Strong words, but relatively mild compared to Waterstones' (the apostrophe was officially moved in January) current managing director, who branded Amazon a "ruthless, moneymaking devil". Devil? That sort of hyperbole is usually associated with some of the more outspoken members of the Iranian parliament, not retail executives.
Amazon have clearly got under a few people's skin.
According to James Heneage, Amazon are "damaging the high street book trade and threaten to undermine publishers' ability to nurture new talent. If you are concerned about the sort of books that get published you have to look to the future and the amount of value that businesses like Amazon can remove from the publishing business model".
Heneage goes on to argue that "great writers such as Patrick O'Brian and Joanna Trollope...did not start out as uniquely brilliant. (They) built gradually because publishers worked with them and had the money to invest, and pay for the expertise that spotted the books in the first place."
There is a lot to be said for this argument. I remember how it took around ten years for Ian Rankin to become a bestselling author, by which time he had written over a dozen books. When I worked at Waterstone's in the early 90s, the only Rankin we'd heard of was Robert, the author of humorous fantasy novels.
(On the subject of Robert Rankin, I once had an embarrassing exchange with a middle-aged woman who'd asked what I'd recommend for her 17-year-old son. When I said "Has he tried Rankin?" she misheard me, but to her credit didn't bat an eyelid and replied "Well, I suppose that would keep him quiet")
Ian Rankin could have continued to languish in the midlist, but he had a publisher that believed in him (probably encouraged by a recent Gold Dagger award) and they relaunched the Rebus novels with new jackets and a nationwide marketing campaign. It worked and the rest is history.
I wonder how Ian Rankin would fare today if he'd just written his first Inspector Rebus novel? Would he find a publisher for 'Knots and Crosses' as easily as he did in 1987 and if he had, would they publish a further six books before Rankin really hit his stride with 'Black and Blue'?
It's possible that a writer of Ian Rankin's talent could still succeed today by circumventing the normal publishing process. Several lesser writers have gained publishing deals by making their work available for nothing (or a nominal fee) to Kindle readers, allowing viral marketing to do the rest. But could Ian Rankin have afforded to do this without the financial support of a publisher?
As far as I was concerned, James Heneage had hit the nail on the head, but then I read this (and please forgive me for quoting it at length):
"I don't like it when someone like James Heneage steps forward to give the media a quote and blows it by mumbling about irrelevancies. Perhaps he is being misquoted or the paper is focussing on what were intended to be peripheral remarks, but this article makes it seem like his main objection to Amazon is that they're not really members of the club.
Firstly (sic) he seems to believe that great authors need to be nurtured by publishers: eliminating publishers imperils literature. I personally am quite sure that great authors will continue to emerge if 'publisher' goes the way of 'lamplighter' or 'footman'. He also seems to believe that publishers have an important role spotting those great writers: without publishers we wouldn't notice the diamonds in the rough. I agree that's a role publishers fill... for now. But if what replaces the current model is readers reading any old thing, including lots of self-published novels, and then blogging and tweeting about them, I think we'll see books with lasting appeal being taken up more not less quickly. I won't lament the loss of the 'kingmaker' role in publishing. And there will still be prominent figures who can champion new writing.
Heneage also thinks that Amazon is not 'investing' enough in the industry, in (implied) contrast to the way that publishers do. He doesn't elaborate, but single-handedly developing and popularising a global e-book platform sounds like investing to me. As does allowing any solvent reader with an internet connection to get any book through the mail in a day or two - including titles that 99% of bricks-and-mortar stores never carried. And it may not be the sort of investment Heneage likes, but Amazon have also made books cheaper. In fact I would say that the problem is that Amazon is investing too much rather than too little.
Heneage concludes by saying that if you have the long-term success of the industry at heart you don't undermine the competition too much. This is a terribly woolly remark. Is he suggesting that the only thing that's stopped Macmillan or Random House from grabbing 99% of the book market is a sportsmanlike restraint and a custodial mindset? The directors of publicly-traded firms would be fired if they announced they'd called a halt to growth because they were worried about the competition."The author of this extract is Rob Jones, co-owner of the small publisher Snowbooks (you can find the full article on their blog, here) and he argues his case very persuasively. He could have added that what's happening now is the logical outcome of a process that allowed Ottakar's to expand so quickly during the ten years following the collapse of the NBA.
However, the advent of self-published ebooks is my idea of hell. Yes, there are some very good novels that have failed to gain the attentions of agents and publishers, but how can we identify them amongst the thousands that are available? It's equally woolly to suggest that the glut of self-published books can be successfully curated by a loose coalition of bloggers and tweeters.
I regularly receive emails inviting me to read and review a 'remarkable' new novel by an author I've never heard of. If I had more time on my hands and wasn't such a slow reader, perhaps I'd occasionally take some of these offers up out of curiosity. But life's too short. I'd rather spend my spare time reading unread masterpieces like 'Catch-22' or 'Mansfield Park'.
Even if I did review the new thriller that claims to "revive the genre with a splendid mixture of innovation and cutting edge timeliness" (I'm quoting from the publicist's email), what are my credentials? What's my relationship to the author? I'm not against amateur criticism and trust the integrity of bloggers like John Self far more than some of the 'You scratch my back...' reviews that appear in the broadsheets. But with the exception of John Self, Caustic Cover Critic, Gaskella and a few other notable book bloggers, I still prefer to leave it to the professionals rather than wade through the blogosphere.
As far as Amazon are concerned, I think it's naive to expect them to do anything other than avoid paying taxes. Unless they suffer a drop in sales from outraged UK customers (and let's face it, they won't), Amazon can't be expected to unilaterally sacrifice a sizeable chunk of their net profit. That's why governments need to force the issue rather than simply trust 'the market'.
What's the point of this article? I did have one an hour ago, but that was before a succession of "Daaa-aaad, Daaa-aaad"s from upstairs completely broke my concentration...Naughty Amazon, yes, but they're very good at what they do and unlike some people, I love ebooks, seeing a wonderful opportunity to bring thousands of obscure titles back into print.
As for James Heneage, I'm not sure if he's in a position to complain when, 15 years ago, he was charging across the high street bookselling landscape like Attila the Hun, driving many independent bookshops out of business (I know, because I was one of his henchmen). Admittedly Ottakar's paid its taxes and James was a wonderful man to work for, but like Amazon, we used our buying power to drive the competition out of business.
Nobody knows quite how the book industry is going to change during the next decade, but there are two certainties: bookshops will continue to close and ebook sales will probably overtake those of paperbacks. The worst case scenario is a virtual Amazon monopoly, with Kindle charts dominated by thousands of self-published titles of questionable quality. But in the same way that the best independent bookshops are thriving (think Topping's or Much Ado), I believe that imaginative publishers and booksellers will ride the storm successfully.
I'm sorry if this post has rambled. There was a cogent argument here somewhere, but it disappeared into the ether, aided by screaming children and an exploding lightbulb (or was it my Kindle?).
* Thank you to the kind person who advised me to change the original word to 'avoidance'.