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I should, I suppose, be heartened by the prospect of a book mogul acquiring my hometown paper. The reason I migrated to D.C. from New York in 2000, after all, was to work as an editor for the Washington Post’s Book World, which was then one of just a handful of intact standalone review sections in a major newspaper. And now that Book World, like so many general-interest review sections, has gone the way of all flesh, it could well fall to Jeff Bezos, who made his first several tens of millions in the book retailing business, to revive literary journalism in the less-literary-than-ever precincts of Washington in the Boehner era.
Already, kibitzers are counseling Bezos to work his synergistic magic on D.C., and thereby wrest at least a measure of gatekeeping authority from the New York establishment that still presides, in jumpy sclerotic bursts, over American publishing. But as Bezos’ rapid ascent to the top of the book business has shown, the Amazon brand has prospered in defiance of literary values rather than out of any sentimental deference to them.
Consider the company’s rather abusive relationship with its signature product, the book. Bezos launched Amazon in 1995 because he was looking for something that could be quickly shipped via Internet orders and would not perish in transit. It is only because books come in reassuringly uniform rectangular shapes and sizes, in other words, that the Post is now in the possession of a book retailer, as opposed to a cheese kingpin or a baron of Frisbees.
Add to Bezos’ opportunistic embrace of the book-as-conveyable-object the intense marketing pressures that Amazon uses to drive down the costs of big-ticket titles. In 2009, the firm tried to strongarm the Macmillan company into undercutting its already dramatically reduced prices for e-books so as to nail down a yet greater share of the market for bestselling hardcover titles. (Amazon eventually relented only because another online titan, Apple, was able to preserve Macmillan’s preferred pricing, together with the slightly higher margins a handful of other publishers were battling to keep, in its race to the retail bottom.) Amazon announced its reluctant and unprecedented concessions to Macmillan with a grudging bit of Orwellian PR speak: “We will have to capitulate because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles.” Variations of this battle to smite the business model that publishers use to market their products—and not incidentally, to compensate writers—have played out in the exploding e-book market, which Amazon has also sought to dominate through its ad-infested Kindle platform. Not surprisingly, nearly all of these dustups have been decided in Amazon’s favor.
In other words, the real monopoly power in American publishing doesn’t belong to the likes of Macmillan, and certainly not to the endangered band of independent publishers struggling to preserve their own livelihoods in the Internet age. No, the mascot of the new millennial information economy is clearly Amazon, which has vertically integrated itself at the production and distribution centers of the book business, even as book sales now only account for roughly one-quarter of the online behemoth’s revenues. Indeed, for all the nifty codes and gadgets that spill forth from Amazon’s smiley-face maw, its path to market domination is that of any industrial trust from the Gilded Age: stake a claim to total control over the distribution and manufacture of a crucial raw material; drive out competitors operating on a smaller scale through aggressive price-fixing campaigns; and then position yourself to manipulate market access, and advantageous profit margins, at will. The only difference in Amazon’s case is that the raw material in question is, or was, a work of the human imagination.
In this top-heavy configuration of intellectual networking, it’s a glum prospect to ponder just how a Bezos-run Post will handle the chief currency of intellectual debate: the power of autonomous readers and knowledge workers to generate principled dissent. One news-gathering thought experiment is quite uncomfortably close to hand. Could Amazon’s maximum leader, who has staked so much of his success on the algorithmic monitoring of consumer buying habits, recognize the genuine threat to democracy posed by the National Security Agency’s rampaging, unmoored surveillance state? After all, the Graham family’s Post only lucked into the Edward Snowden scoop courtesy of a documentary filmmaker who had collaborated with Bart Gellman, a former staffer who’d decamped for Time magazine in 2011 and wrote up Snowden’s disclosures on a freelance basis. Should we really expect the Bezos-era Post to staff up with a team of investigative reporters to keep close tabs on the public-sector version of Amazon’s business model?
Or to return to the hot-house terrarium known as the book-reviewing world: One of the finest hours of my Book World tenure came when I was running the section while my boss was on book leave. I had assigned a review of a largely admiring biography of the onetime New York Times Washington bureau chief James “Scotty” Reston to Jack Shafer, a former Washington City Paper editor and impassioned scourge of Reston’s patented style of access journalism. Now, it so happened that Reston had also given then-Post publisher Don Graham his first-ever job in journalism, as a Times copy boy. Graham was far from pleased to see Shafer’s Reston-bashing review. But because he respected our section’s editorial independence, he didn’t call me on the carpet, or otherwise seek to second-guess Book World’s coverage of the cozy-to-incestuous nexus that produces so much unsightly courtier-style writing and thinking in the corrupt corridors of Washington power.
Instead, he wrote a letter to the editor, which we duly printed in the section, while giving the irascible, Post-baiting Shafer the opportunity to have the last word in an author’s reply. It was, so far as I know, the only time that the publisher of a major newspaper was driven to draft a letter to the editor dissenting from material published in his own newspaper.
I hope I’m wrong, but it’s difficult to imagine a similar sequence of events playing out in the hypothetical scenario of a Bezos-run Book World. Based on the way he runs his day job, I’d expect Bezos to react to the appearance of a review he didn’t like by plastering the online version of the piece with a few dozen or so low-price Amazon Buy buttons touting the book being panned. In this respect, the Bezos acquisition of the once-mighty Post feels entirely fitting: In intellectual discourse, as in every other quarter of life in today’s Washington, the market is destined to have the last word.
Chris Lehmann is an editor at the Baffler and BookForum, and is working on a history of American religion and the culture of money.