Juergen Boos, Director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, took the opportunity in his opening address for this year’s edition of the book trade’s biggest jamboree to warn against the dangers of oligopolies in publishing, and of technical standards becoming means towards market domination. In a series of more or less coded or directly explicit warnings about the market influence of Amazon, he stated that: “Technical standards – from payment systems to search algorithms – influence the way in which we read, and the things we know. In a very general way, they control our access to intellectual goods.”
And lest anyone be left in any doubt about exactly who and what he meant by this, Boos added: “Apple, Amazon and suchlike … are machines for customer retention which are in control, not only of the e-commerce, but also of the end devices. As such, they have the customers in their power.”
However, Boos pointed to innovation within the publishing industry as the answer to this oligopolistic behavior, ticking off a series of startups and initiatives, as well as self-publishing successes, to show the entrepreneurial spirit abroad: “The USA and the UK already proclaimed 2012 to be the ‘Year of the Start-up’ – Now that spirit has also taken hold in the rest of Europe, including the German-speaking countries.”
As a thesis, it’s not bad, especially not when Boos proclaims that: “Technical standards are tools. They must be designed to serve people and their needs, not the other way around.” But it’s worth remembering that what he largely means, and specifically references in the opening press release, is that the traditional publishing industry should get involved in setting those standards, rather than leaving them to the likes of Amazon. Alas, it was the reluctance of old-line publishers to engage in doing just that, or with the potential of digital publishing at all, that handed over so much of the value chain to the ebook distributors. (In other words, it’s a little late in the day for the corrupt old jades to get religion, but that often happens when they feel the cold breath of mortality.)
I agree that the whole debate about Amazon creating an oligopoly is one hugely worth having. Kindle is one of the best examples going of customer lock-in and consumer data mining. It’s just that you know that Boos is engaged in special pleading on behalf of his old book trade constituency when he makes these points. And the big numbers being talked about at Frankfurt suggest that his constituents are managing to navigate an oligopolistic world just fine.