February 1, 2010
Follow me on Twitter

Amazon Macmillan II

Back in the early 1990’s, Eastgate made a serious run at independent bookstores as a place to buy original hypertexts. To be fair, the heavy lifting in this area was done by Bob Stein and his Voyager Company, which developed the modern eBook; we were hoping that, once Voyager had convinced stores to carry eBooks, we could convince them to carry our original hypertexts.

We had some success, especially at such forward-looking stores as Shaman Drum and Tattered Cover. We closed some chain sales, too.

But in the end, we learned a key reality of bookselling: no publisher can solve a bookstore’s problems (and booksellers always have terrible problems). And no publisher can really cause problems for a bookstore. There are always other books than yours.

Scholastic was able to cause some problems with the later volumes of Harry Potter. But that’s an exceptional case, and even then the problems were annoyances that seldom threatened the store’s existence.

This is the nub of what makes Amazon vs. Macmillan so interesting. Has Amazon become so large that it can make problems for a publisher? Perhaps. If so, we’re into monopoly territory. (This, incidentally, is why I’m so suspicious that the Sunday Forum Statement from Amazon was irregular; mentioning monopolies does Macmillan no harm but threatens Amazon, so it’s strange for Amazon to raise the subject.)

A further fascinating sideline: if Amazon is willing to risk legal sanctions and widespread hostility, then Amazon must think this part of the business is worth a fight. Is the book business really the core of Amazon? Amazon says its the world’s biggest bookstore, but they know their core business is fulfillment, not books. Books were a great place to start — prestigious, non-perishable, rectangular – but they were only practice.

I’ve always thought that the Kindle was, for Amazon, a nice little sideline, a speculation play that had a low but finite probability of a really big payoff in 5-10 years. That’s consistent with Amazon to date, but inconsistent with Macmillan: you don’t go to war over a side bet.