This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

April 21, 2002 — Jeff Bezos declared war on the Authors Guild last week. You remember authors — the people who create the product Bezos sells at his website, Bezos used to profess undying admiration for them back in the old days, which, in case you were wondering, were four or five years ago. He would talk about how we're all in this thing together, authors and booksellers, publishers and readers.

Then, of course, his company continued to not make a profit, and to not make a profit, and to not make a profit, and last week it boiled down to this: a demagogic call for his dying fan club to commit an act of corporate sabotage on a non–profit trade support group that dared question whether one of his money–making schemes was good for business.

At issue is Amazon's sale of used copies of books beside new copies of the same book. Often, these "used copies" are actually reviewer's copies — in other words, as good as new, but considerably cheaper. The Guild feels the practice hurts sales of new books — the ones authors and publishers make money from (Amazon makes money from both) — and for over two years tried to get Bezos to discuss a compromise, such as simply selling used books from another area of the website.

But Bezos not only refused to talk, he began promoting used book sales more and more aggressively. Amazon now regularly sends e–mails to customers reminding them that Amazon purchases can become Amazon re–sales. In a Big Brother–ish touch, they'll even look into your sales records, see what you've bought, and tell you what you might expect to get for those particular titles. One Publishers Weekly editor even wrote in to MobyLives to report that when the Amazon mistakenly sent him three copies of a book he had ordered, it then suggested he re–sell them through the site instead of refunding him for their mistake.

Frustrated, the Authors Guild sent an e–mail to its members suggesting that any with web sites remove links they might have to Amazon and replace them with links to or to, booksellers opposed to side–by–side sales.

This probably didn't amount to much — estimates are that only 10 percent of the Guild's members have websites, let alone sites linked to Amazon.

Nonetheless, Bezos went ballistic, retaliating with an e–mail to Amazon customers — an enormous data base — calling the Guild "a small but vocal group" (even though they are the largest such group in the U.S., with over 8,000 members, including yours truly, by the way) and requesting that they send e–mails to Guild headquarters to straighten out the poor ignorami there who "haven't had input on all sides of the issue."

In less than 24 hours over 4,000 messages had flooded the Guild's e–mailbox, a massive disruption of business still going on two days later as I write this. (Kids: don't try this at home. Civil authorities generally frown upon such vandalism when it's conducted by those who aren't CEOs of mega–corporations.)

The overkill of Bezos' response nearly begs the question: Do sales of used books hurt sales of new books? Neither side has statistical evidence to support their case, and many commentators, including some authors, agreed with Bezos' claim that buying used leaves customers with money to buy more books and this could only be good. Judging by the silence of publishers, it seems they, too, agree with Bezos.

But to take the consideration too far into abstraction is to miss the obvious — if you've got two copies of a book listed side–by–side and they are virtually identical except one is way cheaper, which one is going to sell?

Similarly, the silence of the publishers masks reality, too, and a reality that might be more important to consider right now than the used–versus–new fight. The situation publishers find themselves in with Amazon is strikingly similar to the one they're in with the other 800–pound gorilla of American bookselling, Leonard Riggio, who has publicly and derisively blamed them for rising prices, while he simultaneously demands exorbitant discounts and drives return rates to record highs.

Bezos and Riggio know they have publishers over a barrel — they can't publicly point out, as they do off the record, that the heads of the two most important retailers of their wares are flagrantly extortionate and disingenuous. In a business based on freedom of expression, it's a particularly ominous form of intimidation.

And a craven one, as Bezos shows most transparently: how is it that people — including journalists covering the story — so regularly overlook how profoundly in debt his company is? He is a man driven through desperation into living only for the financial moment, no matter what it may mean to the long–term health of the book business.

Used books sales are on the rise, and so he will sell them come hell or high water. His principals, clearly, he sold a long time ago.

Last Week’s Column: WHY ARE BOOK PRICES SO HIGH? Barnes & Noble head Len Riggio says that publishers are setting cover prices so high they're "abominations." But who's really driving up the price of books?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.