelihood take some or all of the same steps Amazon has taken? You want a larger market share, you want less competition, you want to be able to offer your customers more exclusive products. Of course you do: you’re a publicly traded company and you owe it to your shareholders to grow your business as profitably as you can.

And if you think back and chart the various moves Amazon has made, the company has, in fact, given its competitors (be they stores or publishers) time to adapt. But traditional publishers have proven the most stubborn of the bunch. And so Amazon has simply said, “well, if you’re too stupid to change, screw you guys, we’ll just cut your legs out from under you.”

It would be easy to rally around the whole “Amazon sucks” cry. But in doing so, people inevitably miss the point that if traditional publishing could have managed to actually fix itself and its archaic business models, then Amazon wouldn’t be attracting indie authors and old veteran authors like sharks on a chum line. Instead of rectifying their mistakes, traditional publishers have price-gouged consumers on ebooks through stupid pricing models (and claims that ebook costs are still high, when, in fact, they are not); they’ve resisted the march toward digital by failing to adopt a standard ebook file format or a standard e-reader; they’ve refused to adjust their royalty structure to accommodate a better share for the very people who keep them supplied with product in the first place; and many more mistakes besides these.

If I’m fighting someone and they make the mistake of dropping their guard, you can bet your ass I’m going to jab them in the face and then follow up hard until they’re down and gone. If I see an opening, I’ll exploit it for everything I can.

It’s easy to imagine a world where companies act ethically, but that’s not the reality we live in. Amazon has simply take advantage of the ego-burdened idiocy rampant in traditional publishing and exploited it. We might not like how it does business, but at the end of the day, hostility toward Amazon might be better directed at where the real problems are, rather than at the opportunistic company that has capitalized on those problems.

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