01.01.70 | Philip Jones
In the week when Waterstones lets what its m.d. James Daunt once called the "ruthless money-making devil" through its open doors, the level of general hostility directed towards Amazon has reached new heights.
The Guardian claimed that the behemoth was hoodwinking UK publishers into overpaying VAT, while many media outlets reported that Amazon.co.uk had wiped a user’s Kindle for an unspecified breach. Meanwhile, self-published writers are flocking to the Kindle Direct Publishing forums to complain about declining sales; theories of both jiggery and pokery abound.
The common denominator here is Amazon’s unwillingness to explain itself publicly. Either it believes that it has no case to answer, or that bad publicity doesn’t matter. As one self-published writer put it to me earlier this week: "We knew we were getting into bed with the beast; now the beast has hardly stirred and many of us are realising how terrifyingly unbalanced the relationship is." It is a view that many traditional publishers will share.
Amazon is not the first company to have a terse and one-way relationship with the (trade) press; similarly, it won’t be the last that responds inadequately to customer complaints.
But Amazon’s standoffishness is more than just a result of a bad PR strategy. It is a philosophy that informs its appproach across the board. The writer Andrew Keen has said that what unites many of the companies coming out of Silicon Valley (or nearby) is a "hostility towards traditional media and entertainment". Amazon founder Jeff Bezos does not give the impression of hating anyone, but he does like to prey on the weaknesses in established operators.
Daunt has recently modified his view of course. "Amazon is—within the limits of what it does—absolutely fantastic," he told the BBC this week. Has Daunt fallen for the beast just as it is about to pounce on him? Possibly. Giving Amazon more leverage over the publishing business cannot be a sensible answer to many questions.
But Daunt’s approach, using Amazon to shore up his physical business, looks instructive, if not quite "doubly great". Publishers and booksellers need to pull off a similar trick, taking what advantages they can from a rapidly changing landscape without falling foul of it. Meanwhile, legislators should be told that this particular beast does come with claws, and informed how they might be clipped (for everyone’s health).