As heralded in Teleread earlier, self-publishing poster child Joe Konrath and Matthew Yglesias, Executive Editor of Vox, appeared against Franklin Foer, former editor of The New Republic, and attorney and author Scott Turow, in the Intelligence Squared debate in New York, last weekend, arguing the motion: “Amazon is the reader’s friend.” And whatever one thinks of the merits of the arguments on both sides of the fence, the outcome was fairly conclusive: before the debate 41 percent were for the motion, 28 percent against, and 31 percent undecided; afterwards, 42 percent were for, 50 percent were against, and 8 percent undecided. On the other hand, voters who logged in to vote on the motion online were 75 percent for the motion, 25 percent against. So there’s quite a discrepancy between those in the hall and those outside.

The full transcript of the debate, running to some 60 pages, allows interested readers to follow the to and fro of the argument. Scott Turow cited “patriotism” as his reason for not buying from Amazon. Matthew Yglesias, though, kicked off with an appeal to size and market clout. “Why are they so dominant? My argument is, they’re so dominant in this space because they’re the reader’s friend. Who buys books? It’s readers. Amazon sells books to the vast majority of readers because it’s good for readers.” And as for competition, he argued, “Apple and Google, they both want to make more exclusive, more locked-down platforms … Amazon has won its market share the best possible way to win market share. It’s by doing a better job, offering a better service at a better price.”

In response, Scott Turow took issue with the word ‘friend,’ which, “as we commonly understand the term, means somebody you can rely on to treat your interests as equal to their own. And instead what the record demonstrates is that Amazon is nobody’s friend but Amazon’s.” In his view, the only innovation in the Kindle platform “was when Amazon convinced the publishers to allow digital books, eBooks, to be sold at the same time that hardcovers went on the sale. The publishers agreed, and as soon as they did that, friendly Amazon backstabbed the publishers and began selling eBooks at a loss of $3 to $4 apiece … , to stifle competition” and to skew the market “away from physical books,” which Turow styled “frankly a mugging sponsored by Wall Street.”

Konrath answered Turow by stating that: “Publishers are the bad guy and I’m going to tell you why. He said earlier we need publishers for culture, for rich literary culture. That’s incorrect. Publishers don’t write books. Authors write the books.” And, he pointed out, “since I started self-publishing on Amazon, my income went up 20 percent. Oh no wait. That’s wrong. It went up 20 times.” Publishers, in his view, “are a cartel. They are a form of monopoly called an oligopoly.”

Franklin Foer countered that Amazon is “not pursuing the greater good. They’re not pursuing cultural greatness. They are a company out to make a bunch of money. They have done this extremely well.” However, with Amazon controling “nearly 70 percent” of the market for books, “our crown intellectual jewels … when you have one company that sits there, and is the chokehold for books, that becomes a problem. It may not be a problem just now, but it will become a problem in the future.” And while admitting that “book publishers suck. They’re an oligopoly. They’re five big publishers,” he blamed this partly on Amazon, “because when companies see one big powerful player who controls their market, their natural instinct is to huddle together in safety and to cower.” His final call was “to send a message to Amazon, and to defend the book.”

In the free-fire section of the debate, Scott Turow argued that “the problem is that the monopoly wants to put the oligopoly out of business. Publishers are of no benefit to Amazon and they are doing their best to slowly squeeze them to death.” Konrath’s riposte was: “And that bothers you because you’ve made a lot of money with these publishers.” And Turow conceded that self-publishing is “a great thing … The problem is that the company that Joe champions, Amazon, wants to put the publishers out of business.” Yglesias’s view was that: “Book publishers are bad at their job of marketing books. That’s why they’re afraid of Amazon.” And he attributed Turow’s argument to “fear that … maybe the world just doesn’t want to pay for great literature.” Foer echoed this with the “nightmare scenario – which we’re on the road towards, where you have one company that is the arbiter of all things literary, all things book.”

So there you have it. Seems a large slice of the audience was swayed the same way. So why weren’t the wider public online? Which side do you agree with? Read the transcript in full to find out.


  1. None argued very well. But the depth of the pro side was significantly lacking

    Yglesias mostly argued: Amazon sells lots of books, really cheap. But McDonald’s sells lots of cheap burgers, does that make McDonald’s friends to food lovers? No. Cheap is not a supreme good. Efficient pricing is good for a healthy market, not low prices.

    Konrath mostly argued: Publishers don’t like me, while Amazon doesn’t give a shit so they’re my friend. But if I was a publisher, I would never have published Konrath either; everything that I have read of his is complete garbage.

  2. As a new author, I am grateful for Amazon creating a venue for my “America’s Galactic Foreign Legion” science fiction book series to be sold. E-book sales are over 40,000.

    The Big Five New York gatekeepers of what we used to be allowed to publish and read did not want me. I was not profitable enough, not liberal enough, and not marketable enough for their tastes. Because of Amazon’s innovation my books are out there. I market them myself. I did what they sneered could not be done. I became a literary and financial success, without the Big Five cartel.

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