Heard on Morning Edition
January 23, 2012 – STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Publishers and booksellers are worried that Amazon is going to devour their industry. The online retailer seems to have its hands in all aspects of the business now, from selling books to publishing them, and that has people wondering if there is any end to Amazon’s influence, as NPR’s Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Publishers have a problem when it comes to discussing Amazon. They may fear its power, but they’re also dependent on it, because like it or not, Amazon sells a lot of books. But lately, the grumbling about Amazon has been growing louder, with some in the book industry openly describing Amazon’s tactics as predatory.
JOE WIKERT: Well, certainly the word predator is pretty strong, and I don’t use it loosely, but I should also mention that up until probably a few months ago, I’ve been one of Amazon’s biggest fanatics.
NEARY: Joe Wikert is general manager and publisher at O’Reilly Media. For a long time, publishers have been complaining about Amazon’s pricing policies; they sold e-books at cut rate prices in order to win customers for the Kindle. And now, says Wikert, they’re undercutting their competitors by selling e-readers, like the new Kindle Fire, at a loss.
WIKERT: And I could have sworn at one point we had laws against predatory pricing. And I just don’t understand why that’s not an issue because that’s got to be hurting other device makers out there in trying to capture part of this market.
NEARY: But Wikert’s also well aware that Amazon has made life very convenient for consumers.
WIKERT: Amazon has built a one-click model – and I do it all the time – where it’s so simple and easy for me to get a sample or just to buy the book outright. I know that there are other options out there, but it requires several extra steps that you have to go through, and that’s what’s really kind of challenging.
NEARY: Just before Christmas, Amazon infuriated booksellers with its price check app, which allowed customers to check out prices in brick and mortar stores, then get a discount if they bought from Amazon. Dennis Johnson of Melville House Publishing has long been a vocal critic of Amazon.
DENNIS JOHNSON: I feel that in the book industry, which is a very timid industry, that was the thing that really got people saying, you know, it’s time for us to stand up to this and try to do something.
NEARY: Melville House Publishing is trying to develop a number of things to help booksellers. One of them is the shelf talker, a digital display which helps customers browse through print books in a brick and mortar store but buy e-books from that store’s website instead of from Amazon.
JOHNSON: They can just whip out their smart phone, scan the code on whatever the display item is. They’re magically, immediately at the store’s website and they can buy the book within moments.
NEARY: But such devices bear no small resemblance to the slingshot David used against Goliath. Johnson would prefer to see Amazon investigated for antitrust violations, but he’s not expecting that will happen anytime soon. And recently he got more evidence of just how many tentacles Amazon has in the book world when none other than beloved librarian Nancy Pearl, MORNING EDITION commentator and darling of independent bookstores, struck a deal with Amazon.
JOHNSON: You know, I work in an open office and one of my staffers saw that online and I heard him say, wow, and then he read it out to us in the office. And we all just kind of sat there quietly trying to take it in, because it was such a surprise.
NEARY: Amazon has agreed to publish at least a dozen of Nancy Pearl’s favorite novels, which had been out of print. Pearl will provide an introduction, book discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading. Pearl says much of the reaction to the news has been positive, but not all of it.
NANCY PEARL: There’s been pushback that I’ve gone over to the dark side and allied myself with these people who are destroying the book business as we know it.
NEARY: The venture, called Book Lust Rediscoveries, is something Pearl has wanted to do for years. She had reservations about going with Amazon, but says she shopped it to other publishers who didn’t pick it up.
PEARL: Amazon just blew me, my agent – both of us – away with their enthusiasm for doing something so wonderful as resurrecting books that never should have gone out of print in the first place.
NEARY: So add a curatorial role to Amazon’s hydra-like book business. It makes it just that much harder, says Dennis Johnson, to cut the behemoth down to size.
JOHNSON: I mean, it’s on so many fronts. As I say, librarians feel like they’re under assault by them, booksellers feel like they’re under assault by them, publishers feel like they’re under assault by them – and in each instance, they are.
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.