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Amazon’s Trojan Horse

Amazon’s business history indicates that pure philanthropy is not a natural rung of their DNA.

Editorial by Bryce Milligan, Publisher, Wings Press

Bryce Milligan finds wisdom in Bob Dylan: “In ceremonies of the horsemen, even the pawn must hold a grudge.”

As the author of a well-circulated essay suggesting that Amazon.com’s business practices may pose a threat to American intellectual freedom, I was asked recently what I thought of Amazon’s “charitable giving.” Admittedly, “charity” is not the first word that crops up when I consider the 70% nosedive my press’s e-book sales took after Amazon decided to deny readers access to them.

Wings Press, an independent, multicultural publishing company I have run since 1995 is one of those affected by the dispute between Amazon and the Independent Publishers Group. Not even a pawn worth taking in the winner-take-all game Amazon is pursuing, for Wings Press to even to be asked for an opinion in this matter would be vastly amusing were the stakes not so high. I have little desire to become a footnote in a cautionary tale. On the other hand, as Dylan put it, “In ceremonies of the horsemen, even the pawn must hold a grudge.”

Amazon’s “charitable” giving is an interesting topic, not so much for the good it has done but for the strategy of which it is a part. We in the indie press world were mostly delighted when, in 2009, Amazon began giving fairly large grants, generally around $25,000, to nonprofit organizations involved in literature and literacy. Fabulous! But Amazon’s business history indicates that pure philanthropy is not a natural rung of their DNA. Remember that within two years of its founding in 1995, Amazon began hiring executives away from Walmart, a company known for proclaiming its good intentions while dismembering its competition.

Amazon’s grant program seems to an outside observer to be a gambit played in advance of a frontal assault. If that sounds cynical, notice that there is no application process at all. Instead, Amazon asks for “nominations” while also stating clearly that they will not “respond individually.” Amazon says upfront that it is looking for “innovative groups with a proven track record of success; an ability to work effectively with us to execute on the organization’s goals, including appropriate public outreach; and an established presence and voice in the publishing community.” So far, these grants have basically landed like cash-laden storks on the doorsteps of otherwise unsuspecting organizations.

So what is Amazon doing? It is difficult to say since Amazon’s contracts are notoriously limiting regarding what one can and cannot say about either Amazon itself or their contracts. Still, there is clearly a case to be made that this is marketing masquerading as philanthropy — not unusual — but with the double intent of encouraging silence from the very organizations most likely to be vociferous in objecting to Amazon’s predatory actions against independent publishers, distributors and bookstores. In short, a Trojan Horse?

Far be it from me to suggest that honorable organizations like PEN American Center or CLMP or Poets & Writers or AWP have been “bought off.” I’m sure that they have not! I am equally certain that many of them are beginning to wonder about the motivation behind the grants — and about the ultimate price to be paid for having accepted them.

Before 2009, Amazon was criticized for its lack of philanthropic giving. Suddenly Amazon began giving money away, but only to specific organizations of its choosing. Many worthy organizations have benefited from these grants. Unlike any reputable foundation or other grant-giving organization in the country, however, Amazon apparently sees no need to involve panels of objective experts to help select the recipients of Amazon’s largesse — only Amazon employees with Amazon’s interests in mind.

Wings Press is a “for-profit” business, and thus is not eligible for grants from Amazon or anyone else. The fact that most of what Wings Press publishes is poetry — most of it by authors ignored by the mainstream publishers and even banned in states like Arizona — is evidence that the press exists for the sake of the literature, not to reap significant financial profits. The advent of the e-book, however, leveled the playing field for a brief moment and allowed this press and others like it to begin benefiting from increased visibility for our titles and thus increased e-book sales, mainly by playing along with Amazon’s mega-discounted offerings. But then Amazon pulled the rug out, first by presenting terms to distributors that would, according to the Independent Publishers Group, clearly remove the possibility of continuing that trend, and then by simply removing access to our titles when those terms were rejected.

No one expects Amazon or Walmart or any other large retailer, or distributor for that matter, to “play fair.” That is not in the nature of American capitalism. But when Amazon succeeds — and it will — in becoming one of the world’s largest publishers, when it succeeds in eliminating most of the publishers, distributors and bookstores that it sees as its competition, including some of those that have accepted its largesse, how will we control the beast? It will dominate the means of production and control both distribution and retail availability; it will set prices as it already does that make it not only impossible to compete, but difficult to conduct business at all.

Wings Press is merely one of many motes the winds of change that have blown into the eyes of an angry god. Chance, not choice, lodged us here. The motes will be removed, of course, but it is readers who will suffer. At some point readers will begin to suspect the Amazonian juggernaut of making business decisions that determine what will and will not reach the reading public. If history is any guide here, attempted monopolies on access to information have never turned out well. Amazon could have so easily encouraged increased literacy, a better educated citizenry, and more inventive writing by encouraging independent presses to thrive. Instead, they have adopted an extremely cynical set of tactics drawn directly from Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, if not from the Borg. Let us hope that resistance is not futile.

DISCUSS: Is Amazon’s Philanthropy Really Marketing in Disguise?

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7 Comments

  1. Posted March 22, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Amazon has no interest in helping anyone but itself. As an example, Poets & Writers, while it does lots of good work for authors, it also has benefited from the largesse of Barnes & Noble and others who don’t play fair. Whether right now we believe that Barnes & Noble is worthy of an author’s concern or a publisher’s plans is another matter. But where Amazon treads now is reminiscent of how the pharmaceutical industry took over the medical profession. The word, beware, is greatly warranted here.

  2. Posted March 22, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    It will be interesting to see if Amazon has any strategy to take over scholarly publishing since that depends so much on the entire apparatus of peer review that, ultimately, it does not control. Of course, commercial companies have been very successful in this space by luring scholars to serve as journal editors, book series editors, and as editorial board members, so it is not inconceivable that Amazon, with all its wealth, could make a play for this sector as well. But it won’t be quite so easy or straightforward as dominating trade publishing, where it has some distinct advantages.

  3. Posted March 22, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    If anyone is interested, there is a petition (with another of my essays about Amazon) at http://chn.ge/xs82jp

  4. Elizabeth Lang
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    An excellent and insightful article that takes a look at the big picture.

    I’ve been warning all along about Amazon and it’s predatory practices that will destroy the publishing industry and ultimately remove the choices of writers and readers alike, it just doesn’t look like that now because they’re like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but watch out when they don’t need the facade anymore.

    Too many organizations have already felt the knives in their backs from Amazon and know firsthand, not only what Amazon is not only capable of doing to its former business ‘partners’ but what it does with undisguised and unrepentent glee.

  5. Posted April 8, 2012 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    We dropped Amazon in 2000, having thought ahead. They were already not giving good service to booksellers, and had begun to ramp up our costs. If everybody had followed our lead…

  6. Posted May 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    This is the proper blog for anybody who hopes to learn about this subject. You know a entire lot its almost tough to argue along (not that I in fact would want…HaHa). You surely put a whole new spin for a topic thats been written about for years. Fantastic stuff, just wonderful!

  7. Posted June 3, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    When you are very large as the Amazon is truly clear that the rules do not apply to you.

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