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Is Amazon’s Philanthropy Really Marketing in Disguise?

By Edward Nawotka

Amazon KindleAmazon’s support of a long list of non-profit literary entities has a long list of detractors. Perhaps the most vocal critic of the program is Dennis Loy Johnson, publishers of Melville House Press, whose MobyLives blog keeps a laser focus on “our friends in Seattle.” Today, in our pages, Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, takes aim at Amazon’s giving. He writes, in part:

…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?

Do you agree? Disagree? Should the organizations supported by Amazon’s giving be concerned?

If you have experience with the subject, please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

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  1. Posted March 22, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    While I empathize with those publishing companys unable to sell via Kindle because IPG refused Amazon’s demands, I find it interesting that many of those affected complain about Amazon’s non-disclosure requirements while at the same time the details of the negotiations in question remain, well, undisclosed.

    In his discussion of the issue Bryce Milligan says he and his colleagues were TOLD by IPG that Amazon’s terms were unacceptable but doesn’t offer whether he found them so. Nor has there been any real information provided about the nature of those terms. Did Amazon want IPG to go back to the original business model, whereby they received a discount and would then be free to set the selling price? You know, like other retailers do, and they did before publishers and Apple forced the agency model on them?

    Further, what prevents any of the affected publishers from simply publishing to Kindle themselves? Would that be because signing with a distributor removes that option? If so, Amazon isn’t the only reason Mr. Milligan’s sales have dropped 70%. He is also being affected by the decision to allow a third party to control how his titles reach readers on the basis that third party has his best interests in mind.

    The problem is that IPG, from what little one can glean from reporting on the issue, is stuck in the old business model as firmly as the rest of the mainstream publishing industry, and has bought into the myth that allowing ebooks to be sold for what CONSUMERS consider a reasonable price is anathema. Having ignored ebooks for more than a decade while independent publishers established the market and business model, they now want to compel that established market to surrender to how they think it should behave.

    Think of horses and barn doors.

    The first independent ebook publisher began selling books in the mid-90s, and was very successful. Ellora’s Cave, the largest publisher of erotica and erotic romance in ebook format, was launched in 1998. These and the other ebook publishing pioneers have always priced their books reasonably–about the same as a mass market paperback or less. Rather than compete, the mainstream publishing latecomers decided they should dictate what consumers should pay, offering the specious argument that charging less would devalue the content when in actual fact they are only protecting the dying market for hardcovers.

    If we’re going to quote Bob Dylan, I would think “the times, they are a-changin'” would be more to the point. Amazon recognized that very early, and spent years studying the existing ebook market before they launched Kindle. The publishers and others who are now trying to belatedly take over that market (and are doomed to failure, whether they’ll admit it or not) think they can reshape an established industry, to make it change so they don’t have to.

    Good luck with that.

  2. Posted March 22, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Two simple things we can glean from this article:

    1. Amazon is first and foremost a retailer. Everything they do is from that mindset. Remember that always.

    2. If you are an indie publisher, stay true to your beliefs and remain an indie. Build your business the hard way, step by step. Don’t take a handout from a massive corporation and think you will escape their control.

  3. Steven
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Amazon is awesome. Before the Kindle, I had to pick which 3-4 books I loved most to bring with me on the airplane for my long stints in Korea. Now, I can pack several hundred with me as carry-on.

    I get free books every day. I can’t read fast enough to keep up with all the free books. I can get subscriptions without having to pay duty or shipping charges.

    Quite frankly, I think Amazon has *enabled* small publishers and indie an equal playing field with the giants. These are some of the most exciting times that the industry has seen since the invention of the cheap paper pulp.

  4. Posted March 22, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    It is not a matter of the convenience of the e-reading device. It is a matter of Goliath killing off the ultimate sources of diversity in what will be available for you to read, no matter what format you enjoy.

  5. Steven
    Posted March 22, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    The day Amazon knocks Google out of the race I’ll eat my shorts. Amazon will never have a monopoly. And what with Apple looking to get in on the market, I can’t help but think they’ll be giving the publishing world another option.

    I read an article about a guy who lost 70ish percent of business because his alliance has a dispute with Amazon. Amazon’s what’s giving him his bread and butter and he’s whining about it.

    You know, you go to Amazon directly and sell your books for 99cents and you get to keep more out of that than you would going with Random House selling it for $10. I don’t see Amazon as the giant here. I see it as the David with the slingshot dangling at his side having just slain a dozen Goliaths. Dealing with traditional publishers is a lot worse than dealing with Amazon.

  6. Posted March 23, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Elizabeth K. Burton, it seems to me, raises some highly pertinent questions. In this protracted battle between IPG and Amazon, we have been asked to take it on faith that Amazon is acting unfairly. But no mention of the terms Amazon is now offering IPG has been made; none of the publishers asking for our sympathy has explained clearly why he (or she) distributes e-books through a middleman such as IPG rather than distributing them himself.

    A little skepticism of Amazon’s motives is probably not unwarranted, but obsessives such as Mr. Johnson of Melville House (I’ve been blocked from commenting on his blog, which nonetheless faithfully directs me, probably no less of an obsessive, to Internet discussions of Amazon’s business practices), who constantly decry Amazon’s every move, are altogether unconvincing, and their critiques sometimes even strike me as dishonest.

    Often, for example, one comes across the absurd assertion that Amazon will somehow restrict readers’ choices. Really? I remember the dark days of the B. Dalton at the mall. Amazon is a godsend. Others, equally absurdly, warn that Amazon will integrate “vertically” and monopolize the production, marketing, and sale of books. But Amazon will never have the acquisition or editorial or maybe even book-marketing smarts of smaller, nimbler publishers. It’s too big to have its ear close to the ground. You want proof? It’s just opened an editorial office in New York, for Christ’s sake!

    Finally, Amazon isn’t a non-profit. I don’t see anything unfair about its making donations that may serve its corporate interests.

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