Amazon, Apple, E-Books, and Justice

 

I’m still confused about the DOJ price-fixing case against Apple and 3 biggo book publishers. Ken Auletta’s recent update in the New Yorker helped some, but didn’t get interesting until the end.

Good thing you’ve got a blogger with a twinge of time on her hands to summarize it for you.

Here’s the breakdown (hit it!):

  1. Amazon’s low low prices were great for consumers, who could save a few dollars on their romances and thrillers
  2. But terrible for publishers, who saw a looming apocalypse:
    1. Forced to compete with Amazon on price, they’d never be able to afford taking risks on new authors.
    2. Literature as we know it would possibly END.
  3. But all the DOJ cares about is whether or not Apple colluded with the publishers to keep prices higher than Amazon wanted.
  4. The DOJ has a point.
  5. But most people think of Apple and the publishers as good guys because
    1. Without the agency pricing that was allegedly produced by conspiracy (defendants arguing, duh, it was not collusion but regular ol’ business etc. etc.), the Barnes & Noble Nook would NEVER have been able to compete with Amazon.
    2. Amazon would have dominated the business forever and been a 21st-century Rockefeller, but no one’s seen any university or arts council funding out of Amazon, yet.
    3. And also, what’s really irks the bookish class, is that Amazon’s real competition isn’t Penguin or Macmillan, but Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

And this is where it gets really good.

In the e-books era, books are part of a larger digital entertainment landscape, in which readers become “users” whose interests and reading behaviors are tracked and analyzed to produce more profitable content.

So, though Amazon’s moral defense is that it provides a self-publishing platform that enables a thriving independent books market, and though it quietly supports bookishness activities throughout the land, its business model is really about content and content platforms. Just like Google. Just like Apple. And not at all like Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster, who want to keep doing the book business in a bookish way.

When books are just the veggies, maybe, in the content soup (!???!) of music, movies, TV shows, piano-playing cat and sleeping baby animal videos, then books lose their enobling aura.

And for the bookish, who tend to regard their reading experiences and relationships with books as central to their lives and identities, books-in-the-content-soup is sacrilegious. Like, maybe, offering soup instead of wine for communion for the serious Catholics. (Extended metaphor alert! Are they ever not cheesy anymore?)

Books aren’t content! the bookish cry. Books are humanity! Books are civilization! Books are the very best of who we are!

So, you know, Amazon starts to seem like a force of evil in an already threatened society of book readers, writers, editors, and publishers.

And certainly if Amazon the DOJ wins their suit against Apple and the publishers, Amazon could very realistically rise back to dominance in the e-books market, which would in turn make them the only real player in the book publishing industry, which would then drastically change the book economy.

Or maybe this is the doomsayer in me talking.

Maybe the book industry will adjust—grudgingly and probably too late. And maybe writers will, indeed, turn to self-publishing as a legitimate way to fund literary production. And maybe independent bookstores will thrive in a backlash to Amazon’s dominance.

And maybe, just maybe, book culture is just too scrappy and determined to be squelched by stinky old Jeff Bezos.

This transformation of entertainment and leisure activity to “content,” and of our leisure economy to the “content platform” is fascinating. People will always believe in the old-fashioned idea of transformative arts, books, music, film, or even television that can change us for the better. And red-eyed, messy-haired artists will continue producing that stuff. And an audience, feeling satisfyingly, righteously embattled, will continue buying it.

But in the meantime, alongside the cultural elites who treasure (and pay for) their access to a more challenging, engaging arts world, we’ll get the content soup that will drive production of what really makes $$: the content platform. The hardware, the search software and interface, and the data tracking apparatus that feeds back into it with more user information than we have ever imagined.

This is how I do Hey! Don’t worry so much!

Because this isn’t too different from the way it’s always been: literary fiction will get written, published, and read. Just in a different economy than before. And the big companies will keep finding new ways to make money, like they always have. No big whoop.

Don’t worry about it.

Which segues into a totally tangential excuse to post one of my favorite Talking Heads songs ever. David Byrne can comfort us like no other.

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