Writers Need to Stop Complaining About Amazon Making Books Cheaper

A blog about business and economics.
Sept. 4 2013 12:47 PM

Writers Need to Stop Complaining About Amazon Making Books Cheaper

164086366
Cheap ebooks coming soon to Brazil.

Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Amazon started life as a book retailer, and as a book retailer they made books cheaper. Then they were pioneers in the e-book industry where they made books cheaper. Their recently announced plan to give readers free e-book copies of books they buy in physical form doesn't make books cheaper per se, but it does give readers greater value for their book-buying dollar. This is all great stuff.

But not everyone agrees. Emily Gould complains that "When ebooks and pbooks are bundled, the ebooks are sold at a loss. That's authors', publishers' and, associatively, non-AMZN retailers' loss" and "frustrating we have to keep explaining that ebook production is not free. digital objects are not made by elves."

Since I am a professional writer and I work alongside a lot of professional writers and since all of us here at Slate are producing digital content, a lot of my colleagues are sympathetic to this line of argument. And it's not an incorrect argument by any means. It's just a wrongheaded argument. What happens in a dynamic modern economy is that sometimes whole classes of people end up getting screwed by technological or business process trends that they have no control over. A generation ago, a whole swathe of analog page design people were put out of work by desktop publishing software. My neighborhood in New York used to be full of film development and photocopying shops who've now gone the way of the dodo. One response to this is to act all Randian and pretend that individuals can or should be held individually culpable for the fact that shifting tides sometimes end up putting you in a bad way. Another response to it is to encourage cartels and anti-competitive practices. Doctors would earn less money if nurse-practitioners were allowed to perform more medical services, so in many states they've made that competition illegal.

Advertisement

Writers can only be jealous. Thanks to the darn first amendment, we're actually unable to do what a lot of other professions have done and erect legal barriers to entry that protect our incomes. It is, in many ways, a sad state of affairs for us.

But that ought to make us leaders in the quest for the sensible alternative strategy—reasonably free markets in which special interests aren't protected from cost-cutting competition, supplemented by a welfare state committed to providing educational opportunities, health care, and retirement security to everyone. The fact of the matter is that cheap books are a boon to society, and people who think reading is important ought to see it that way. Conversely, expensive health care is a disaster for society and we ought to lament the cartels and protectionism and monopolies who push the prices so far up. Price-reducing changes often look terrifying—and often are terrifying—to individual groups of producers, but that's how progress is made and living standards rise.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

Moneybox

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.

Music

A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Music
Sept. 14 2014 11:44 PM A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?