Copyright

Kindling embers or scorching the earth? Amazon’s foray into crowd-assisted publishing [Part I]


Earlier this month, Amazon opened its new Kindle Write On service to the public. Write On is a platform in which authors can release manuscripts to the public for free, and get feedback from the crowd on their work. The model is similar to the more established WattPad, and is seen as its direct competitor. The fact that Amazon is entering the self-publication arena is an interesting development, but it pales in significance when you realise what else the company has been up to. Less than a month before the launch of Kindle Write On, Amazon published the first set of books through its Kindle Scout program, in which authors submit work that gets voted on by readers, who determine whether the work gets published by Kindle Press as an ebook, downloadable to the Kindle device.

If you found the frequency of the word ‘Kindle’ in the previous paragraph slightly off-putting, it’s probably for good reason – bringing me to the first issue I discuss in this analysis of Amazon’s recent expansion and what it means for the content market, and more importantly, for the reading public. In my second post, I examine the impact of this development on the most crucial stakeholder to the debate – the author.

Big Pharma, Big Tobacco…Big Books?

The pernicious effects of allowing a small number of large corporations end-to-end control over entire industries are well-known – they could range from arbitrary price increases (such as De Beers with diamonds) and unfair business practices (Standard Oil in the early 20th Century), to selling consumers products that they don’t really want (Microsoft, by bundling Internet Explorer with Windows).

With Amazon, the content industry may have found its first true megacorporation. Even in the glory days of the iTunes-iPod nexus, music fans still had credible (if decidedly less convenient) alternatives such as CDs to bank on. Amazon now controls how content is delivered to an overwhelming majority of the reading public – both as paper books as well as in the form of ebooks or audiobooks. This is problematic because Amazon is now free to leverage its market position to restrict consumer choice at one end, while simultaneously throttling the supply of content to have its way with authors at the other end. If all of this sounds too cynical to be true, think again. Large corporations, especially those that simultaneously control the hardware, software and content layers, appear only too happy to misuse their power over consumers. Apple’s decision to “gift” iTunes users a U2 album, for example, was met with widespread outrage from its (steadily declining) consumer base. Amazon itself has demonstrated its willingness to leverage its unique position in the industry to put pressure on other players that depend on it for visibility and sales. Last year, the company employed a number of tactics with dubious ethical justification against Hachette when negotiations over the revenue split (already heavily in Amazon’s favour against most publishers) broke down between the company and the publisher. Readers suddenly found Hachette books being delivered late at higher prices, with Amazon “suggesting” titles by other publishers to prospective buyers of Hachette books. This isn’t an isolated incident – Amazon has previously tried these tactics against Macmillan, Bonnier, and other publishers around the world with whom it disagreed on revenue sharing models.

Since it now controls how content is delivered, whose content is delivered, and at what price, Amazon wields immense power over authors, readers and publishers. Arm-twisting publishers and throttling book supply, however, aren’t the only questionable ways in which Amazon exerts control over the market. Last year, it pushed out a firmware update that rendered rooted Kindle and Fire TV devices unusable, adding another dimension to Amazon’s power at the device level. In Amazon’s world, then, consumers don’t buy Kindles – they merely rent them.

It is at this point that the discerning reader will point out that all of this was as true of pre-Scout/pre-Write On Amazon as it is of today’s (or tomorrow’s) Amazon. Is the introduction of Scout and Write On merely another plodding step in Amazon’s long-term goals, or does it represent a more telling development altogether? I propose that the launch of these services is nothing less than (forgive me) a new chapter in the content market, representative of a paradigm shift in the manner in which retailers mediate the relationship between authors and readers.

How content is delivered v. What content is delivered

The company earlier controlled how content was delivered to consumers, by acting as both the largest easily accessible repository of paper books and the manufacturer of the most accessible e-reader in the world. With these new services, Amazon can now control, at least at some level, what we read. With adequate safeguards, this could mean no harm to the reading public. Indeed, the rise of a platform for undiscovered authors such as Scout could prove to be a blessing, and a huge step forward in the democratisation of literature in a manner similar to the democratising effect the internet had two decades ago. However, the safeguards necessary to make this happen appear to be sorely lacking. For one thing, Scout is fairly opaque when it comes to making publication decisions. While social media “nominations” play a large role in deciding whether the work gets published by the Kindle Press, these votes are by no means decisive. The final say on whether a work gets selected remains with Amazon.

In Amazon’s utopia, new and hitherto unheard voices would be given a chance to express themselves to a wide audience, backed by the company’s label and immense reach. However, the reality is vastly different, at least if we are to base our conclusions from the first batch of books published from Scout. Diversity hasn’t been a hallmark of this set, whose members have been united in mediocrity, if one critic is to be believed. Even if we were to assume, in Amazon’s best case scenario, that nominations translate to publication, this is still no assurance of good content or a more democratised literary space. On the contrary, a survey of Scout works seems to indicate that the program is no breeding ground for promising authors from varied backgrounds. Instead, it appears to cater to the lowest common denominator as far as literary merit is concerned. While this is not a bad thing in itself, the claim that I make is that Amazon’s new services do not, by any stretch of imagination, revolutionise literature. In the absence of such proven benefits, it is impossible to look at the launch of these services without worry. In essence, we seem to be handing over content control (in addition to delivery control) to an organisation that has already demonstrated a willingness to prioritise its bottom line over consumer welfare.

In my next post, I ask what these developments mean for authors, and the rights they enjoy (at least in theory) over the works they create.

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Balaji Subramanian

Balaji Subramanian

Balaji is a third year student at NALSAR, Hyderabad. He is currently an editor of the Indian Journal of Intellectual Property Law. He is fascinated by technology law and IP law, and is an active member of NALSAR's Technology Law Forum. When he isn't doing law school things, he wanders the country looking for quizzes to participate in. He can be emailed at [email protected]

2 comments.

  1. Avatarbigted

    Is your assertion of Amazon representing the “lowest common denominator” your own first hand conclusion or a reflection of what critics have to say? I see your larger point about Amazon leveraging its market position at the expense of consumers but I don’t quite understand your critique of its qualitative value unless you have thoroughly scouted its content. Even assuming your assessment holds, Amazon gives the public what it wants. Yes it calls the shots in terms of what gets published in the end but then so do traditional publication houses. It’s value addition lies in its procedural ease and the fact it at least provides a sounding board to readers’ voices even if it doesn’t necessarily heed them and not in culling out literary genius.

    Reply
    1. Balaji SubramanianBalaji Subramanian Post author

      I haven’t conducted a first-hand assessment of the content published by Kindle Scout, but the Slate article I’ve linked to is the result of such an assessment by a literary critic.

      I have no particular problem with Amazon giving the public what it wants. However, that’s not exactly what Amazon is doing. First, it’s erected a facade that suggests that top voted works will get published. Second, it selects works based on an opaque mechanism. Third, it provides absolutely no editorial assistance to selected authors. Finally, while traditional publishers typically engage with the work extensively in collaboration with the author, Amazon can do no such thing. In such a situation, the contribution to literature seems exceedingly minimal, with the primary focus of the entire effort being a maximisation of Amazon’s ability to snare genius authors to bolster its profits.

      All this can only mean a compromise in terms of literary quality. While this would be fine in ordinary circumstances, Amazon’s extraordinary control over the market means that readers would find themselves inundated by exceedingly accessible, but extremely mediocre content.

      I completely accept your point on procedural ease and the ability of services such as Write On to act as sounding boards. However, other services such as Wattpad are doing exactly the same thing already, so it’s hard to see exactly what Amazon is bringing to the table. This makes it so much more tenable for the claim to be made that Amazon isn’t really interested in how the author benefits, but is actually looking for a low-risk, high-return publishing system that propels its own profit margins.

      Reply

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