Monopolies and the Arts

Update on Sunday’s recital: there was a lot of good music, played imperfectly (mine included). There was a really good Chopin I hadn’t heard for a long time, which inspired me to look for some “simple” Chopin (if there is such a thing) to add to my growing list of possible pieces for hospice playing.  Out of the eleven people playing (too many, really), only a few “monopolized” our attention for too long.

Speaking of monopolies, a couple of days ago, I received an email from Amazon indicating that Louise Glück’s latest book, Faithful and Virtuous Night, which I had ordered in late August, was still “not available,” and wondered if I still wanted it.  Having read, throughout the month, various accounts of Amazon’s dispute with the publisher Hachette, I figured out that Glück must be one of those writers, who, according to Monday’s article in the New York Times, “Literary Lions Join Protest Against Amazon,” though they themselves are not published by Hachette, are joining in a boycott of Amazon.

As Reuters reported on September 15,

More than 1,000 authors, including Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen King and James Patterson, have urged Inc’s directors to end a contract dispute with Hachette Book Group that has cost some writers 90 percent of their sales on the online retailer’s website.

Authors United, a group representing authors, including many published by Hachette, called on Amazon’s 10-person board to end what it called “sanctions” on Hachette book sales on Amazon’s website during the dispute between the two companies over e-book prices.

Amazon and Hachette, the fourth-largest U.S. book publisher owned by France’s Lagardere , have been locked in a months-long dispute over the price of e-books.

Amazon argues that most e-books should be sold at $9.99 to spur sales, while Hachette says it should be able to set prices on its own.

Amazon has blocked pre-orders and slowed shipping times of some books, a negotiating tactic that has alienated a number of high-profile authors including Gladwell and Patterson.

The dispute has driven down Hachette authors’ sales on by at least half and in some cases as much as 90 percent, according to the letter. Sales of e-books as well as hardcover and paperback books have been hurt.

“Because of Amazon’s immense market share and its proprietary Kindle platform, other retailers have not made up the difference,” according to the letter, which was first reported by the New York Times.

Blogger and small book publisher and bookseller Jim Huang comments,

But even as we recognize the good that Amazon does [such as providing books to rural areas where no bookstores are available] it’s important to recognize that what they’re doing is contrary to the bookselling ethos that grew up with and supports our democracy. In seeking preferential terms from publishers like Hachette, Amazon is seeking to bolster a monopoly position that threatens every other bookseller, a threat that puts Amazon closer to the position of being the only bookseller. Democracy is not well served by a marketplace of ideas that consists of only a few retailers; democracy is stronger when a level playing field supports a diverse marketplace made up of many retailers.

My response to Amazon’s email that the Glück book was not available for the foreseeable future sent me to my local bookstore, Boswell Book Company, which can readily special-order it for me. This means a wait of several days as opposed to “whenever” Amazon decides to sell it to me. If it were not for my local bookstore, I would have to get it from the library.

On my income and given my shelf space, I usually do choose to order books from the library. Poetry books, however, are an exception—a luxury which, as I’ve stated before, I need to have, to hold in my hand and mark up as I see fit. And yes, I have often succumbed to the cut-rate prices and quick delivery of my Amazon “prime” membership though, like many others, I’m sure, I have many times felt guilty about not buying from my local bookstore more often.

Tonight, as I await the call from the bookstore signaling that my order is in, I have time to anticipate, to ponder the review in Sunday’s NYT Book Review, “Acquainted with the Dark,” and to wonder what the outcome of the publishing battle will be, and why I feel one way about it as an author and another way about it as a consumer.

Daniel Goldin, owner Boswell Book Company

Worker at Amazon warehouse in Germany–Getty images


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