From Joe Konrath:
This is the first in an ongoing series that Barry Eisler and I are writing. When we talk about zombie memes, we’re referring to arguments that just won’t die no matter how many times they’re massacred by logic and evidence. Because we’ve been shooting down so many of these memes for so long, and because they just keep reanimating (often repeatedly from the same people), we thought it would be useful to create an online source for easy (and time-saving) reference.
We’ll be tackling these memes one at a time over the course of the next few weeks and then publishing a downloadable compendium, so if you’ve encountered a zombie meme that you’d like to see addressed, please mention it in the comments. And if you’re aware of articles out there on this topic, please refer us to them so we can include links.
We’d also like to ask for your help in spreading this cure. When you see the meme “Amazon is a Monopoly” anywhere on the Internet, please link to this post. When fighting the walking dead, a group is always helpful.
Amazon is a Monopoly.
This meme is incoherent, mistaken, and perverse.
Incoherent, because the “evidence” of Amazon’s monopoly power is always that Amazon is hard on its suppliers, not on its customers (no one can argue with a remotely straight face that Amazon is anything other than exceptionally customer-centric). If the evidence is that a company is squeezing suppliers, it might be evidence of something called monopsony, not of monopoly.
Mistaken, because Amazon has numerous competitors, including Apple, Google, Walmart, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Kobo, Smashwords, Scribd, Oyster, and more than 2000 independent bookstores (with new indies opening all the time).
It’s important to remember that US antitrust laws were adopted to protect not competitors but competition. Monopolies (and monopsonies) are not themselves illegal — what is illegal is abuse or unfair acquisition of monopoly power. Ultimately, antitrust laws are intended to protect the consumer, and it’s difficult to argue that low prices, innovation, and an ever-expanding variety of products are bad for consumers (though valiant efforts are constantly made).
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Perverse, because it fails to point out there actually is a monopoly in publishing — or call it a quasi-monopoly, or oligopoly, or cartel. This is the New York Big Five (the cartel is right there in the name). The Big Five actually was prosecuted by the Justice Department for price-fixing under the Sherman Act. The Big Five settled; Apple fought and then lost. For any lawyers out there, note that price fixing is per se illegal under the Sherman Act. Meaning it is the very definition of abuse of monopoly power.
Of course, even if we didn’t know about the per se price collusion, we might surmise by its singular lack of innovation that the Big Five is functionally a single entity. Until Amazon pioneered online bookselling, digital books, and self-publishing, the Big Five was content to subsist on monopoly rents, developing nothing new or disruptive in generations.
In describing the Big Five as a cartel, by the way, we don’t mean to be insulting. We doubt even OPEC looks in the mirror and sees a cartel. Most likely, OPEC perceives itself as a humble organization beneficently managing prices for the good of society overall. This is just human nature, and there’s no reason to believe the Big Five views itself less attractively than does any other cartel.
Moreover, the Big Five has always itself functioned as a monopsony, abusing its author suppliers. How else to explain the forever-term contracts, the twice-yearly annual royalty payments, the lockstep low digital royalties, the outlandish rights grabs and draconian non-compete provisions? Could practices like these persist except by the abuse of vastly asymmetrical take-it-or-leave-it power exercised by a Big-Five controlled system against authors?
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The tendency of some writers to draw support for the validity of a zombie meme by citing previous manifestations of the same meme might offer some insight into the resilience of zombie memes generally. Zombie memes are based on emotion, not on evidence or logic (in fact, they are contravened by evidence and logic). It may be that finding other people who share your fears and prejudices has the effect of validating and reinforcing those fears and prejudices. After all, it’s easier to ignore evidence and logic when you can point to other people who seem to be feeling the same things you are.
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Ultimately, the “Amazon is a monopoly” meme is attractive to some because it seems to paint a veneer of objectivity and reason over what is fundamentally a subjective emotional reaction.
Link to the rest at Joe Konrath