Three years have passed since the American Booksellers Association last gathered for Winter Institute. Introducing the breakfast session on February 21, ABA CEO Allison Hill reminded the audience of that long delay: “As my grandmother used to say, you are a sight for sore eyes,” she told the hundreds in the room.
“This is the largest, most complex ABA Winter Institute we have ever hosted,” Hill said, and she could think of no better place than Seattle—Amazon’s hometown—for an opening keynote conversation titled “Chokepoints, Antitrust, Amazon, and You: How Corporate Monopolies Are Squeezing Bookstores, and How You Can Fight Back.” (Not to put too fine a point on it, the ABA tucked a copy of the November 2022 white paper "Unfulfilled: Amazon and the American Retail Landscape" into every attendee's swag bag. "Unfulfilled" is the latest in a long-term collaborative research project undertaken by the ABA and the economic analysis consultancy Civic Economics.)
Hill introduced Stacy Mitchell, who serves as co-executive director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and is the author of a study on “Antitrust and the Decline of America’s Independent Businesses.” Mitchell believes we are seeing meaningful change toward antitrust reform and that “anti-monopolists have reframed the debate,” including by agitating for the Federal Trade Commission enforcement of the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, aka the Anti-Price-Discrimination Act. The Robinson-Patman Act was central to a price-fixing lawsuit filed against Amazon and Big Five companies by indie booksellers in 2021.
Mitchell in turn invited Cory Doctorow to the stage to talk about his recent book, written with co-author Rebecca Giblin, Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back. Doctorow, in his characteristic rapid-fire critique, summarized the ways Amazon “locks in customers” with prepaid Prime subscriptions and digital rights management on Kindle; locks in sellers by “taking away their surplus” and “making them bid against each other”; and locks in authors on e-book and Audible sales (clawing back royalties each time an unhappy customer returns an audiobook).
Missing from the panel was Raven Bookstore owner Danny Caine, author of the zine-turned-paperback How to Resist Amazon and Why. Sidelined at home with Covid, Caine wrote a prepared statement saying he was “heartbroken” to miss the conversation, which nevertheless invoked his arguments about the uneven playing field and the importance of small businesses to thriving communities.
Mitchell outlined the progress of antitrust activities in the U.S. and the Biden Administration’s increasing scrutiny of big tech firms, especially Amazon. “It has been reported recently by The Wall Street Journal that the Federal Trade Commission is preparing an antitrust suit against Amazon,” Mitchell said.
Doctorow offered a clear outline about how the University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman laid the groundwork for the monopolistic capitalism we see today through works that convinced people that they are “consumers rather than citizens.” He argued that creativity was ultimately a collective endeavor, one that demands each contributor in the process that produces something, be it a book or a piece of music, must be supported and rewarded for creativity to be sustained.
Doctorow explained how Amazon enticed authors in particular to hew to its model of exploitative capitalism, one that promised to treat each one like an entrepreneur, only to exploit them for their labor. This is especially true of self-published authors working in e-books and audio distributed for Kindle or on Audible, Doctorow charged.
In just one example, Doctorow explained how Amazon’s generous no-questions-asked return policy for consumers ultimately penalized creators by holding back twice as much revenue as anticipated for returns. In addition, this practice was kept secret from creators, who only discovered the practice after a glitch in Amazon’s system sent out a clear accounting of sales to Amazon’s KDP and ACX clients. Among them was retired CPA-turned-financial-thriller-writer Colleen Cross, who did the math to compare the number of sold copies to the number of returns and the cost.
Doctorow went on to discuss financial discrepancies that are often the result of contracts and ill-defined relationships with platforms, ranging from KDP to Spotify. Lawsuits from creators for their missing royalties that have resulted in settlements, often demanding non-disclosure agreements.
Both Mitchell and Doctorow agreed that the problem was bigger than individual actions can resolve. “While canceling your Amazon Prime account and shopping less on Amazon is good,” said Mitchell, "it's not really a path to change." Ultimately, virtuous shopping choices fail to address the exploitative structures and what Doctorow calls the chokepoints in the capitalist system. Only legislative action on behalf of citizens, instead of corporations, will work, Mitchell suggested.