Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

“Will Amazon Lead Us to the Golden Age of Books?”: A Panel Event

What do you get when you put an author, an executive editor, a bookstore owner, and a radio host into a room together and ask them about Amazon’s influence on the book publishing industry?  Hosts New America Foundation NYC and Slate’s Future Tense gave people a chance to find out last night with the “Will Amazon Lead Us to the Golden Age of Books?” panel event.

The panelists dove right into discussing Amazon’s influence on the book industry and its even larger influence on getting everyone involved in discussing the book business.  “This is fantastic fodder for every journalist out there, right? It’s David and Goliath.” WNYC New City Tech Host and Managing Editor Manoush Zomorodi said.

It’s true that there’s always a David and Goliath complex in publishing.  “Publishers have always hated their biggest accounts,” author Hugh Howey said, noting that publishers used to hate Barnes & Noble just as much as they now hate Amazon.

It’s more than the usual story, though.  At least with Barnes & Noble, it was book people fighting with other book people.  “I don’t think people would hate Amazon so much if people thought they really cared, understood about books, and were good,” moderator and NewYorker.com Editor Nick Thompson said.

Regan Arts Executive Editor and Associate Publisher Lucas Wittmann agreed. “I think for Amazon a book is a diaper, is toilet paper, is a car –it’s kind of the same thing for them.”

McNally Jackson Books Owner Sarah McNally has a less romanticized view of the old Barnes & Noble disagreement and reminded attendees that independent bookstores were “on their knees” way before Amazon came around because of the chain bookstore.  In the past, Barnes & Noble would purposely open stores across the street from independents to force them out of business.  These days, it’s celebrated as one of the remaining brick-and-mortar bookstores for consumers.

The problem ultimately might not even be Amazon. “If you got rid of the company, all these things would still happen.  People would still shop online. Someone would fill the void,” Howey said.

So the responsibility lands on the consumers.  They have to make their own morality pact to support the independent bookstores and the mom-and-pop shops of the world, not only for books but for all products.  For her part, McNally says she’s only bought one thing on Amazon –she can’t remember exactly what– and it was her last resort after searching all the nearby stores for it.

This isn’t to say that Amazon’s all bad.  “Amazon has made a lot more people able to get good books all across the country where there aren’t these amazing bookstores like Sarah’s,” Zomorodi said. A good example is where Howey lives.  The town of 60,000 has no bookstores, so Amazon brings them a service that no one else can.

Acknowledging the title question at the end of the event, the panelists seemed to agree that this probably isn’t the beginning of a Golden Age for books.  It’s possible, they postulated, that the golden age passed us by back when Mark Twain and Charles Dickens were in their writing prime or even with the more recent book club trend spurred on by Oprah.  Only Howey seemed to think that today’s climate of Internet publishing could be called the Golden Age soon.

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