On his blog recently, Mike Shatzkin discussed the way that various companies in the technology industry, not least of them Amazon, have affected and changed the publishing industry over the years. Shatzkin suggests that Amazon was able to trade on the publishing industry’s historical insularity by using books as a means to an end—a way to attract customers who would subsequently buy other things with a better profit margin. Once it got going at that, companies that sold only books (Borders and Barnes & Noble) had a much harder time competing.
By the latter part of the first decade of this century, a Big Five CEO in the US delivered this observation to me. “I used to be able to get the CEO of my biggest accounts on the phone if there was something to discuss.” That was no longer possible with Amazon. And, in fact, if he could have gotten Jeff Bezos on the phone, there would have been very little to talk about.
Shatzkin builds on this observation to explain that the Digital Book World conference was formed to help publishing-industry professionals understand how technology companies are affecting their industry, and then lists some of the guest speakers for the 2016 DBW event: SEO expert and blogger Rand Fishkin, marketing professor Scott Galloway, professor and music producer Jon Taplin, tech journalist Virginia Heffernan, and antitrust attorney Jonathan Kanter.
Kanter in particular seems of special interest to publishing blogger Passive Guy, who uses Shatzkin’s article to prompt one of his rare longer posts discussing how the publishing industry is being affected by antitrust actions. Passive Guy notes that publishers’ recent behavior suggests they’ve never bothered to learn much about antitrust law, and they could stand to take some lessons (at very expensive rates) from the distinguished law firm of which Jonathan Kanter is a member.
PG is pretty sure that Jeff Bezos knows about antitrust law. He understands that being the largest bookstore is not a violation of antitrust law. Selling books at low prices is not a violation of antitrust law. Even upsetting big publishers is not a violation of antitrust law.
At its root, much of antitrust law is designed to protect consumers. It would be hard to find a better friend to consumers than Amazon.
It seems to me like the publishers need to learn something, anyway, and I know I’ve said so before. The publishers effectively ruled their world up until the 1990s. It doesn’t seem as though they operated any differently back then (what with the time they tried to get away with giving big chain bookstores secret discounts, for example) than they tried to ten or fifteen years later, but given that the Internet hadn’t matured as much by then, fewer people knew about it. So, since they were so used to ruling their world, they got soft and forgot about the times they actually couldn’t control the retail process—and they made the mistake of assuming the world would continue .
But now, not only do the retailers have more control, consumers are more aware of what’s going on, and are not afraid to make their voices heard when publishers try things like forcing e-book prices up. Publishers may not like it, but they’re just going to have to learn to deal with that. And I’m sure they will—they’re too well-established and too big to go under entirely. But they will have to change the way they do things—and I’m sure that once they’ve finally gotten it through their heads, they will. We’ll just have to wait and see how long it takes for that to happen.