We need to talk about Amazon

There is an old Soviet-era joke that the Lubyanka, the KGB headquarters, was the tallest building in Moscow because from the basement you could see all the way to Siberia.

In a similar way, the loudest part of the conversation around Amazon’s plans for publishing in the UK is the deafening silence from it about anything its rivals might be doing.

There’s been plenty of comment the other way.

A recent Bookseller article about Amazon Publishing quoted an anonymous British publisher: “Amazon Publishing is something they have tried without success a number of times for physical books in the US . . . it is only taking the former vanity publishing business model and making it digital. For publishers, our main purpose is to give our editors the freedom and confidence to find, publish and champion books that
readers will love.”

It is hard to know where to begin (don’t get me started on editorial freedom), but what with Andrew Wylie’s remarks last week about the “idiocy” of Amazon Publishing you’d half expect Jeff Bezos to slink away, chidden, vowing never to have the temerity to publish anything again— after all, Amazon’s record of failure is so glaring that it makes total sense to bet on its failure, right?

It is depressing how often we have been here before. Publishers pour scorn and disregard on Amazon. Amazon presses on with its plans regardless (announcing it is massively expanding in the UK this coming year) and a year or two later publishers discover they have lost yet more ground to the Seattle behemoth.

With Robert McCrum’s well-meant piece on the plight of literary authors widely derided as lamenting their inability to afford olives for their Martinis, you have to ask why the literary classes are so good at fastidious disdain and do such a bad job of persuading the rest of the planet that we have arrived in the 21st century.

The mood music, whatever the intention, of these three examples is of an industry with its eyes shut and its fingers in its ears crying out: “Make it stop.”

However valid the criticism or the concerns are, and however heartfelt the contempt, the brutal fact is that Amazon accounts, by my admittedly back of an envelope estimation, for at least 50% of the revenues of the major UK trade publishers and could therefore shut down British publishing tomorrow if they so chose.

They won’t. It would be a PR catastrophe and they simply don’t need to. In good part precisely because publishers and agents do such a great job of underestimating them. As we all do so, the traditional, “rust belt” publishing business just finds itself shuffled unwillingly into a smaller and smaller space.

Of course, that is not, as far as one can tell, the view from the boardrooms of British publishing. Recent statements by Tom Weldon (who was not commenting on Amazon) among others have, very understandably focused on the positives. And with advances down and e-book royalties in publishers’ favour, publishers have impressed with their ability to keep margins up and maintain profitability.

One can have few arguments about that, but while it is almost certain that Tom Weldon knows something I don’t, the sheer size of the disconnect between what publishers think, what authors and agents think, and what Amazon does, is frankly terrifying.

Because either Amazon is at a high- water mark and publishers’ confidence stems from correctly judging that the extraordinary momentum of its last few years is coming to an end—and there simply isn’t the evidence to support that point—or they are in terrible denial.

The one thing we can all be certain of is that while we need to be talking about Amazon, because what it does affects us so much, there is no such need the other way round. And that is a real shame.