The book industry is getting comfortable with the m-word: They are beginning to like the way it feels when it leaves their lips, the way it reads in interviews, the way it sounds in public conversation. Popular airport storyteller James Patterson recently told BookExpo: “If Amazon’s not a monopoly, it’s the beginning of one.”
Amazon’s pointedly cold conflict with Hachette, a company with a major part in Amazon’s past and little obvious role in its future, at first felt personal—like, there must have been some bad blood, or a grudge, for Amazon to effectively de-list one of the largest publishers in the world, right? But the reality is worse: Amazon’s tactics are the rational actions of an organization with no real peers and an outlook of pure domination: Barnes and Noble has effectively given up on ebooks and is dying, generally; Amazon’s biggest remaining ebook competitor was neutralized by the Justice Department due to antitrust concerns, which somehow sort of made sense at the time but is, in retrospect, mind-boggling.
Amazon’s behavior is of a type we might see a lot of this year—bald, unapologetic power-wielding by companies that provide basic services—as the foundational companies in our all-important telecom and media infrastructure muscle and merge themselves into unaccountable self-perpetuating giants. 2014 is the year of the Time Warner/Comcast merger, which will occur against the backdrop of an FCC with no convincing interest in regulating the internet and at the despair of every single customer involved. AT&T and DirecTV will also merge because…. nobody at AT&T could come up with a good reason not to? I guess you don’t want to be a merely massive company in a landscape of incomprehensibly vast multi-industry money-warping entities. You would feel so helpless!
Further down the stream, Facebook is doing everything it can to monopolize media distribution—if everything goes to plan, the company will own the next giant link-sharing service, in WhatsApp, so publishers, get your stories packaged and ready for texting!
It all feels very sudden, but it’s been a long time coming. The cellphone companies and cable companies have been anticipating some sort of mass consolidation for years, and Amazon has been grasping at monopoly status ever since it survived the first dot-com collapse. These companies are already comfortable acting like monopolies, too: Deal with Amazon in anything other than a customer service capacity and you’ll find yourself mired in something that is unmistakably uncaring and bureaucratic; deal with AT&T or Comcast or Time Warner in any capacity and try feel anything but helplessness.
On the other hand, choices are stressful.