Critical Look: the Reaction to the DOJ Antitrust Suit

Just a few months ago, it seems, progressive small publishers were gnashing their teeth at the Big Six monopoly and the near-impossibility of lesser-known authors getting space on shelves increasingly taken over by big blockbusters. Does anyone else remember those days?

It seems not.

Today the grousing is about something entirely different–there is nearly unanimous agreement among the publishing industry (big and small) and professional authors’ organizations that the DOJ antitrust action is being unfair and that Big Government’s misguided suit against the industry giants will mean doom for the book.

This armegeddon of the literary world is supposedly going to come about because Amazon can now sell best seller ebooks for 9.99, instead of the 14.99 or so that the big publishers want to charge. The book industry, of course, will still receive their wholesale price for their books — Amazon will take the loss on their margins. So what’s the issue here, you ask?

The issue, which isn’t always clear amidst all the noise, is that publishers fear that selling ebooks for substantially less money than dead tree books will destroy their profits by nudging readers to purchase ebooks, instead. The profit margins of the Big Six are generated by the dead tree versions.

Now, there are a few problems with this argument. The first is the assumption that switching to an ereader is primarily an economic decision. This is not necessarily so.

I will disclose at this point that I am a Kindle owner, and almost all of my book purchases over the past year have been electronic books. On the other hand, most of my friends–including my wife, who also owns a Kindle–prefer books made of paper which they can hold and smell and stuff into overcrowded bookshelves. Not so, me.

In the first place, my shelves are full, and I have books sitting around in boxes, which may or may not ever find a vacancy on a shelf. I don’t want to carry all of these books around next time I move. I have vowed to lighten my load as I grow older.

Then, all of those books are made from dead trees, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, and they are processed in environmentally dirty pulp and paper mills. Most use toxic processes. They are then printed with toxic inks, because, of course, everything has to be “archive” quality. Yeah, I know your objection: Kindles or Nooks or whatever are also created with less-than-pristine processes. But one little Kindle vs. a library of hundreds of books? I think the Kindle wins out.

Of course, I would be remiss in ignoring the issue of Amazon, itself, consolidating near monopoly power over ebooks.

So, what are small publishers to do? I can think of a few things.

  • Start producing more ebooks, if that’s what the readers want. Learn how to market them.
  • Find a way around Amazon and other big internet retailers by developing book selling cooperatives for both our ebooks and our print books.
  • Start experimenting with other new models of business.

I hope that dead tree books will be around for some time yet, and I occasionally still purchase one, but they are the past. You see, the world is changing. Technology is changing. And I know it’s hard to make our lives and our business models change along with it, but change we must.

I believe that we can have a more democratic economy, one where the little press and independent author can win out over both the Big Six and the Apples, Amazons, and Googles. And pardon me if I have no sympathy for any of these monsters battling it out in courts.