Amazon’s ongoing disupute with Hachette, the major New York-based publishing company, has inspired a fair bit of backlash. The e-commerce leader admitted yesterday that as part of its negotiations with the publisher over e-book prices, it has been ordering less stock from the company and thus had made it more difficult for customers to get their hands on the books.
While that represents a small blow for consumers who might be after Hachette books, some of the dissent has focused on the idea that Amazon is taking advantage of a publisher. And that strikes folks as all the more vexing when you consider that way back when, Amazon started out as an online bookstore, and that books still comprise a major portion of the company’s sales. What’s more, Amazon holds all the power here, given its market share and wide recognizability. So a dispute with a publisher—and this is not the first—looks at first like Amazon feeding on its own.
It’s worth noting upfront that the issue isn’t as simple an issue as big, bad Amazon taking on an earnest publishing industry. Publishers, like Amazon, are looking for a leg up, and the issues they’re having with Amazon are the same issues they have with Barnes & Noble, as Yahoo’s Aaron Pressman points out.
But if you want to talk about Amazon’s relationship with the broader reading ecosystem, let’s take a step back and recognize that Amazon was only a bookseller in the most ostensible of ways. Founder Jeff Bezos chose to sell books when he began his quest for global retail domination back in the ‘90s, not necessarily because of a love of books or literature but because they were widely available and cheap. As recalled earlier this year in the New Yorker:
The vast selection made possible by the Internet gave Amazon its initial advantage, and a wedge into selling everything else. For Bezos to have seen a bookstore as a means to world domination at the beginning of the Internet age, when there was already a crisis of confidence in the publishing world, in a country not known for its book-crazy public, was a stroke of business genius.
And technology historian Edward Tenner wrote in a 2012 editorial that the decision was even more calculated than that. Books became Amazon’s first product category, Tenner writes, carried more barcodes than any other sort of product in the world. That made them not just sellable, but also trackable.
Amazon wasn’t a bookstore that became so much more. Instead, its always had at its core an ideal of relentless growth. (Seriously, see what happens if you go to relentless.com.) Books—and by virtue, their publishers—just provided the easiest, earliest avenue to reaching that ideal.