Melville House spears its “predatory” white whale — Amazon.com
Dennis Loy Johnson doesn’t mince words in announcing that Melville House will boycott the Best Translated Book Award now that Amazon is a sponsor: “Taking money from Amazon is akin to medical researchers who take money from cigarette companies.”
The boycott is important because Melville House, founded by Johnson and wife Valerie Merians in 2001, published the most recent winner of the fiction prize, The Confessions of Noa Weber, by Gail Hareven, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu.
Melville House publishes some 20 translated titles a year — “that’s more,” notes Johnson, “than Knopf or FSG.”
Johnson praised the two-year old prize, administered by the University of Rochester, as “a good thing” for small publishers trying to produce good books in “a market and culture made difficult in many ways by the predatory and thuggish practices of Amazon.com.”
“So we were saddened — and puzzled — by the surprise announcement last week that the award would now be underwritten by none other than Amazon.com,” Johnson wrote at his blog, MobyLives.
Amazon has ponied up $25,000 for administrative costs plus $5,000 prizes for the authors and translators of winning titles. Chad Post, director of Open Letter Books, the university’s publishing house, says the the cash prize will “greatly enhance the reputation and reach of the award.”
Johnson, however, goes beyond name calling, providing numerous links to examples of Amazon thuggery and predation, including examples of the giant e-tailer bullying readers, publishers, bookstores, and many more.
He might have included today’s item from Publishers Weekly, showing how Amazon manipulates sales figures to make it look like e-books are much more popular than printed books, when the opposite remains the case.
“Amazon’s skill at crafting catchy headlines detailing its strong e-book sales is one of the chief things contributing to an impression that the e-book market is bigger than it actually is,” PW observes.
Taking Amazon’s list of hottest titles and then asking publishers for sales figures, PW discovered that print books outsell digital versions by a large margin — 67 percent print to 33 percent digital in the case of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
That’s not to say digital books aren’t a growing and important part of the market, but they are nowhere near to taking it over. Nor does it seem inevitable, as Amazon would have us believe, that they ever will. E-books, PW reports, account for only 10-15 percent of publishers’ revenue.
Of course, Amazon has a huge stake in promoting the narrative of e-book inevitability. If most readers ever do convert to digital books, then Amazon will gain a stranglehold on books, publishing and literature. Bookstores will disappear, and maybe publishers, too. (“Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Jeff Bezos sound effect).
In subsequent remarks, Johnson has made it clear that Melville House translators or authors are not barred from nominating their work for the translation prize. But it would do “our authors more harm than good” if the publisher participated in the process.
“The point is, it’s clear to us that Amazon’s interests, and those of a healthy book culture, whether electronic or not, are antithetical,” Johnson says.