Churchill, Jefferson and the meaning of democracy: Panelists debate future of publishing

For a discussion titled "Amazon: Business as Usual?" panelists at the New York Public Library cited Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson and the Stamp Act of 1765. Questions were raised about the future of democracy, the manners of Silicon Valley and the consequences of religious war.

This is clearly no ordinary time in publishing.

"What's at stake is writing," best-selling novelist James Patterson said Tuesday night at a gathering before some 150 people, many from the publishing world. "It's our livelihood. It's the livelihood of our friends."

As Amazon and Hachette Book Group remain in a standoff over issues such as revenues from e-book sales, with the online retailer restricting access to books by Patterson, Malcolm Gladwell and other Hachette authors, literary agent Tina Bennett moderated an often passionate 90-minute exchange among Patterson and five other speakers. They included publisher Morgan Entrekin of Atlantic Monthly Press, the author and net neutrality advocate Tim Wu, political theorist Danielle Allen and attorney and founder of the music download service, Bob Kohn.

Sympathies, both onstage and in the audience, were strongly with the publisher and traditional publishing. Panelists worried about Amazon's growing power and that its determination to lower prices would put competitors out of business and force publishers to cut royalties, making it harder for authors to work on their books. Bennett said the negotiations between Hachette and Amazon "could change our business forever," and likened her situation to sitting in a hospital waiting room while a loved one was being operated on.

Amazon has provided few comments on the conflict with Hachette and, according to Bennett, declined an invitation to send an official to the library Tuesday. Standing in for the Seattle-based company was David Vandagriff, an intellectual property attorney who on his blog earlier in the day had wondered if he was the only panelist not subject to "Amazon Derangement Syndrome."

Entrekin and others spoke of publishers as indispensable patrons of literary culture, investing in books that sometimes take years to complete and taking on authors who aren't profitable, but have something important to say. "They could make more money just publishing the kind of junk I write," Patterson joked. Vandagriff advocated for authors (including his wife, G.G. Vandagriff) who broke from the industry and published through Amazon, saying they had more control and received much higher royalties. Patterson worried that Amazon was a danger to free expression, even invoking the image of burning books. Vandagriff praised Amazon as an innovator dedicated to its customers.

"What do the people who work at Amazon think of when they get up and in the morning?" said Vandagriff, who on his blog earlier in the day had wondered if he was the only panelist not subject to "Amazon Derangement Syndrome." ''They are entirely, completely focused on pleasing and delighting the millions of people who shop there."

A few groans were heard in the auditorium. Fellow speakers onstage responded.

"Are you talking about the warehouses, or the corporate headquarters?" said Patterson, referring to numerous reports that Amazon's warehouse employees endured harsh conditions.

"Jeff Bezos, when he goes to work every day, his job is a different job," Kohn said of Amazon's founder and CEO. "His job is to win a winner-take-all game."

Publishers fret even in the dullest moments, and Bennett asked each panelist to rank the current climate on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 business as usual and 5 a five-alarm emergency.

"3," said Patterson, who has been a leading critic of Amazon among writers and believes their "religious" passion will sustain them.

"4," said Allen, who agreed with Patterson that writers were a strong force against Amazon, but was skeptical that the general public would get involved.

"5," according to Kohn, who said that Amazon was "predatorily" pricing.

"1," said Vandagriff.

"3," Entrekin said, but he was talking about the present, when the industry is relatively stable. The future could well be a 5.