Copyright is “under assault” and publishers need to focus on antitrust policy to take on the power of Big Tech, the Association of American Publishers annual meeting has heard.
AAP board chair and Wiley c.e.o. Brian Napack said at the outset, that publishing “is central to democracy", and “what publishers do matters". To do it during this year, Napack declared, “publishers were more agile than people had believed possible, and maybe we even surprised ourselves”.
Statistics quoted by AAP president and c.e.o. Maria Pallante bore him out. December 2020 saw trade revenues up 10% over the previous year, e-books up 16%, effectively “reborn”, while downloaded audio was up 16.5%. Although the educational market was “much tougher", higher education recovered, and overall “resilience shows no sign of slowing". It’s a “proud moment for publishers", Pallante proclaimed, adding: “We saw very clearly that publishing drives political accountability.”
However, copyright is “under assault", and so is an effective enforcement framework, while a transparent, competitive marketplace “remains elusive”. A 16-month investigation into Big Tech’s dominance was conducted in concert with the Authors Guild, ABA, and House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, and a renewed effort to address the subject is now under way in the Senate. But Pallante warned that state-level lobbyists for tech companies and libraries are trying to divert copyright policy-making away from the federal to state governments.
Two other speakers took up the subject of Big Tech. The first was Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, this year’s recipient of AAP’s award for public service. She began by reminding listeners that after the Capitol Hill insurrection on 6th January, she, along with Republican colleague Roy Blount and former vice-president Mike Pence, “walked through broken glass at 3 a.m.” to proclaim Joe Biden elected president.
Klobuchar, chair of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, published her third book, Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age (Knopf), in April. Assaults on competition is a “key issue", and she pointed both to the “increasing dominance” of big tech, and “serious concerns” about publishing consolidation as “not good for most authors, whose earnings have fallen 42% in the last 10 years”.
We can’t fight Google, Facebook and others “with duct tape and band-aids", Klobuchar declared. Only “renewed antitrust policy and political will” can “get it done". She quoted a former Minnesota senator and US vice-president Hubert Humphrey on the alternative: “If you don’t write your own history, others will write it for you.”
However, Bloomberg journalist and Bezos chronicler Brad Stone, whose second instalment on the world’s richest man is the just-published Amazon Unbound (S&S), doubted regulators will be able to “roll back the clock", and deemed it “unlikely” a rival will spring up. Stone identified Amazon’s modus operandi as “building a new business with people and personalised attention", then “giving it over to algorithms”.
It now treats the book business “like a child from a previous marriage", Stone said, and is focused on its new family: Alexa, Prime Video, AWS, healthcare. But since Bezos’s attention “is always wandering", there will be opportunities for publishers and limits to how much Amazon wants to beat them down.” When public sentiment goes against the company or when regulators take a hard look, “Amazon acts".
CNN’s Don Lemon didn’t tackle the Bezos problem, but instead spoke about the “urgency” of the moment in the intersection of racism and history, the topic of his number one bestseller, This Is the Fire (Little, Brown), published in March. Publishers “influence how people think, and that’s never more important than in a post-truth, post-reality world. We need more speech now,” Lemon urged, so that we don’t have certain people “thinking that this country was built in their image. You as publishers can do that – and should do that.”