WASHINGTON—There is lurking in the land a very treacherous threat to American freedoms, and only a handful of citizens seem to care. Perhaps I should say that only a handful of citizens are willing to make bold their concern. For the threat is camouflaged in the garb of “high-tech gadgetry” and the promise of instant response to the customer. Who could oppose that?
Amazon, the country’s largest bookseller controlling 40 percent of book sales in the country, wants to cap the price of e-books at $9.99. Publishers say they cannot cover their costs at $9.99 and want to charge more. If Amazon wins it comes a step closer to controlling publishing in America, both the production and the distribution of books. Think of that. One source controlling an area as vital to free thought as books.
It has fallen to Hachette, the publisher, to take on Amazon, and Amazon is playing dirty pool, delaying distribution of Hachette books and preventing pre-orders of Hachette books. Hachette is suffering. Its writers are suffering. But that is what happens when one gets into a row with a bookseller that controls 40 percent of the market. Obviously, it is not healthy that a bookseller controls so much of the market, soap sellers, perhaps, sellers of other products, perhaps, but not books.
Hachette, in a press release, states: “Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good. They are not.” I take my stand with Hachette. Books are different from detergent or tires or diamond rings. Books contain ideas, some popular, some not. They spread cultural values, some new, some old. They are the embodiment of free speech, the heart of the First Amendment. If Amazon wins its fight with Hachette and Amazon decides to oppose, say, the Second Amendment, what is to stop it from interfering with the distribution of books defending the Second Amendment? It already is frustrating the distribution of all kinds of books published by Hachette, and this is not the first time I have encountered this problem with Amazon.
Back in 2007 when I came out with a book reporting on how unpopular the Clintons were when they left the White House, trailing dubious pardons behind them and moving vans filled with government property—property they eventually had to return—my book, The Clinton Crack-Up: The Boy President’s Life After the White House, appeared on Amazon with a cautionary note. It would take two weeks to ship it. Needless to say that crimped sales. The book was stifled for ideological reasons. Other authors have doubtless had the same experience. Now Hachette is seeing its sales stifled for commercial reasons. If Amazon succeeds its ability to control the sales of books will continue unimpeded.
Michael Pietsch, the chief executive officer of Hachette, is the hero here. He is Shane in the old West or Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The bad guys control the town, the countryside, and the watering holes. One of these days Pietsch is going to have to face his opponents down.
That is where the citizenry comes in. If we do not want the bullies to triumph we are going to have to make our voices heard. Conservatives and liberals, this is an issue we can stand together on. Progressives and First Amendment advocates, let your voices be heard. It is an abomination that one bookseller can restrict a publisher from the timely sale of its books. Let Hachette sell its products where it wants at what price it wants and let the other publishers follow suit.
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