It has been reported that, because of a pricing dispute over e-books, Amazon US has removed Macmillan books from its website. It's not just the e-books that have been removed; all of the Macmillan US book imprints have been hit, including some of Macmillan's biggest cash cows.
It takes a while to see what has happened. For example, if you search on Robert Jordan (published by Macmillan subsidiary Tor), you are steered to plenty of titles--but they all turn out to be used copies from third-party sellers. This, of course, is even nastier than pulling the title entirely, since it encourages customers to buy only from sources that don't benefit the author or the publisher.
Amazon is not a monopoly, but its market share is so large that I think it ought to be treated like one. No matter what the provocation, this move is an abuse of power that is a slap in the face not only to publishers, but to customers.
Amazon has been worrying me for a while now. You probably recall the flap when Amazon "recalled" digital books from its Kindle devices last year, automatically erasing all copies of certain digital editions of books they had already sold and downloaded. (Ironically, as the NY Times article linked to notes, Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm were among the books that Amazon seized and destroyed.) Until then, most Kindle owners weren't aware that Amazon could reach out and destroy copies of books that readers had already bought.
Now, Amazon has said that they won't do this again; and it isn't clear from the Kindle contracts that they had the right to do this in the first place. But I find the fact that they have the power to do such a thing to be frightening--and the best argument that can be made against digital books.
It has always been hard for even the most devoted book-burners to eliminate all the copies of a book once it is printed. But with digital books on wireless readers, all copies could be obliterated at the touch of a single button in some central office. And even if Amazon claims they would never do such a thing, what would prevent a government from compelling them to do so? (In fact, what would prevent, say, the NSA or the government of China from hacking in to the Amazon computer and simply doing it themselves?)
It doesn't take much of a sci-fi magination to suggest that if Kindle-type devices become the sole medium of book distribution in the future that the whole of literature and written history would become deletable--or worse, rewritable--by whoever is in power. The Stalinists would have loved a Kindle-based library system; whenever they wanted to rewrite history, they had to send men to the libraries with razor blades, glue, and new pages, a process that was both cumbersome and also obvious even after the deed was done.
Side note: When we lived in Hawaii back in the early 1980s, a Soviet commercial vessel developed mechanical problems and was towed into Honolulu Harbor for repairs. As a goodwill gesture by the US government, the crew not needed onboard were issued temporary visas and allowed shore leave.
And we all know what sailors do when they get onshore, right? Well, not Soviet sailors. Instead of heading for the downtown brothels and bars, to our wonderment, they all piled onto public buses and rode up to the University of Hawaii, where they headed for the history section of the library. Those who knew English proceded to pore through history books and encyclopedias, and fielded questions from those who only spoke Russian.
At about this same time, I had a number of young Chinese researchers working with me at the East-West Center--some of the first Chinese who had been allowed to train in the West. In discussions, I found that some of what they accepted as historical fact was more than a bit surprising. For example, they had all been taught that the American Civil War wasn't between American states, but instead was a massive uprising of black slaves against the whites--a revolution where the blacks won their freedom. (Why the victorious former slaves then agreed to form a poverty-ridden underclass was left as a mystery.) For their part, they were shocked we all believed that astronauts had ever landed on the moon, since they had seen proof--positive, incontrovertible proof--that the moon landings were done in Hollywood studios. (It should be clear to anyone that if this were the case, the footage and special effects would have been far more impressive than the home-movies look the actual landings generated.) End of digression.
And, of course, it wasn't that long ago that a "glitch" caused Amazon to de-rank thousands of books--an overwhelmingly high proportion of which were Lesbian or Gay Themed Books (LGTBs, in the trade).
I've heard a lot lately about how digital communications, wireless connectivity, and the internet make it impossible for information to be controlled in today's world. Perhaps. But the Chinese and Iranians have both been quite successful in using the internet to spy on their own dissidents, and Amazon has now shown how it will someday be possible for governments or businesses--and, in the near future, the two will be indistinguishable--to engage in comprehensive and lasting censorship.
In the United States, anyone who makes a billion dollars in technology-related fields is praised as a "visionary," and Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder, is one of those who is widely adulated and invited to speak at government gatherings. I used to be somewhat contemptuous of him, as I didn't see anything visionary or uplifting about what he has achieved. Yes, he has been very financially successful, but all he has done is carried retail sales onto a new platform, the achievement of an uber-techno sales clerk. If he hadn't done it first, someone else would have been right behind. And while Bill Gates has many annoying features, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing billions of praiseworthy work around the globe for the the neediest, Bezos' latest "visionary" scheme is space tourism for billionaires (estimates of the price tag for a trip into space are about $3 million per customer). Bezos' plan is a self-indulgent moneymaking scheme; Gates' foundation is the largest philanthropic effort ever undertaken. It hasn't been hard for me to decide which of these guys is the visionary.
So, while I used to think Bezos was just a glorified department-store owner, I've changed my view. The guy's a visionary after all. He's created a bullying, arrogant company that is leading the way to a future where businesses or governments will have total control over what we can and cannot read; and, best of all, retroactive control, so the past can be rewritten.
Think I'm overstating things? Just wait and see.
*Update: Amazon's delisting of Macmillan books is not limited simply to US subsidiaries. Amazon has also disappeared Macmillan New Writing books from its sales. As of this writing, Terence Morgan's Master of Bruges is available only from second-hand sellers on Amazon, but not as a new copy from Amazon itself.
I'm happy to report that Pan paperbacks have been spared this fate--but persumably only because no one at Amazon has worked out that they ar epart of Macmillan.
Ryan David Jahn has covered this fiasco in some detail on his blog, including multiple links and updates. Go check it out. I'm also grateful to him for pointing out John Scalzi's blistering response.
Ultimately, though, the question is why, if Macmillan and Amazon cannot come to terms on ebooks, Amazon's response wasn't simply to refuse to carry Macmillan's ebooks on terms they found objectionable. And the answer is simple: they are bullies who are trying to exert monopoly power. As Teresa Nielsen Hayden (an editor at Tor, last time I checked) notes in her comments on Cory Doctorow's post on the topic:
'Does anyone recall that Amazon has done this before? They pulled every POD title because they wanted POD publishers to print their books exclusively via Amazon's CreateSpace. This isn't a case of "If they do it once, they can do it again." They have done it before, and it's clear that they have no hesitation about doing it again.'