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Amazon v. Macmillan: The Commoditization of Art

PUBLISHED: February 11, 2010

Literature is long-term and the market is short-term. So how come the market gets to have so much power over literature? The Amazon v. Macmillan situation—with Amazon setting an artificially low e-book price ($9.99) and Macmillan wanting an agency model with flexible pricing—is a milestone for literature. Amazon’s model was good for them and bad for everyone else involved: the editor of the book, the copyeditor, the publicist, the artist, the typesetter, the designer, the proofreader, the indie bookstore, and, not least of all, the author. Discounts for new e-books should only go so far (think 10%, not 50%). $9.99 is drastic. Regardless of Amazon’s motivations—to increase market share of the Kindle in its fight against the iPad, or to take over the traditional roles of the wholesaler, the bookstore, and even the publisher—literature has been hurt. Amazon’s strategy undercut hardcovers and permanently devalued books (a brand new book the same price as a set of Hometrends Karibu Shower Curtain Hooks?), although there is still debate on whether Amazon or Macmillan won this fight.

Literature is expensive. Art is expensive. With the New York Times planning to charge a monthly fee for regular readers, Jed Perl calling for the arts to be recession-proof, and Google allowing publishers greater flexibility in negotiations for its e-book retail arm, perhaps we are in the midst of a sea change. Perhaps it is becoming obvious that the industry is meant to serve its content. It is not the other way around. Authors and artists need time and resources to create their lovely, immortal worlds. The market needs to figure out a way to carry it all out and do it justice. In the nineties, deep discounting by retailers led to a featureless music ecosystem, in which labels could no longer afford to patiently nurture developing artists, in which regional music was plowed over to make space for a few big acts. How remarkably easy it is for art and literature to be ignored, even in institutions that are supposed to create the next generation of thinkers. In Harper’s, Mark Slouka argues that the humanities have been sidelined by math and science, that modern schools are mere suppliers of workers for businesses, and that “[e]ducation in America today is almost exclusively about the GDP.”

In the University of Virginia’s MFA program, a class of aspiring authors recently discussed Amazon’s concession as a classmate unveiled her freshly made key lime cheesecake, dotted with blueberries. Optimism tinged the room as we sipped coffee—Macmillan published the first book we discussed in class, The Hours by Michael Cunningham. For now, we have possibly won the battle. For now, we are safely ensconced within a program whose very existence is economically miraculous—in a speech last week, UVA president John Casteen explained the program’s history. I learned that when William Faulkner taught at UVA, he helped to introduce the possibility that a creative writing MFA belongs within the English department. What will happen in the future? Last October, Walmart and Amazon (and Target) vied to offer the lowest price for ten best-selling hard-covers, a move that illuminated the difference between those colossal corporations and the rest of us. For the expanding field of e-books, the coming year will yield many concessions and repercussions.


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dave's picture
dave · 14 years ago
Do lower prices always mean less profit? What would happen if books cost two hundred dollars each? What is an Artificially Low price? Who decides what is High or Low? If you’re using less paper, shouldn’t the price go down at least that percentage (including shipping and handling costs?) Doesn’t accessibility also increase profits? If I’m stuck in the Doctor’s Office and want to read a book, I can’t physically go to a bookstore, but I can download a book, yes? I speak for The Consumer when I say I will not pay $15 for a CD and I will not pay more than $10 for an e-book. We have spoken! End of discussion!

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