Last summer, when the writer Douglas Preston began approaching other authors to ask them to sign a letter calling on Amazon to cease impeding customers’ access to certain books in a bid to force the publisher Hachette to accept new terms, he was troubled by the number who said no.
It wasn’t that they disagreed with the letter. They were afraid. “If it had been one or two who had said, I don’t want to tangle with Amazon, that would have been one thing. But it was lots of authors,” explains Preston, who writes thrillers. In the end, some 900 authors did add their names to the letter, which Preston published as a full-page ad in the New York Times, but many more declined. Among them are “authors you know and love,” says Preston, as well as a wide range of less well-known novelists and nonfiction writers, all scared of Amazon’s singular capacity to ruin their livelihoods.
What does it say about the state of free speech if people who regularly take up the pen to communicate their ideas are cowed into silence by a powerful gatekeeper? That’s a question that Preston’s coalition, Authors United — with backing from the American Booksellers Association, Authors Guild, and Association of Authors Representatives — is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate. In a 24-page letter to William Baer, the head of the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, Authors United contends that Amazon is abusing its market power in ways that undermine competition and compromise liberty, free speech, and democracy.
Preston knows that many people will have a hard time seeing an aggressive monopolist in the same friendly company that offers them discounts and fast shipping. Until last year, he was of that mind too. “I loved Amazon,” Preston explains. “I was in touch with some of their top executives. I gave them exclusives. I thought Amazon was this wonderful force for good in the publishing world.”
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