A lively audience of readers gathered in January at New York City’s Kaufman Center to hear a panel of four authors hash out the contentious proposition that “Amazon is the reader’s friend.”
The Oxford-style debate, hosted by Intelligence Squared (IQ2), featured two writers arguing for the motion and two against it. In the Amazon corner were self-publishing guru Joe Konrath and Matthew Yglesias, Executive Editor of Vox. Pitted against them, former Authors Guild President Scott Turow and Franklin Foer, former Editor of The New Republic, contended that Amazon is not, by a long shot, the reader’s friend.
The IQ2 debates declare a winner by polling the audience at both the beginning and the end of the arguments, and comparing the results. The side that sways more people takes the cake. Before the debate, 41% of the audience voted for the proposition that Amazon is the reader’s friend, 28% voted against it, and 31% were undecided. At evening’s end, there was a clear victor: the Amazon apologists managed to increase their backers by a mere one percentage point, while Turow and Foer earned a 22% spike, overwhelmingly capturing the undecided vote.
Throughout the evening, Yglesias and Konrath largely stuck with the appealing arguments that Amazon’s low prices for readers and higher royalty rates for its self-published authors are benefits without downsides. But Turow and Foer’s effectiveness lay in taking a position that honored the diversity of the literary ecosystem. Left unchecked, they suggested, we may end up with a book world controlled by Amazon. The better option by far is a competitive plurality of publishers and distributors.
Turow agreed that self-publishing works very well for some authors in some publishing sectors. He was clearly encouraged, for instance, that self-publishing gives voice—and a second chance—to authors overlooked by traditional publishers. “I am not against self-publishing,” said Turow, before homing in on Amazon’s deliberate attempt to eliminate publishing houses, “but if we do away with traditional publishers, there will be a great loss to literary culture.”
Another reason Amazon can’t be trusted, Turow noted, is that it hasn’t even stood by the very self-published authors who defend it so vociferously. Turow illustrated this with a point that his opponents couldn’t counter: although many self-published authors rallied to defend Amazon during the Hachette dispute, recently Amazon dramatically cut the earnings of self-published authors enrolled in its Kindle Unlimited program.
Foer also pointed out that a loss of publishers could mean a loss of the nonfiction works requiring “deep reporting,” work which is time-consuming and expensive, and which can only be sustained by an advance from a publisher. It would also mean the loss of the committed editorial investments provided by publishers. “Writers are the people in the world who are least able to see the flaws in their own work,” he said.
“Scott and Franklin did a terrific job of articulating exactly what we’ve stood for throughout our many disagreements with Amazon,” said Authors Guild President Roxana Robinson. “Namely, that a diverse literary marketplace is a healthy literary marketplace. And I’m personally encouraged—though not surprised—that so many readers in the audience agreed.”
Much of the argument focused on Amazon’s place within the publishing industry at large. Yglesias opened by proposing that Amazon’s massive share of the publishing markets—it sells 41% of all books sold in the U.S., and 67% of digital books—is the result of its superior product. Turow countered that such market power is a danger in and of itself. A friend is someone who you can rely on to treat your interests as equal to their own, he said. But Amazon has “habitually turned on its allies when it suited its needs. Anyone who believes Amazon will wield its market power kindly has not read Lord Acton or Machiavelli,” he continued, characterizing Amazon’s history of browbeating as “a mugging sponsored by Wall Street.”
Reflecting on the evening, Turow offered the following summation. “I regard the question of Amazon’s role in American literary culture as truly important, and I was glad Frank and I were able to make many in the audience understand that Amazon is a Trojan Horse, offering low prices today—while Wall Street is willing to float a company that doesn’t make a profit—at the cost of destroying the publishing ecosystem that is indispensable to authors who can’t write several books every year, as many self-published authors do.” Turow further noted, “You never make all the points you want to. But I wish I had made more of the fact that Amazon actually prevents competition by locking its customers in through devices like Prime and DRM, which means Amazon customers can’t read books sold by Apple or Google Play on their Kindles.”
As the event came to an end, the writers’ closing arguments tended to encapsulate their styles. Konrath resorted to off-color humor and bribery: he offered free books for votes, making the salient point that, as a self-published author selling on Amazon, he is able to set the price of his books and even to give them away for free, and doing do, he has sold—and given away—millions of books. Turow spoke of how, like Konrath, he struggled to find a publisher for his first novel, and agreed that Amazon was good for readers and authors in some ways. The problem with Amazon, he explained, is the threat it poses to literary culture at large, and ultimately to the reader. “I don’t judge these things on the basis of what’s good for me,” he said, adding that while Amazon has been very good to him, “I care about what’s good for all writers.” Yglesias maintained that his opponents were painting an unrealistic doomsday scenario, but that for now, Amazon’s low prices and great service make it a friend to readers
Foer had the last word. Alluding to the arrogance of the tech industry’s self-styled “disrupters,” he noted that Americans have made “disruption . . . our secular religion.” This particular brand of optimism might well lead us to a future “that could be wonderful, or it could be a dystopian hell.” Lastly, he encouraged the audience to speak directly to Amazon with their votes. Tell Amazon, he said, “You’re dealing with precious cargo. Don’t abuse your power. Be good stewards of word and thought.”
The audience, apparently, was listening. Let’s hope Amazon was, too.
The debate, expertly moderated by John Donvan, is well worth watching in its entirety. The on-demand version is available here.
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