Amazon the Monopoly: Getting Smart About Books

Who amongst you has not anteed up for a book from Amazon? Admit it, even those of you who dream of publishing your own book have spent money at Amazon buying e-books or printed books for less than any competitor could afford to sell them.

This ability to undercut all competitors and monopolize the market is just what authors, publishers, lawyers and regulators gathered to discuss at the end of January in Washington, D.C., and their words are important to carry forward this year.

Amazon’s Book Monopoly: A Threat to Freedom of Expression? presented at New America, a non-partisan think tank, explored the impact of Amazon’s monopoly on publishing and ideas in America.

douglas preston
Author Douglas Preston and founder of Authors United.

Two years ago, Authors United led by author Douglas Preston wrote a letter to the Justice Department asking the government to investigate Amazon’s monopoly practices. Last fall, members of the group, along with representatives of the Authors Guild, met with antitrust officials at the Justice Department to present their case.
The facts are sobering. At the January forum, Preston quoted the following statistics: Amazon controls 75 percent of online sales of books and 65 percent of e-books sales.

The numbers are more staggering with self-published authors. Eighty-five percent of e-books sold by self-published authors are controlled by Amazon.

These authors, hungry to see publication, eagerly sign Amazon contracts which bar them from using their material elsewhere.

Non-compete clauses written into those contracts reduce authors’ freedom to make a living by reusing their writing.
This control stifles the free flow of ideas, and along with Amazon’s lopsided control of book sales in America, forms the basis of Preston’s and Authors United’s cry of “monopoly!”

Why should you care about this? Sure it’s nice to have lower book prices. We all hunt for a bargain, but in the marketplace of ideas, a bargain can come with unseen costs.

As the number of outlets for ideas contracts, fewer ideas get to the marketplace. Fewer ideas circulate. The direct consequence is that our democracy shrinks.

And to all of you who dream of writing, publishing, and joining the American tradition of a vigorous marketplace of ideas, know this: Not only will there be fewer places to distribute your ideas, but it will be impossible to make a living as Amazon’s policies send a chill wind through the industry affecting advances and book sales at every level.

Amazon’s actions are clearly those of a monopoly, but will the government bring a suit to protect us from this encroachment?

Jeff Bezos, CEO of AMAZON (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/GettyImages)

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, also owns the Washington Post and bringing a suit against the owner of the paper of record in our nation’s capital could be political suicide. And don’t be so naive as to believe it won’t be on the minds of those who consider this request to take on Amazon and its antitrust violations. Amazon has been the darling of Wall Street for a very long time, and may seem untouchable in Washington circles.

So, will the Justice Department step up? The argument put forth at the New America forum in January was that it will take the will of the people behind the questioning few to urge the government to attempt such a high profile assault.

What will be key to regulators is if we–not only the writers and publishers of books, but everyday Americans–place saving a few bucks above our shared value of a free and robust society, where the unfettered exchange of ideas forms the heart of our nation.

As Bernie Sanders says: We need a revolution. “Millions of people standing up and saying enough is enough.”

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