Have you ever met someone so sure of their own power over the world around them they could hold up their hand to block the sun and swear they’d created an eclipse? I have and sometimes it feels as though certain digital entities are beginning to see themselves this way.
Amazon has been facing charges of monopolistic action for some time now, even before they deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from customers’ Kindles back in 2009. The furor of this action (supposedly taken because the copies were from a pirated version of the book) was not any less despite the company granting ever customer a full refund of the purchase price, which I completely understand. It’s just an unheard of proposition! No one ever had to worry that Borders employees were going to break into your house and steal back a copy of the book (leaving your refund on the kitchen counter, of course) just because a publisher no longer owned the rights to that book. We expect that once paid for, the book belongs to us. Apparently, we were wrong. And it’s not the only time they’ve been accused of this. But this is old news and now customers aren’t the only ones dealing with Amazon’s power plays.
In February, CNET reported that Amazon shut down the sale of over 5,000 Kindle titles in a pricing/discount dispute with distributor Independent Publishers Group. The President of IPG suggested this was a strong-arm move by Amazon to increase their margins and get better terms from the publishers. Amazon refused to comment, but the sudden disappearance of those titles does kind of speak for itself. The article also mentions an issue with major publisher MacMillan over pricing when the internet giant refused to price ebooks higher than $9.99. This reminded me of an article I read a couple months ago about an official investigation into ebook pricing by the federal government.
According to the LA Times, “A Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed that the probe involved the possibility of “anticompetitive practices involving e-book sales.”” Major retailers have been controlling the prices of ebooks and despite their price being lower than the paperback or hardcover versions, prices have been rising steadily until there’s barely a difference between buying a physical copy and downloading the ebook version. One of the major draws of ebooks (at least for me) is the price drop. If that goes away, they may see sales start declining across the board.
But pricing isn’t the only issue. Apparently PayPal has taken it upon itself to become a moral compass and content censor as well. Ebook distributor Smashwords was threatened by PayPal in February that the company would revoke it’s account unless Smashwords banned certain types of erotica from their site. While the content banned would all be considered by most immoral (and in some cases illegal), Smashwords spokesman and founder Mark Coker said,
“it’s a slippery slope when we allow others to control what we think and write. Fiction is fantasy… A reader should have the right to feel moved however they desire to be moved,” he writes. “We do not want to see PayPal clamp down further against erotica. We think our authors should be allowed to publish erotica. Erotica, despite the attacks it faces from moralists, is a category worthy of protection.”
And he’s right. Letting a third party who is essentially unconnected with the production of content dictate what you are and are not allowed to print is ridiculous and probably unconstitutional. However, because PayPal is literally written into the code of the Smashwords site, switching to another payment provider is not a feasible (or fiscally responsible) option.
What does this all add up to? I have no idea. These are all pieces of the still shifting publication puzzle. All it seems to me is that digital self-publishing may not be as free form as it is currently for much longer. The major players are taking control.