Amazon’s Latest Indignity: Free Lending

Last week I was in New York City for 3 days conferring with editors. 25 of them to be exact. I’m exhausted. I’ll write about this more in  the next few days.

I frequently talk about how difficult it is to gauge editors’ reactions to submissions. It is all very subjective and editors have a pretty broad diversity of sensibilities. But there appears to be one subject that elicits strong feelings across the spectrum. That is a loathing for Amazon.com. This is a little puzzling since Amazon has surpassed Barnes and Noble as the largest purveyor of books in America. Usually publishers, who are no different from any other business, are pretty circumspect about criticizing their largest account. Not so with Amazon.com.

The newest Amazon indignity that is causing a huge uproar with authors, agents, and publishers is the  free book lending policy that is offered as part of Amazon’s new “Prime” program. The  cost of joining Amazon Prime is $79.95 per year. It’s  a pretty good deal.  You can get free shipping from Amazon on all orders and receive thousands of streaming videos at no extra cost. But the  part of the package that is upsetting authors is the lending program that allows Prime members to borrow a book for free once a month.

There seems to be some question as to whether  publishers can and will  license their books to be read for free by Amazon,  and authors are incensed that they have  not, possibly will not be consulted in the event that the program takes off . First of all, the good news is that there are only 5000 books being offered and a lot of them will be of no interest to most readers. Amazon approached the 6 largest publishers: Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette, Penguin, and Simon and Schuster. All of them turned Amazon down. The next tier of mid-size publishers: Norton, Houghton Mifflin, and Bloomsbury apparently refused as well. But Amazon went ahead without their permission  putting some few  of  their books on the list. Amazon claims that if they pay the publisher the cost of an e-book every time one is checked out (thus treating it like a sale), the publisher has no say in the matter. Publishers argue that they never intended that their books be used in this manner, essentially as premiums to induce customers to buy hardware or services.

Probably the heart of the problem is concern by authors and publishers that the new culture of “free” or, at any rate, “almost free” will further degrade the public’s sense of the inherent value of books and writing. Amazon has been cultivating this sensibility for a long time. The most extreme examples are the used books that are being offered for 1 cent all over the Amazon site. But Amazon has been attempting in other ways to dictate what the inherent value of e-books should be. They have been willing to sell e-books below cost. That is no problem for Amazon. Once  customers gets on the site, they are more likely to buy other merchandise. For instance: cameras, computers, or condoms.

The Authors Guild,  which is the largest organization representing authors, is practically apoplectic over this. They are particularly concerned that authors have no say in this matter, that there is no equitable formula for compensating authors if a publisher sells a license to Amazon for this use,  and that the existing book contracts could only permit this use under a tortured interpretation.

I’m sure we will be hearing more about this soon. So stay tuned.

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4 Responses to “Amazon’s Latest Indignity: Free Lending”

  1. Alex B. Says:

    It’s a great thing when culture is made accessible, because it expands its reach and ability to inspire more culture.

    It’s not so great when culture is forced to be free, because it limits the ability to create and participate to the wealthy and the willfully impoverished. And that leaves out far too many voices.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Alex, I agree with you on this. The idea that information wants to be free seems to devalue intellectual work. I wrote about this in an earlier blog. The “visionaries” who are proposing this concept usually get paid quite well for their work.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    The publishers should work out a deal with Amazon. More books read with a greater audience is a positive.

  3. Antonio Malcolm Says:

    So, waitaminute… Amazon is paying the full price of the eBook each time that it is lent? So, the publisher is still making the money they would with a regular sale? And the problem is? Or am I missing something here? I’m rather suspicious of where an agent’s or editor’s problem with Amazon really comes from. At the risk of sounding pretentions, I’m more likely to believe it stems from the ease with which just about anyone can publish, sell, and distribute a book through Amazon’s services, especially electronically, which completely circumvent an agent’s or editor’s place as part of the publishing process, or, upon further thought, a traditional publishing company, in its entirety. I just have a feeling agents and editors, in particular, are acting more on the angst of an industry in the throws of changes which affect their place within that industry, rather than on anything altruistic. As an author, Amazon pays some of the best returns amongst similar services available to independent authors. Another bright side to add is that, along with the crap which may be put out as a result of this open availablity, there is probably a lot of good stuff, as well, published by authors who might not otherwise be published.

    As far as the commentary about selling used books at a penny a piece, that’s not entirely Amazon, and I’m not so certain it’s not a fallacy to accuse them of adding to a “free or nearly free culture”, at least if your accusation is based on that. There are a lot of independent sellers on Amazon, and that is where you are most likely to find such discounted merchandise, especially used (which is to say it’s not limited to books). Do we also blame the sellers on Amazon? Many, I’m sure, are folks selling books they’ve read so they can buy new books. Maybe some are folks who like to read, but maybe not to collect. I see this on eBay, too. If it is indeed a business which sells through Amazon, I’m not sure I can fault them, either, for selling a used book at any price they see fit to sell at and keep their business going. And if it weren’t through Amazon, it would be through some other outlet, maybe even their own website (or, again, eBay). That all seems moot, however, when I consider that publishing companies and authors don’t see returns on a resold book; the price point makes little difference, to begin with. Unless you want to write laws which mandate royalties be paid on resold intellectual properties, which would bring us to a different debate altogether.

    Even if I didn’t see glaring problems in your supporting arguments, one thing stands out as obvious to me: Amazon didn’t create or feed any culture. Quite the opposite. They are the result and climax of that culture, which began with the same industrialization, mass production, and availabilty of an era which also made publishing companies successful during their time. The difference is that by now, technology has made these things so ubiquious that what was once available only to corporations is now available to the average joe. Publishers and distributors of intellectual property no longer have the control over the creation, approval, and distribution of content they once had as a natural result of the limited technology and cost of their time. And they’re all having a hard time with losing that control.

    All-in-all, I don’t think what has happend has resulted in a culture in which books, or any other form of IP, have lessened in value. Rather, I think it has resulted in a culture in which those who once controlled the flow of that IP have lessened in relevance.

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