In planning the third annual London Book Fair's Great Debate, co-organizer, Susan Danziger, organizer of The Publishing Point and founder of Ziggeo, said it occurred to her there was one topic in particular that people are thinking and talking about in private, but rarely in public: the role and influence of Amazon on the publishing industry. Is Amazon a friend or foe? That was the question at the heart of this year's debate, which put forth the following resolution: Amazon is a positive influence on the publishing industry.
Once again moderated by Copyright Clearance Center's Michael Healy, the debate featured Jennifer 8. Lee, publisher of DailyLit/Plympton and Eoin Purcell, editor of New Island Books and Irish Publishing arguing for the resolution, and Tim Godfray, Chief Executive of the UK Booksellers Association and Robert Levine, author of Free Ride, arguing against. Not surprisingly, audience members who voted in the pre-debate poll needed some convincing: 61 voted that for the resolution that Amazon was a positive influence, while 85 voted against.
Purcell began his defense of Amazon by taking on the negative perceptions of Amazon, calling it the "most unfairly maligned company" operating in the book trade at the moment. "Amazon is simply taking advantage of the natural properties of the Internet and digital change," he argued, such as lower costs of distribution, and the lesser needs for a physical location. But while it is a "prime mover" the opportunity it has seized was created not by Amazon, but by the Internet. "So to fear Amazon is to fear the Internet and to fear change."
Lee later noted the positives Amazon's innovation has brought to industry. "They are the ones who created a critical mass for digital reading," she said. "They made digital reading mainstream in a way that other Sony and other players before that did not." The company also opened distribution for writers via self-publishing, which has also unleashed a new stream of creativity. And while a lot of self-published material is cringe-worthy, Lee conceded, over time there will be a "a flight to quality," she believes.
Purcell also took on Amazon's main fear-inspiring trait: its size, and its power in the nascent e-book business. But, he said, fearing Amazon is pointless. What publishers need to do, is learn from them, and come up with their own, better idea. "Amazon simply acted in a space that was waiting to be acted in." Purcell noted. "And they've been rewarded."
In arguing against Amazon, Godfray agreed there was a lesson to be had about competition. But, he stressed, only to a point. "My contention is that Amazon has got so big, they are not competing, but destroying the competition. Do we really want an environment is which there are virtually no bookstores and far fewer publishers and agents? Because that is really where we''re heading."
Godfray backed up his assertion with numbers. In the U.K., he noted, 95 % of e-book purchases were from Amazon, and of the 1.3 million e-readers purchased before last Christmas 92% were Kindles. And, Amazon's sales, he said, are bigger than the big six American publishers combined. Meanwhile, the company has also taken advantage of its corporate structure, basing its U.K. business out of Luxembourg, which enables it to keep both its consumer taxes low, as well as its corporate taxes, giving them a major advantage over their indie counterparts. The result: "Amazon is able to use their market strength to offer low e-book prices to consumers," Godfray said, "and then lock those customers in with their own own proprietary systems."
Levine built on Godfray's argument, noting that Amazon was bent on creating an entirely new future for publishing. "The issue is, and it's the same issue with Apple, Google and all these other companies," he said. "Amazon's interests do not align with yours. If you're a writer, you usually want to sell books for money, to you know, like live on. With Amazon, like Apple, it's a very different negotiation: you want to sell books for money, Amazon wants to propagate a platform."
Levine also stressed the importance of being able to control one's pricing, calling Amazon a "hyper-efficient machine for dragging down prices." And while that is in some ways a good thing, it is not sustainable for the industry. "This will mean the end of the traditional publishing as we know it," Levine said. "Amazon has even said the only things we need are a reader, and a writer. So if you're not a reader and not a writer and you're here in this room today, Amazon feels you have no place in the publishing business. That's not evil. But I think you should be aware and act accordingly."
The debate was followed by a brief Q&A and a rebuttal, and then, it was on the final vote. Is Amazon a positive influence on the publishing business? In the final tally, 59 said yes; 117 said no.