Thursday, August 07, 2014

Amazon: The World's Biggest Book Censor

Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel, Mark Twain once opined, and Jeff Bezos is discovering the truth in the observation.

It's an unintended consequence of business, of course, nothing personal against authors. They just happen to be in the line of fire as Bezos takes aim at Hachette Book Group as part of the great pricing war. Amazon must have a bigger discount from Hachette to improve the bottom line. Amazon's tactics are creating a very unpleasant unintended consequence.

Hachette's authors were the ones to suffer when Amazon decreed that it would not allow pre-orders of Hachette books when Hachette refused to accept Amazon's harsh terms. There is a limit to how low a publisher can sell a book, and Hachette decided that Amazon wanted more than the publisher could give. Amazon, being the world's biggest book store, played hardball because the corporation has the power to do so. But it was the authors who were taking the hit, and the authors struck back.

Quick to react to the negative publicity that was generated when the authors started speaking out, Amazon made things worse by offering the authors a deal resembling Satan's temptation of Christ. As it turned out, the authors kept their loyalty with the publisher that made their success possible, and a new round of verbal abuse rained down on Amazon.

Amazon went back to playing the long game, restoring a few marketing widgets here and there, but still applying pressure to Hachette. As Jeff Bezos will soon realize, he doesn't have quite so many barrels of ink in his Washington Post as all the authors who are protesting Amazon's battle plan in the war against Hachette.

Authors United, a group that coalesced around the concept of Amazonian censorship, has bought a full page in this Sunday's New York Times. They are taking their protest a step further, to the heart of both publishing and financial industries.

Nine hundred buyers of ink by the barrel have signed a letter to their reading public, essentially accusing Amazon of censorship. In a nation that incorporated freedom of the press and free speech into its founding documents, it is a heavy charge to lay at Jeff Bezos' feet.

In closing, they ask their readers to use some of their own ink to voice their opinion directly to Mr. Bezos, and this after telling those same loyal readers that Mr. Bezos' company is actively preventing them from accessing the books that entertain and inform. The inbox will fill quickly, with hundreds of readers joining their favorite authors in protesting what Jeff Bezos has created.

He started Amazon to be the place to go to buy everything with the utmost convenience, and people have developed the habit. Sure they could buy any book they like at any bookstore, but not at two in the morning on a Saturday when the urge strikes. He created that mindset, and the attempt to rein in Hachette by blocking easy book sales is also seen as a direct blow to the easy transmission of thoughts and ideas.

Will he dig in and refuse to budge with Hachette? After all, he has no other way to punish the publisher than to harm sales. But how much will it hurt Amazon, if Authors United succeeds in ratcheting up consumer outrage and escalates the boycott of Amazon?

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