Is Amazon the new Marmite?

by The Book Consultancy on May 8, 2013

Last month I visited the London Book Fair with a delightful client and colleague, Shirley Dixon, of Quilty Publishing Ltd – you’ll be hearing more of Shirley’s fantastic new list later in the year.

It was, as always, delightful, exhausting, stimulating and depressing in almost equal measure, and fascinating in the insights it provided into the current state of the book trade.

Marmite

In case you didn’t have a chance to catch it, I’d like to touch on the Book Fair’s Great Debate for 2013: “Amazon: Friend or Foe?” As you can imagine, views were polarised, and arguments heated. Jennifer 8. Lee spoke persuasively for the benefits that Amazon has brought: “They are the ones who created a critical mass for digital reading,” she rightly declared, going on to say that it was Amazon who had opened up distribution for self-published writers, opening the floodgates to a surge of creativity.

More chilling, though, was the view put forward by Robert Levine, author of Free RideHe convincingly (to me) argued that the interests of Amazon and the interests of booksellers and book publishers are profoundly at odds. Scarily, he related that “Amazon has said that the only things we need are a reader and a writer. So if you’re not a reader or a writer, Amazon feels you have no place in the publishing business.” Levine went on, “That’s not evil. But I think you should be aware and act accordingly.”

It is perhaps not surprising that the vote went 2 to 1 against Amazon’s being a positive influence, given the venue. Of course, there is always change, and change is always uncomfortable, but it is, I think, worth pausing to consider if we really want a world without bookshops where we can explore and probe and muse before we buy, or a world without agents and publishers who have, whatever their (very real) failings, generally had the best interests of the author at heart. Do writers, their heads full of ideas, and their desktops awash with words, really want to become  business-minded marketers as well?

I suppose the question fundamentally is: are books just another commodity, like baked beans or vacuum cleaners? If they are, then Amazon’s the way to go. But if they’re not, then we need to think long and hard about the model that will best safeguard their welfare. Myself, I like bookshops, with chairs to curl up in, and knowledgeable staff whose opinions you can rely on…

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