If Amazon’s business practices continue unchecked the result could be a “nuclear winter” for book publishing, said founder and CEO of Smashwords Mark Coker during a January 27 event called Amazon’s Book Monopoly—A Threat to Freedom of Expression?
Coker participated via Skype in a panel called "Amazon and the Author” at the afternoon-long event sponsored by the Authors Guild, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, and Authors United, and held at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC.
Last year the event sponsors asked the Department of Justice to examine Amazon for antitrust violations. After a meeting with the DoJ that Authors Guild executive director Mary Rasenberger said “went very well,” the organizations planned this event to delve into antitrust concerns, as well as ways in which Amazon's “book monopoly” affects ideas and their dissemination in a democratic society. As the invitation to the event from Authors United founder DougPreston said: “Never in the history of our country has a single corporation dominated a vital marketplace of information—until today.”
In opening remarks, New America Foundation senior fellow and author Barry Lynn said these fears about Amazon are not easy to make public. Both he and Preston, who followed Lynn to talk about “Amazon and the Authors,” said some authors and editors refused to take part in the event because they worried about professional recriminations.
After Preston detailed some of “Amazon’s dirty tactics,” which include its 2014 dispute with Hachette over e-book pricing, lawyer, author, and past Authors Guild president Scott Turow sat in conversation with author and journalist Christopher Leonard. Turow joked that “Amazon has been very good for me,” but he’s involved in this fight because he believes in “an independent authorial class.”
The first panel, moderated by Harper’s magazine president and publisher John R. MacArthur, featured author and editor Frank Foer, Smashwords' Coker, author Susan Cheever, and William Morris Endeavor literary agent Eric Simonoff. Cheever said she's concerned that "business practices [by Amazon] have been harmful to the future of books.” Foer claimed that Amazon is "destroying the culture of book publishing."
Later in the day, those with legal backgrounds spoke about whether a case could actually be made that Amazon is indeed a monopoly. Maurice Stucke, professor of antitrust law at the University of Tennessee and cofounder of the Data Competition Institute, said that because Amazon can manipulate "the flow of books across its platform,” there is an argument to be made for antitrust legislation against the company. Fellow speaker Jonathan Kanter, antitrust partner at the law firm Cadwalader, agreed, noting that Amazon has little competition.
Stucke said that even though there may be a legal case to be made for antitrust action, the question remains about who will make it. “Once the deterrent value [of antitrust legislation] falls off...it becomes a matter of political will. Why aren’t [government agencies] enforcing these laws?”