Should Any Ebook Reseller Be the Custodian of Our Literary Culture?

In the last post to this blog I pointed out that the Big Six publishers have about 51% of the overall market for print books, and that this percentage was just fine. The 49% left over for independent publishers is easily enough to support a vibrant literary culture.

But to what extent do the Big Six dominate the market for eBooks? At this point nobody is compiling reliable numbers, but since print bestsellers and eBook bestsellers are usually the same titles, a good guess is that the Big Six have about 50% of the eBook market too.

This degree of dominance in the eBook market is to my mind also just fine: in addition to the Big Six, there are thousands of independent presses keeping every conceivable cultural pot boiling. No, the real worry is that just two or three online resellers are going to be allowed to dominate the distribution of eBooks, and that they will be guided purely by the crassest sorts of commercial considerations: the desire to achieve overwhelming market share; the ability to set prices; the power to crush competition; and a financial interest in keeping inconvenient or unprofitable content from reaching the market at all.

Why should publishers cede all of this power to these new players in the book business? It is obviously true that producing good content is the hard part of making a good book, no matter how that content is captured. How much credit do we give a printer for manufacturing a book we enjoy? Some credit surely, but nowhere near as much credit as we give a book’s author and the editorial team that polished the text. Is the important thing about an eBook the fact that it turns up on the latest new device? The distributors of eBooks have gotten way ahead of themselves when they suggest that their systems or devices are more important than the content they deliver. This is the tail wagging the dog.

We should also keep in mind the danger of censorship. In the case of printed books we have been over this ground time and again. Do printers control what books are printed? Do booksellers decide what ought to be sold? No, they do not, although at various stages in our history they tried to. Should an electronic distributor be allowed to restrict what we read? As a society we have faced these censorship issues again and again, and in all instances we have said NO except for very extreme cases involving pornography or the protection of children.

The real danger may be even more prosaic. Those of us little guys who have had to deal with large corporate entities know that getting inadvertently stepped on is the serious problem. If you are a mouse sharing a stall with an elephant, at some point that elephant will need to scratch its rump against the rough boards of its stall and you may be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nothing personal about it, you’re just squashed.

The eBook distributors of this world may intend no evil, but then again they intend no particular good either—except perhaps to generate favorable profit margins for their stockholders and senior executives. But books are not widgets, and a purely commercial standard of corporate virtue is just not good enough when the viability and vitality of our literature and culture are at stake. No monopoly is ever a good thing, even in the case of widgets. A monopoly on book content, whatever the intentions of the monopolist, would be a cultural catastrophe.

Photo: Curt Matthews, CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated. Courtesy of The Chicago Tribune Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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