Amazon is becoming a monster and must be stopped. So says editor Franklin Foer at The New Republic:

In confronting what to do about Amazon, first we have to realize our own complicity. We’ve all been seduced by the deep discounts, the monthly automatic diaper delivery, the free Prime movies, the gift wrapping, the free two-day shipping, the ability to buy shoes or books or pinto beans or a toilet all from the same place. But it has gone beyond seduction, really. We expect these kinds of conveniences now, as if they were birthrights. They’ve become baked into our ideas about how consumers should be treated.

Perhaps the debate over Amazon won’t take as many fits and starts. There are already a few ideas percolating—one would strip Amazon of the power to set prices; another would deprive it of the ability to use its site to punish recalcitrant suppliers. Those ideas feel like tentative jabs at the problem, rather than coherent solutions to it. Still, if we don’t engage the new reality of monopoly with the spirit of argumentation and experimentation that carried Brandeis, we’ll drift toward an unsustainable future, where one company holds intolerable economic and cultural sway. Unfortunately, a robust regulatory state is one item that can’t be delivered overnight.

Personally, I would be more afraid of the government that set about such a project. Amazon is not forcing anyone to prefer convenience any more than WalMart forced people to prefer lower prices.

Mr. Foer is concerned, among other things, to protect the current book publishing market. Quite honestly, I think that horse is long out of the barn. Over the hills and far away.

Once, years ago, I wrote for a booksellers’ magazine. It was wonderful and very rewarding. But no matter, the mom-and-pop booksellers, however they packaged their wares, were quailing and failing before Big Box retailers, as they called them.

It wasn’t hard to see why. Online retailing and door-to-door delivery beat in-person browsing and shopping. Especially for parents, students, mid-career folk, and mobility-limited seniors. In short, a huge portion of the demographic that was ever likely to read a book simply couldn’t get to a bookstore and still meet their other obligations.

Put another way: Every literate person wanted to settle into a leather chair with a café latte in the corner of a quiet little bookstore, to read a possible new acquisition in literate surroundings, including signed etchings of famous authors on the walls. Me too.

But most people (in my part of the world) must shovel the drive, walk the dog, attend Meet the Teacher, visit granny at the Seniors’, take the car in for the safety recall, shovel that drive again…

Then the Kindle (and similar services) came along. If you really need to read a book for work or school, you can get it within minutes while sitting at your desk. Whew! If anyone asks, yes, I have the book; now just need to make time to actually read it.

Mom-and-pop bookstores didn’t necessarily help their own cause much either. I remember my editor, decades ago, telling me despairingly: One third of them don’t even have faxes.

Younger readers may not remember the thermal paper fax of the late Eighties. It prefigured the basic idea behind the Internet: Documents could arrive at one’s home with no delivery service other than the telephone system.

I addressed this general topic earlier in: When was the last time you sat down and read a whole book in sequence? Honestly? I had discovered a decade ago, as part of an author book tour team, that people were buying our books for their nephews or their pastors or whoever else they thought “ought to” read them. They themselves were “too busy” to read books.

Exactly But they certainly weren’t “too busy” to be on the Internet. So what was really going on? It is against this background that we need to evaluate the threats/opportunities that Amazon creates, and not out of a need to protect sunset industries.

This is my view, though it may not be popular with some readers: Amazon is an interim phase. Book sales in the U.S. were estimated by one publisher to amount to about 7% of the company’s $75 billion revenue stream. I make my living writing, but the most recent thing I bought from that firm  was a cat gym.

More and more physical books, often beautiful ones, pile up in local thrift stores, sold for a dollar or two. Here’s the good word from one near me:

Get 50% OFF ALL Books!

Plus, you can still take advantage of our buy-4-books-get-1-free deal!

Wed, October 15th – Thurs, October 16th

But no, the book won’t die.

Any more than magazines died because of radio or radio died because of TV. Or TV because of the Internet.

But in each case the market shrinks to something only that particular medium can do, either uniquely or best. Magazines are placed on waiting room tables or in seat pockets for the convenience of patients, clients, or passengers. We listen to radio while driving or hiking. TV (in the passive sense of the TV guide) increasingly appeals to an older demographic, accustomed to organizing the day around popular sportscasts, cooking shows, and exercise programs.

I suspect print books will become what manuscripts became after the development of printing: They were later principally commissioned as works of art or specialty items. Meanwhile, the printing press met the growing need for information, for example, the Bible, among the newly literate.

It is a basic principle of information theory that information is immaterial, thus can be transmitted by a variety of media: voice, print, radio waves, bytes…  So the world of ideas as such survives changes in media. 

Unless, that is, large public or private concerns try to get hold of the traffic in ideas to serve their own purposes. It is that we must fight, not the demise of the book as a physical artifact. About that, I wholeheartedly agree with Franklin Foer.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...