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November 3, 2014
By Calvin Reid
Will Amazon lead us to the "Golden Age of Books?"

Offering equal measures of thoughtful and contradictory commentary, the panel discussion, “Will Amazon Lead Us To the Golden Age of Books?,” served as a picture perfect example of the publishing industry’s conflicted (tortured?) response to Amazon and its business tactics.

Organized by the New America Foundation and moderated by editor Nick Thompson, the panel featured bestselling novelist Hugh Howey, also a well-known self-publishing spokesperson, along with a retailer, a media reporter/self-publisher and a publisher. Amazon’s impact on publishing was a controversial subject long before its ongoing dispute with Hachette, yet sometimes even having to acknowledge basic facts about the retailer causes otherwise thoughtful people to throw up their hands in frustration.

While it seems to be an article of faith to some that Amazon is destroying indie bookstores, Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo, said “I don’t know what impact Amazon has had on my store”—this after denouncing the retailer and vowing never to shop there. Her store is celebrating its 10th anniversary with plans to open another site. But after expressing the usual antipathy to Amazon, McNally said that when she opened her store, “B&N had already crippled indie bookstores.” 

At another point despite praising Amazon’s convenience and service, Manoush Zomorodi, host of NPR’s New Tech City show (who has self-published a book via Amazon), said, laughing, that nevertheless she “feels dirty” using the retailer even though she can get books delivered in 24 hours for her young book-loving son—and hides that fact from her husband who has vowed never to buy from Amazon. Asked by Thompson why publishers fear Amazon, which sells more of their books than any other channel, Zomorodi said “people are torn over Amazon.” She said that “publishers are right to fear Amazon. But who cares? This is all great for journalists!”

The contradictions continued. Despite her own clear animosity to Amazon and its tactics, McNally acknowledged something other indie bookstore owners have also concluded: “I don’t compete with Amazon. People buy as many books as they think they need. Because of the nature of the book business, it’s not a zero sum game.”

"Right now is a golden age; publishing has never been better."
Howey, Amazon self-publisher and a seasoned, tireless debater in support of the retailer, did offer consistent, confident responses during an evening full of contradictory ones. However, unlike his copanelists Howey addresses these issues all the time. In response to why publishers hate Amazon, Howey, a former bookseller for B&N (he’s considering opening an indie bookstore in his town), said “publishers have always hated their biggest account. They hated B&N when I worked there.”

He challenged the notion that Amazon is “crushing” indie bookstores, citing an “8% growth” in the number of indie stores in recent years and reminded the audience that “all retailers have been hurt by online retailers but the big book chains seem to be closing fastest.” E-books are hurting publishing? Not so, Howey said citing “75% margins on e-books” and “40% margins” on print. Later he used the same figures to chide traditional publishing for not paying writers better royalties on e-books while indelicately reminding the audience of a recent price-fixing collusion case.

To be sure, the evening’s discussion was lively, animated and entertaining, but the ambivalent responses continued throughout the evening. When McNally suggested that shopping at Amazon was a “moral” dilemma for consumers, even her copanelists got a little uncomfortable. “It’s tricky to use the moral argument,” said Lucas Wittman, Regan Arts executive editor and associate publisher.

Amazon destroys the little guy? “Not stocking books from [Amazon’s POD unit] CreateSpace just buries a lot of small artists that depend on Amazon,” said Howey. Will Amazon self-publishing destroy advances, Thompson asked? The question focused on a recent and fevered topic for the “1% of authors that can get an advance,” Howey said, emphasizing that for most would-be authors the choice is whether to “self-publish or send a query letter to an agent, which has zero chance of getting an advance.”

Even trying to get the panelists to offer a general response to the contemporary state of publishing, i.e., “the Golden Age,” mentioned in the panel title, elicited more handwringing and worry. Though not from Howey: “right now is a golden age; publishing has never been better.”