Digital Book World has released a free-to-download white paper, “Viewpoints on Publishing’s Digital Transformation,” ahead of, and to raise interest in, its Digital Book World Conference and Expo in New York in March. And the kickoff contribution is “Sleeping Through a Revolution,” from Jonathan Taplin, Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and Director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. There, he claims that we’re all the victims of a conspiracy by a small clique of dark and evil men that has plunged us all into a digital nightmare.
Specifically, “by the late 1980s, a small group of radical libertarians based at Stanford University and led by Peter Thiel began to hijack the original vision of the Internet and
to create instead a set of monopoly firms (Google, Amazon, Facebook) that destroyed the original vision of decentralization and harmony.” Whew, Stanford, nothing but a front for the Illuminati, eh? Taplin then goes on to claim that: “For artists, the dreams of digital democracy have turned into nightmares; the music, movie, book and journalism businesses have been decimated by the rise of digital monopoly platforms. A massive reallocation of revenue, on the order of $50 billion a year, has taken place, with economic value moving from creators and owners of content to monopoly platforms.”
Now, that’s a trenchant enough statement to be worth looking at in detail. First, why is the current environment a nightmare for artists? Taplin does substantiate this by saying that: “The effect of Amazon’s monopsony in the book business is to constantly force authors and publishers to work for less money. In Amazon’s view, as long as the customer gets lower prices, society should not care that writers cannot make a living, that independent bookstores go out of business and publishers die.” But is that really the effect that Amazon is having? And the only effect? There isn’t any mention at all of the self-publishing ecosystem which Amazon has not exactly created but has certainly helped spread and facilitate. Plus, the Big Five’s success in reimposing its pricing model on Amazon recently suggests that Amazon isn’t getting things all its own way in pricing – however bad the effect on ebook sales as a whole, which surely hurts authors just as much.
Also, where is that $50 billion figure coming from? Taplin doesn’t explain, though admittedly DBW has only given him one page to make his case in. I find it hard to imagine that $50 billion a year of revenue is finding its way from the well-lined pockets of writers and musicians into the clammy paws of Amazon. But out of the pockets of “owners of content” – a.k.a. Big Media? Very possible. Furthermore, impeccably qualified author advocacy groups like the Society of Authors in the UK, and even Big Five pet the Authors Guild, haven’t been complaining about Amazon half so much as they’ve been complaining about Big Five publishers imposing onerous contract terms.
Bear in mind that Taplin is the voice of Big Old Media. As his bio explains, he began his career in 1969 “as Tour Manager for Bob Dylan and The Band. In 1973, he produced Martin Scorsese’s first feature film, Mean Streets… Between 1974 and 1996, Taplin produced 26 hours of television documentaries … and 12 feature films.” And his remedy to the problem he describes is suitably old-world. “The solution to this dilemma is for publishers and writers alike to push the government to revert to the pre-Reagan era standard for antitrust enforcement.”
Now, the question of an Amazon antitrust case is a discussion that some day we might all need to have. But when that discussion comes, it should be an open and balanced one, not a conspiracy theory piece of special pleading. Maybe DBW is just providing a curtain-raiser and teaser for a more sensible, substantiated presentation from Taplin at its conference. I certainly hope so.