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Amazon, Hachette, an No Easy Answers

I suspect that most people who enjoy reading and like ebooks (i.e., just about anyone who reads this site) has heard about the fight between Amazon and Hachette. If you have somehow missed it, the LA Times has a run down of the dispute.) Most of the people I’ve seen weigh in on this dispute are weighing in as authors or publishers. The three main viewpoints I’ve seen are represented by:

I’ve read all of those posts, and more, and you know what? They are all right.

I’m only being slightly flippant here. They each make sound points, and that, to me, underscores the actual problem. My opinion on the matter is primarily that of a reader. I have, in fact, published two books (a children’s book and a short book on working more efficiently), both with a small publisher that freely states it would not exist without Amazon. However, I do not primarily think of myself as an author, and while both books did better than I expected in terms of sales, the income they bring me is a tiny sliver of what I make in my primary occupation.

But I am an avid reader, and always have been. What I want as a reader isn’t really being served by either side in this fight. I want a wide selection of things to read, written by diverse people and expressing diverse experiences and viewpoints. I want the people who write the things I read to make money for their effort, otherwise I will soon find only the words of people who are able to afford to write for free. I want all of these things to be available in whatever format I prefer, which these days is primarily the format for my Kindle ereader.

I do not, actually, care that much about owning the books forever, but I want an easy experience in obtaining them, and I like to own them for longer than any currently existing library or lending scheme allows me to keep them. In fact, one reason I prefer electronic books these days is that I cannot store all of the physical books I already own, but do not want to stop acquiring more.

I'd love a browsing experience more like I get in a well-curated independent bookstore than the hunt and peck experience I get online, but I also like being able to browse and search for books whenever my schedule allows.

Neither Hachette nor Amazon is truly striving to give me all of what I want. The big publishers have done an abysmal job of providing diversity, no matter how you want to measure that. I do not know whether they are paying the people who produce the words I like to read a fair percentage, but I do think that they provide additional value in their editing and marketing services. I do not recommend every book I read, and it is true that I find myself not recommending or just outright abandoning books from independent authors more often than from the big publishers- but I have come across plenty of books from well known publishers that I have put aside due to poor writing. They are imperfect gatekeepers, at best.

Amazon, meanwhile, does a great job of providing me books easily, but its algorithms are neither perfect nor tuned with only my interests at heart. Right now, my new Paperwhite is hopefully showing me a selection of books I might want to buy. For some reason, it thinks I want to read romance novels. I do not think I have ever bought a romance novel, and you could hardly pick a genre less likely to sell me a book. My best guess is that one of the short ebooks I bought recently is classed as a romance, and so Amazon’s algorithms- ignoring the prevalence of sci-fi and non-fiction in the rest of my purchase history- think that surely I will buy more. Furthermore, I have noticed that searches seem to be weighted to return novel-length (and therefore more expensive) books before the shorter (and cheaper) lengths I have been heavily favoring since starting Tungsten Hippo. I strongly suspect this weighting is based on profitability, and not anything more noble.

I am also concerned by the power Amazon is amassing. I do not like the idea of a future in which all books must be bought from Amazon. However, I think the publishers are as much to blame for this situation as Amazon is. Why did they not take the lead in innovating in ereading? Why do they not now take the lead in looking for new business models? I am sure that some innovative programs are underway, but from my reading chair, it looks to me like they are clinging desperately to an era that is coming to an end, while bitterly decrying those who are trying to find a way to bring me books to read in this new era.

So really, I see no heros in this fight. I started this website in part because I wanted there to be independent voices recommending things to read. My readership is still small, but I can tell from my affiliate accounts that I actually sell some copies of the books I recommend. I can also tell that those copies have so far exclusively been sold via Amazon- although Barnes and Noble doesn’t pay affiliates for ebook sales, so perhaps some are being sold via BN.com. If so, though, the people buying them are buying nothing else from BN.com. I am concerned by the fact that Amazon is where the overwhelming majority of us get our ebooks- but not concerned enough yet to buy my ebooks elsewhere. I say I want to check out the Kobo ereader, but I asked for a new Kindle for my birthday.

It is, in fact, possible, to buy ebooks elsewhere and convert them to the Amazon format. I have done it for free books I’ve received in the past. Perhaps I should research that some more and write a “how to” post. But I don’t think it will help much. To be honest, I’m not sure what will. Therefore, I’m also tempted to re-read the book I recommended this week, Information Wants to Be Shared, by Joshua Gans, looking for ideas about how this new age of reading might unfold, and how we might ensure that in our rush to overthrow one set of gatekeepers, we don’t install a new, more powerful guard at the gate. I care deeply about the issues, but I've yet to see a solution proffered that really addresses the reasons for the problems rather than just wishing them away.

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