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How Amazon Accelerated the Commodification of Literature

LitHub: “Amazon founder Jeff Bezos came up with the slogan “Get Big Fast” because he knew size was crucial to exacting ever lower prices from suppliers. Publishers have tried to respond to Amazon’s power by doing the exact same thing, accelerating their decades-long campaign of mergers and acquisitions to consolidate into an ever smaller number of bigger firms all trying to publish ever bigger books (like the memoirs of Barack and Michelle Obama, for which Penguin Random House advanced an astonishing $65 million). The push towards “big” explains Penguin Random House’s play to absorb Simon & Schuster. Matt Stoller describes the merger as “defensive, an attempt to gain bargaining power against a monopolist bookseller.” This kind of producer integration is an understandable response to overly powerful buyers, especially since antitrust law prevents separate companies from banding together to create countervailing power. But it causes knock-on problems for suppliers and workers downstream. As Stoller puts it, “it’s not fair that authors must sell on the terms laid down by increasingly powerful publishers, but this dynamic is driven by the far more unfair situation whereby publishers are dealing with the utterly ruthless trillion dollar powerhouse Amazon.” An increasing “bestseller” mentality contributes to the vulnerability of independent presses to being absorbed. Mass-market retailers only stock the titles they predict will be hits, and online marketplaces amplify the books that are shifting fastest. This results in “a cycle so self-fulfilling it’s nearly tautological: Best sellers sell the best because they are best sellers.” As a result, according to book analyst Mike Shatzkin, “the medium-sized publishers can’t sustain themselves anymore. They can’t compete for the really big titles, so they get bought.”…

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