Defending Amazon, but Only Half-Heartedly

You know you are wading into choppy waters when your defense of Amazon compares Amazon to Pol Pot. And when you admit that the headline “In Defense of Amazon” started out as a joke.

Despite these things, Ruth Franklin gives Amazon apologia her best shot! In The New Republic, she responds to OR publisher Colin Robinson’s  critique in The Nation. She’s sympathetic to the familiar complaints against the retailer: that its business practices are bullying, that it stifles serendipitous browsing, that it’s killing beloved independent stores. The problem is that it’s hard to totally condemn a force that has made getting books easier:

The real trouble with Amazon, it seems, is that nobody truly believes we were better off without it. This is where the often-made comparison of Amazon with other monoliths such as Wal-Mart falters. . . . Before it appeared on the scene, if you lived in a part of the country that happened not to be served by a great independent bookstore, you were out of luck when it came to getting books other than bestsellers.

Also, publishing has problems aplenty on its own—problems for which Amazon may not be to blame:

If the publishing industry is suffering from the price-lowering trend that Amazon has led (though not entirely on its own), it also has its own poor business practices to blame. Robinson quotes a boss at Scribner, where he used to work, saying a few years ago that in terms of advances, “$50,000 is the new $100,000.” This isn’t a scandal; it is a necessary correction to inflated prices in the wake of a global recession. I understand that the metrics can be somewhat complicated, but a system in which 70 percent of books do not earn back their advances is destined to collapse.

The only things that are clear? Books are good; making books available, also good; enhancing Amazon’s power, why bother?

“It does seem unnecessary to deliberately increase Amazon’s monopoly, as the Wylie Agency did last week,” Franklin notes.

Defending Amazon, but Only Half-Heartedly