A group called Authors Unite is stepping up its war against Amazon after sending a letter to the US Department of Justice asking it to investigate the online bookseller for allegedly violating antitrust law, according to The New Yorker’s Vauhini Vara.
The letter, which starts out by clarifying that “we [the authors] are not experts in antitrust law, and this letter is not a legal brief,” argues that by reducing book prices, Amazon has created an environment where publishers are now scared to publish controversial or relatively unknown work as it won’t generate the same revenue as a blockbuster best seller.
Antitrust cases usually revolve around protecting the consumer from a company that has the largest market share in any market, setting prices that far exceed the actual value that is delivered. While Europe and the US have different methods, as detailed by Ben Thompson of Stratechery, the end result is that they protect consumers from high prices and encourage innovation as no company has a large enough advantage over another to relax.
The case presented by Authors Unite is far more qualitative and emotional as it is based around the idea that Amazon is creating a “cultural monopoly” — as The New Yorker puts it — by forcing some publishers into only accepting content that has the widest audience rather than forcing prices up, a practise that will stifle the publishing of more niche material.
“The much larger issue in our view is the dominance that Amazon — through its artificially depressed book prices — wields over the book ecosystem, and the potential repercussions on the free flow of information and free expression,” the letter states.
But encouraging the DOJ to act upon this, at least within the framework of an antitrust case, could be difficult Daniel Crane, an antitrust expert at the University of Michigan Law School, told The New Yorker. “While it may be attractive, on a philosophical level, to argue that Amazon is bad for us because it makes our culture poorer, measuring that effect would be difficult, if not impossible. How would one go about valuing an unpublished masterpiece by an unknown author?”
Fortune’s Mathew Ingram explains where the case could unravel: “Whether they like it or not, one of the main benchmarks for whether an antitrust offence has taken place is whether consumers have been harmed — and all the available evidence shows that Amazon’s behaviour in the e-book market in particular has helped consumers by keeping prices low.”
Prior to this letter, Authors United reached out to Amazon’s board of directions on the same issue but the board did not see a reason to change the company’s practises.
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