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Scott Turow responds to U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust threat

At the end of last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Justice was looking into the possibility of filing an antitrust lawsuit against five major publishers “ Simon & Schuster, the Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Penguin Group “ for alleged price fixing in the area of ebook sales. Apple was also named as a potential party to the suit.

The news prompted best-selling author Scott Turow, president of the Author’s Guild, to issue an open letter criticizing the move. In the letter, Turow praises Apple’s adherence to the agency model for digital sales, which allows publishers to set prices and prevents online sellers from discounting them. Turow blames Amazon, which has built its Kindle business on deep discounts for ebooks, for “using e-book discounting to destroy bookselling, making it uneconomic for physical bookstores to keep their doors open.”

Turow goes on:

Two years after the agency model came to bookselling, Amazon is losing its chokehold on the e-book market: its share has fallen from about 90% to roughly 60%. Customers are benefiting from the surprisingly innovative e-readers Barnes & Noble’s investments have delivered, including a tablet device that beat Amazon to the market by fully twelve months. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are starting to compete through their partnership with Google, so loyal customers can buy e-books from them at the same price as they would from Amazon. Direct-selling authors have also benefited, as Amazon more than doubled its royalty rates in the face of competition.

Let’s hope the reports are wrong, or that the Justice Department reconsiders. The irony bites hard: our government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.

His letter sparked immediate and vigorous condemnation online from writers and consumer advocates accusing Turow of being beholden to “legacy publishers” who charge artificially high prices that unfairly gouge consumers. (The fact that Amazon takes a loss on some ebook sales in order to entice customers to buy electronics and other goods is something that largely goes missing in these responses.)

One such reaction appears on Joe Konrath’s blog. In a lengthy rejoinder, Konrath and fellow author Barry Eisler deconstruct Turow’s letter point by point. Eisler writes in part:

This argument is just bizarre. I mean, Amazon, which sells more books than anyone, is destroying bookselling? Amazon is destroying bookselling by selling tons of books?

Watch the linguistic dodge: Scott is implicitly arguing that the only model that counts as bookselling is the current model, built and maintained by legacy publishers and brick-and-mortar stores. That is, bookselling = physical bookstores. Online bookselling doesn’t count as bookselling. He’s arguing as though physical booksellers are the only legitimate organisms in the forest, while Amazon is some sort of exotic interloping alien species rampaging through a healthy native ecosystem. This is the only way to make sense of an argument that states, Amazon is destroying bookselling by selling so many books.

Whether or not the DoJ lawsuit ever materializes, this recent campaign in the publishing wars is simply another indication of the degree to which the two sides have become entrenched, with neither side willing to see any merit in the other’s arguments.