Germany's culture minister speaks out against Amazon

German culture and media minister Monika Gruetters recently addressed the campaign by European authors protesting Amazon's business tactics with Swedish publisher Bonnier Group. Gruetters said she 'supports' the effort.

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In Europe, the Amazon-Bonnier dispute has taken on an entirely new dimension, with one government minister claiming Amazon’s actions are endangering cultural life.

German culture and media minister Monika Gruetters has weighed in on the e-books pricing conflict, saying she “welcomes and supports” a campaign by European authors protesting Amazon’s business tactics with Swedish publisher Bonnier Group

Gruetters said that books are as much a cultural asset as an economic one and that Amazon’s negotiating tactics have endangered cultural life in Europe – an argument not often heard in the US.

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“[L]iterature, books, publishing houses…are a foundation of our cultural life,” Gruetters said. “They must not be subject purely to market principles. Dealing appropriately with these values also has an ethical dimension. This applies to all players – including Amazon.” 

Her statement comes in the midst of a dispute between Amazon and publisher Bonnier over e-book pricing. Recently, more than 1,000 German-language writers signed a petition protesting Amazon’s actions. The petition accuses Amazon of manipulating recommended reading lists and making Bonnier-published books less available as a punitive tactic in its price negotiations with the Swedish publisher.

News of the European dispute comes as Amazon has been locked in a months-long standoff over e-book pricing with Hachette in the US. This very-public conflict has seen high-profile authors publish a public letter asking Amazon to cease its punitive tactics. Amazon supporters have also published their own letter.

But the American conflict is different from the European one in several ways.

As we mentioned in an earlier blog post on the issue, Europe has laws in place protecting its publishing industry and is particularly wary of Amazon’s effect on its literary culture. 

“Across many European countries, price protections such as laws forbidding deep discounting protect many smaller specialty and boutique publishers – publishers that are endangered or simply driven out from the US publishing landscape. In its fight with Amazon, Bonnier and its supporters may be fighting to keep European price protections that protect its publishing industry,” we reported in an earlier post, “Amazon-Bonnier battle goes public with protest by European authors.”

As such, it is no surprise that even government officials in Germany have begun speaking out against Amazon. 

“Market power and domination over central distribution channels should not endanger our cultural diversity,” Grütters said in her statement.

“If titles are removed from recommendation lists and deliveries are delayed to enforce discount demands from publishers, this is totally unacceptable,” Grütters said, stressing that books are both “economic goods” and “cultural property.”

These statements take the Amazon-Bonnier dispute to a new level, beyond the realm of market regulation and into that of cultural ethics. 

Of course, such an argument will likely face opposition on this side of the Atlantic.

Some in the US see the Amazon-Hachette fight as “a battle between two giants who have very different visions of the future,” as publishing veteran Steve Cohen said in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. 

Cohen said Amazon has already transformed the book business for the better and he’s betting the online giant’s e-book pricing innovations will only serve to further improve the e-books business. 

“When Jeff Bezos launched Amazon 20 years ago, the unique promise was that this online bookstore would carry millions of titles,” Cohen writes. “That was Amazon's first publishing innovation, and it made possible the 'long tail' of Internet selling. 

“It was soon followed by 'look inside' browsing, algorithm-driven book recommendations, deep discounting, great customer service and the Kindle e-book reader. All of these helped drive Amazon's share of the bookselling market to almost 30% and a much larger share of the e-book market.”

For these reasons, Cohen says, “I'm supporting Amazon. I think Amazon is far more likely to come up with innovations that may save book publishing, which is in desperate need of being saved.”

With this, the Amazon pricing battle has grown more complex: Two battles on two continents with two different frames, one about preserving culture and one about promoting innovation. Which has more merit and which will ultimately prevail?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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