Two of my favourite ways to lose time online are amazon and twitter so it's something of a bonanza when twitter points me to an article about amazon... In this case from The New Yorker. Amongst other things it argues that "amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimum value". I'm not sure it's a statement I entirely agree with but it's certainly a question worth considering. The subtitle is "Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?" I'm not sure I agree with that either.
I'm old enough to remember the net book agreement in the U.K. It was great for independent bookshops - no one could under sell them, and I suspect better for publishers and accountants too, and as the U.K. is a reasonably cheap place to buy books (no vat on the paper sort) customers probably didn't suffer unduly under the old system either. Now of course the retailer with the greatest buying power, and those able to sell either at cost or at a loss have a definite advantage over there competitors, long term I don't believe that's in anyone's best interest, not even the customer who feels like they're getting a bargain. When margins are squeezed like that all our choices are diminished.
As far as amazon goes I'm basically a fan, although their plans for world domination are undoubtedly a worry, for every bad news story there's generally a positive one as well and I very much like being able to get cut price cookbooks. The thing is when you get away from the big name titles the discounts aren't actually that huge, many, if not most of the fiction paperbacks I look at are within a pound or so of what I would pay on the high street (if I could find them on the high street) and balanced against that saving is the hassle of dealing with couriers. In this country at least I would be tempted to say that supermarkets have done as much to alter the perceived value of a book as amazon has, although I guess it's amazon who now set the benchmark as to price as anyone with a smart phone (and a signal) can check and judge cost accordingly.
What I'm still coming to terms with however is the idea of ebooks. I've only very recently stuck a toe in the water with these. My phone has a kindle app and from time to time I've found it useful. When trying to sell me on e-readers (it's a losing battle people, I'm never going to be a convert) the main argument used is always for the amount of classics available free or at very low cost. I notice there's also a murky underworld of free or very cheap fiction most of which I take to be self published (after ordering a few Viking saga's I was recommended some really odd 'romance' titles).
Free is a seductive sort of price for the hard up but it definitely devalues books as a whole. Another thing I've noticed over the last couple of days are a number of one star reviews for otherwise well received titles based purely on the kindle price. This seems really unfair for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that it clearly has nothing to do with the content of the book. Authors, publishers, and even electronic booksellers have to make a living, and e-books attract vat which does it's bit to push prices up. Part of me feels a little bit smug when I read howls of protest from someone who has just shelled out £100 or more on a shiny new device only to discover that they still have to pay a reasonable amount for content for it. They seem to feel so cheated, but then it's hard to really understand where the money is going, or even why you have to pay it when you don't get an actual object to hold in return.
I don't believe that amazon is responsible for fostering the idea that books are of minimal value anymore than Penguin were in the 1930's when they introduced those orange paperbacks. Paperbacks that can still be picked up for pence in any number of second hand and charity shops. It's a good thing to live in a world where books are basically affordable and easily available, it's a great thing to have a market place in which small independent publishers catering for a niche audience can easily reach that audience. It's an interesting thing to have a retailer so all reaching that they get to set the perceived value of a book but I think that in the end responsibility basically stays with the customer and buying cheap now might not be best for us in the long term.