Authors’ Protest of Amazon Shows That Bigger Isn’t Always Better in Business

Corporations and Creativity Dont Mix
Lily Padula for Variety

When some 900 authors last week delivered a call to arms against Internet giant Amazon, the subtext of their message went beyond a dispute about rights and numbers. It also signaled a growing discomfort over control of intellectual property in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

I am old enough to remember a time when books were published by publishers and movies were made by studios (that’s all they did) and here’s the dirty little secret: The product was better, and so were the margins.

Today, the corporate giants that own these industries complain that the movie business is too volatile, books and magazines too cyclical, TV series too risky and newspapers too depressed — indeed the whole damn creative community is too demanding and difficult to deal with.

All of which raises this question: What are these multinationals doing in these businesses to begin with? Why should the broad landscape of intellectual property be controlled by entities obsessed with share value, not artistic value?

The upshot is that writers are at war with their publishers and distributors, newspapers are being spun off into oblivion, and the movie studios are scheduling, at last count, some 30 comicbook superhero movies, effectively abandoning other genres. None of us are naive enough to believe intellectual property should be intellectual, but aren’t these companies getting carried away with their obsession to be risk averse?

I point this out only because the race for consolidation continues to accelerate, burying movies, magazines, books and music under still more layers of corporate number-crunchers. Wall Street has a vested interest in making this happen.

The Wall Street Journal last week reported the despair and frustration felt by arbitragers and hedge funds when megadeals like Fox-Time Warner or Sprint and T-Mobile were abandoned. The bankers’ stake in bundling things together is stronger than creatives’ stake in keeping things separate.

At present, six companies control 90% of the media consumed by Americans, compared with 50 companies some 30 years ago. A Fox-Warners combination would have resulted in a 40% market share for the surviving studio.

The writers’ revolt against Amazon, emblazoned in a full page ad in the New York Times and signed by the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham, demanded that Amazon stop using writers as hostages in its negotiations for a better deal with huge publishing house Hachette.

Amazon doesn’t covet a war with creatives; Jeff Bezos wants to create intellectual property as well as distribute it. He even bought the Washington Post at a time when companies like Gannett and Time Warner were spinning off newspapers. And when accused of building an oligopoly, he points out that, if the Comcast-Time Warner deal is approved, Brian Roberts’ company will own up to 40% of the nation’s broadband Internet connections (and as high as 60%, depending on how broadband is defined).

Even with the cancellation (or postponement) of the Fox-Time Warner takeover, the pressure across the corporate landscape is to pump up profits and share prices, irrespective of the potential damage. “Time Warner management must now sell investors on its growth plans to show why it ignored Fox’s interest,” declared Michael Nathanson of Moffett Nathanson Research. Hence, even HBO, whose revenues jumped 17% to $1.4 billion last year, must now scratch around for new revenue sources, and Warner Bros., while famously consistent, cannot afford another fall at the box office, as it experienced this summer.

In corporate America, bigger is always better, at least in the world of arbitragers and hedge fund mavens.

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  1. LOL says:

    Man, I buy from Amazon all the time. Bought a lawnmower, some vit D3 capsules and an iron, as well as many, many books recently. I’m reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries which cost me a quarter of its recommended retail price. In this age economic volatility, Amazon is simply providing value to the consumer. That must not be undermined.

    Look, creative people just want to create. The days of authors, rock gods and moviemakers making millions is over, not unless they give what the audience expects rather than curveballs. Yet curveballs will always exist, it’s just that we as consumers have to work to discover them. But to make money by creating original and daring new ideas is difficult to monetize.

    There is a cultural fear of change right now, The aim is to stick to familiar content and brands but go bigger. This approach will inevitable lead to a messy bursting point.

    When I was a kid in the ’90s the music industry invested in forty or so averagely popular bands of varied types. Now they just focus on ten mega-successful pop stars aimed at one massive consumer block. Says it all, really.

    • TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

      Wow, you were a kid way back in the 90s, the beginning of modern poison movies, TV and music. All that means is that you’ve been conditioned by toxic entertainment your entire life. Ok, we get it, you’re the official spokesperson for pop generation suck, the millennial hipster defender foil to Mr. Bart’s every column. But dystopian showbiz is not change. It’s Orwell literary prophesy come true via dreck media.
      … ..

      • TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

        Don’t be an apologist for toxic change. You missed the point of the article. Digital media has downsized the value of content and monopolized the playing field against authors.

      • LOL says:

        Be fair, BigBang. I was a teenager from 1991 to 1998. I’m sort of old now. Studios probably will put us in the same consumer bracket. I am a grownup.

  2. Directionless idea salad. At what point in the story does it support the title?

  3. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Given the rep of the author and the sick state of showbiz, it’s sad what little constructive feedback this column gets has to be filtered by mods. Reminds me of what’s left of the old Yahoo message board.

    • nan ryan says:

      mr. bart has hit the nail on the head.

      when i started out novelizing in th elate70’s (before being represented by great agents aaron priest, perry knowlton, bob barnett, william morris) my dear husband kept a yellow page ledger making date, time, publisher, and submission result.

      publisher after publisher, ACE, PAPER JACKS, WORLD WIDE, HARLEQUIN, GOLD MEDAL< yes, 50 plus chances.

      proud say sold two books to publishers who had turned them down more than once.

      tough today.

      then, if you could find a bored editor who wasn't constipated, unlucky in love, insomniac, they just might dig your M out of the slush and give you a reading.

      it was fun, sport.

      todays new writer may get traction if her sister's son knows how to use the

      social media and multiply the interests in the M.

      ah wilderness…

  4. Lynne Sands says:

    Oh, sir, how right you are! Welcome to the dreary, copycat, same-as-everybody-else, risk-averse world of modern media.

    I never buy from Amazon, on principle. I like saving money as much as the next pensioner, but selling your soul is not an option. I’m old enough to pine for the return of healthy independent bookstores and niche publishers, but I fear those days are gone forever. How sad for all of us.

    By the way, how about mentioning the gutsy author who began the protest that King, et al, signed onto later. That would be Douglas Preston, co-author of the Pendergast thrillers.

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