Books After Amazon

Roychoudhuri_35.6_cart Onnesha Roychoudhuri in The Boston Review:

Amazon’s ascendance no doubt is a function of its nontraditional ways. Though neither a publisher nor strictly-speaking a bookseller, it has become the world’s largest retailer of books in any form. And it has done so as a software company that offers great deals on Vienna sausages as well as hardbacks. Bezos’s customers come for the low prices, not to fondle, sniff, or otherwise interact with the product. The most one can do is “browse” some pages electronically. Bezos thinks pleasing the customer is all that matters, and his strategy—nearly endless inventory at rock-bottom prices—is working.

Today an estimated 75 percent of online book purchases in the United States are made through Amazon, and its overall market share in book sales is astonishingly high. Some publishers make more than half of their sales through Amazon. So when Bezos rang the death knell for the physical book, people paid attention. Even before the Kindle, Amazon wielded enormous influence in the industry. Now it is positioned to control the e-book market and thereby the future of the publishing industry.

What happens when an industry concerned with the production of culture is beholden to a company with the sole goal of underselling competitors? Amazon is indisputably the king of books, but the issue remains, as Charlie Winton, CEO of the independent publisher Counterpoint Press puts it, “what kind of king they’re going to be.” A vital publishing industry must be able take chances with new authors and with books that don’t have obvious mass-market appeal. When mega-retailers have all the power in the industry, consumers benefit from low prices, but the effect on the future of literature—on what books can be published successfully—is far more in doubt.

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