On Monopolies

On a recent StoryWonk Sunday podcast, I said that Amazon was, for all intents and purposes, the only viable platform in the digital publishing space. Even as I said it, I was aware that it was a controversial and contentious statement; sure enough, a listener contacted me to express disappointment in the way I had glossed over Amazon’s less-than-admirable business practices.

In the course of replying to the email, I began thinking about digital platforms, and our role in shaping them as producers and consumers of digital content.

This is what I wrote:

I’ve been thinking about the responsibilities of authors with regard to these digital ecosystems, and I’m not at all sure that it is our responsibility to support platforms like Nook and Kobo just to try and engender competition. I see the publishing industry as being akin to the music industry four or five years ago: iTunes was the only game in town, and many people decried both its monopolistic practices and its relationship with musicians. The solution to that problem didn’t come from musicians, although some made the choice to release their music in other ways, but rather from innovation: Google, Pandora, Spotify and, ironically, Amazon designed and implemented systems which were, if not entirely better, then at lease competitive. Users didn’t change the marketplace by embracing a substandard platform; rather, other platforms evolved to compete directly.

Ten years ago, Microsoft Windows was entirely ubiquitous on home PCs. Now, Mac OSX, iOS and many varieties of Linux have arisen to challenge that monopoly; more specifically, the ubiquity of Internet Explorer has now been completely shattered, not by the self-sacrifice of users, but by innovation and development. Deciding to use Netscape Navigator didn’t change the world; creating Firefox did.

I will be the first to celebrate the arrival of a legitimate competitor into the digital-publishing space (particularly as traditional publishing continues to decline) but, for now, I believe that Amazon remains the only viable platform. We should absolutely acknowledge their shortcomings — both intentional and unintentional — and we should apply pressure to them in whatever ways we, as both producers and consumers, can. That said, I can’t in good conscience encourage struggling authors to avoid their best shot at critical success and financial recompense in the hope that their decision will help foster a more competitive marketplace. That is not, in my experience, how change occurs. If, on the other hand, an individual author decides to take their work to another platform, or to release their work under a Creative Commons license, then I applaud their decision; I also believe that technically-adept authors have a responsibility to understand the complications and restrictions of the digital publishing space, and do our best to offer honest and productive feedback to all the available platforms. I just don’t believe that choosing a less popular, less complete, less robust platform will meaningfully challenge Amazon’s dominance.

So, thoughts? Am I advocating a cowardly path that will prevent real change, or simply a pragmatic approach in a challenging and constantly-evolving industry?


One thought on “On Monopolies

  1. Well said, Alastair.

    I’ll be published in print and all digital formats in May 2013. In the meantime the small press has negotiated with Amazon and my first two books are in the KDP Select program. They’ve been selling slowly but consistently. This week the first book will be available Free for several days. I’m looking forward to watching what happens during that time and afterward.

    These are interesting and exciting times, and nobody knows for sure what works and what doesn’t. We just have to try a bit of everything. Amazon seems to be experimenting with what works and what doesn’t, and I like that. I love having that big power house of Amazon giving me a helping hand, and being over on kindleboards I’m learning a lot from seasoned authors.

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