Jeremy Greenfield has a good piece in The Atlantic about how the fight between Amazon and Hachette (the publishing conglomerate that owns Little, Brown, which published The Distraction Addiction) could affect the future of ideas. The bottom line: Amazon is now in a position to squeeze publishers so hard it’ll destroy the serious nonfiction market.
As Mike Shatzkin, a colleague of Greenfield’s puts it, in a scenario where "you can’t publish a book without them,” Amazon would naturally push publishers to turn out reliable money-makers, and to ignore long shots. In other words, "we’ll still have lots of romance books and James Patterson will still write his books. But serious nonfiction books won't get published. Those are the books that will go first."
As Greenfield elaborates,
Nonfiction books, like Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, are expensive and risky to produce and rarely sell well, yet many of these books drive intellectual thinking in the U.S. Robert Caro's latest book on Lyndon Johnson The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson took nearly a decade to write—and that means investment and risk.
Think of book publishers like venture capital firms. They invest in individual titles in the form of advances and the sunk costs of editing, packaging and distributing a book. Most of those bets lose money. Some make a lot of money (for every Fifty Shades of Grey there are dozens of money-losing duds). It all evens out to an industry where a strong year is one where a publisher clears a 10 percent profit margin.
As more book sales flowed through Amazon, it would have even more direct control over what people read. The company would have little incentive, for instance, to surface books readers are less likely to buy. If The Hunger Games is all the rage, then the company is best served pushing that title toward its readers at the expense of other books.
The comparison with venture capital is actually a pretty good one, though the perks in book writing aren’t nearly as good; on the other hand, you can’t be forced out by your editor right before your book is published, and replaced by someone who knows a lot about marketing. (Though maybe that’s something publishers should think about.)
In the meantime, until this gets resolved, Amazon is slowing delivery of some Hachette books, has eliminated the discount, and has a “Similar Items at a Lower Price” banner on my book’s page. (What I especially love about this is that those other books are at a lower price because Amazon has set the price.)
Barnes & Noble, in contrast, is selling it with a very nice discount, so that’s now a better option if you’re going to order online.