A good summary of Amazon’s most recent bullshit can be found here. It’s a good enough summary. I just want to make a couple of points.
A book–a novel–both is and isn’t a commodity. It is in the sense that, given a stack of the same book, it matters not at all, to anyone, which one the reader buys, and it is produced for exchange. It isn’t a commodity in the sense that it is subject to all of the strange combinations of changing tastes and fads and social dynamics of the moment as a film or a sculpture or a record or a painting, all mediated through the author’s skill, taste, and perception. A publisher, therefore, is caught in an interesting bind. In order to make a profit and continue publishing books, the book must be treated as a commodity–as a mass produced item that fulfills a human want and that has an exchange value. In order to get a good product, the book must be treated in some measure as a work of art–authors are idiosyncratic, and a good publisher will fill certain positions with people who are skilled in getting the best work out of these strange beasts (having editors and production people who actively love the sorts of books being produced is kind of cheating, but it seems to work).
Here’s the thing: As consumers, we know that businesses exist to get us to cough up cash and don’t give a shit about us as people; that’s the nature of the beast. But we don’t like to have our faces rubbed in it. We would like the guy at the store or on the other end of the customer support line to least pretend he cares about us. In the same way, as writers, we don’t like having our faces rubbed in the fact that, to make a living, we have to produce a commodity. We (okay, I, but I’m not the only one) care deeply about the stories we tell, and believe that we can tell stories that will move and delight, and thrill and even sometimes enlighten our readers, and that this is, above all, why we do what we do. We don’t like to be reminded that we’re just a piece of a massive money-making machine, and that while we and our agents negotiate furiously for how much of the pie we are going to get, above us are massive corporations that are arguing even more furiously, and nastily, and about how much of the pie they are going to get.
This is not, in my opinion, a moral issue. Amazon is doing what it does because it is a corporation and only cares about the bottom line, like any corporation. There are no heroes in this. But it is very much a practical issue. If Amazon succeeds, many writers who are, at present, making a living as writers, will have to augment their living doing other things, and this will mean they will write less, and I will have less good stuff to read. It is also a personal issue; many of the people being fucked over, or in danger of being fucked over, are friends of mine.
I’ve stopped buying books from Amazon; I think this will make exactly no difference. I have no confidence in consumer pressure against an organization the size of Amazon (I have even less confidence in the US Government’s anti-trust investigators). So, no, I do not see a solution. I hope I’m wrong, but it looks like Amazon can pretty much do whatever it wants, and readers and writers are simply going to have to deal with it. Like I said, I hope I’m wrong.