Last summer, I got into a conversation about books with an acquaintance who, while a reader, is not even remotely connected to the publishing business. “Where do you get your books?” I asked him. He looked surprised. “Amazon,” he said. “Doesn’t everybody?”

Statistics suggest that the online retailer accounts for more than 10% of the book retailing business (slightly higher for certain kinds of books, such as business titles), and the Seattle-based company, like all ambitious businesses, wants to expand. The announcement last week that it would directly sell POD titles only if they’re printed through its own BookSurge subsidiary—making it more expensive to use outside firms such as Ingram’s Lightning Source—is clearly a step in that direction. And while on the surface this news seems like a nonissue for most big publishers who use print-on-demand only sparingly, it could be huge for the “little guy” and for such outfits as iUniverse and Xlibris, who print virtually all of their books that way. Because Amazon is aiming to be a one-stop POD shop, won’t most publishers simply place their POD titles with Amazon? And won’t that mean Lightning and other POD printers will see their businesses slide?

The probable answers—yes, and yes—have many book folk very concerned. Like Barnes & Noble’s rumored interest in buying Borders, it suggests that the book retailing industry will contract even further and that Amazon, like B&N, is simply logging more steps on what literary agent and longtime e-book proponent Richard Curtis calls its “march to monopoly.” At first, I didn’t get it. How many books are we talking about here? How many units? Isn’t this still a tiny percentage of the overall book business?

Maybe, but if you believe, as Curtis does and as I am coming to, that in our lifetime most books (even the “big guys”) will be published on demand, you can see the problem. If Amazon has built a cheaper and better mousetrap, we’re all going to get squeezed in it.

So what are publishers, authors and retailers supposed to do? According to some lawyers contacted by PW, there is probably not an antitrust lawsuit here. (Amazon will still sell and ship books printed elsewhere through its Amazon Advantage Program, but it will be more troublesome and expensive for the publishers.) Still, I’m struck by how similar this upset is to that which permeated the business when Barnes & Noble and then the big-box stores became serious book threats in the late ’90s: at that time, the ABA sued to level the playing field. Last week, the Publishers Marketing Association and others called on Amazon to reconsider, for the sake of their livelihoods.

Crying foul is one understandable approach, but it shouldn’t be the only one. (We’re not Bear Stearns; don’t count on a bailout.) There is much that can be done by publishers and other POD outfits. Such as... non-BookSurge printers might offer their clients incentives (in quality, in service) to stay with them; publishers might explore how resources saved by POD can be most creatively reallocated. As Jeff Bezos did a dozen years ago, let’s not just get mad or scared, let’s look for the opportunities hidden inside the threat.

The greatest ideas, after all, are almost always the simplest ones, and they can grow pretty fast. Just ask Bezos.

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