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Writers vs. Amazon

Interview: Annika Zeitler / adAugust 15, 2014

Joining their American colleagues, more than 100 German authors have written a protest letter against online retailer Amazon. John von Düffel told DW why he signed the letter, and why it also takes readers to task.

John von Düffel, Copyright: picture alliance / Sven Simon
Image: picture alliance / Sven Simon

DW: What kind of arguments have the German-language authors brought against Amazon's business practices?

John von Düffel: In Germany, a conflict has been brewing for months between Amazon and the Bonnier publishing group. This is, you could say, a smaller version of the conflict that has taken on much bigger, Hollywood-like dimensions in the US. The bone of contention there is Amazon's monopoly in the US, where there are huge conflicts between traditional publishers and the online store are on the horizon. In Germany, on the other hand, it's all a bit smaller, but not insignificant.

What is raging in the US, is a battle over discounts, a battle for margins. Amazon is trying to gain more and more discounts for its own benefit - and the entire publishing sector is moaning and groaning. Also in Germany, it's apparent that Bonnier's delivery times are much longer than those of other publishers, and that its authors appear further down on the ranking lists.

It can be suspected that the ranking has been manipulated by Amazon and that there will be tough negotiations with the publishing houses. Some critics are even talking about extortion. Considering Amazon's powerful market position, it's conceivable that it abuses that power to some extent.

Can we compare the conflict in the US between Amazon and the big publisher Hachette with the conflict here in Germany between the online giant and the publisher Bonnier? Is Amazon also exerting pressure on the German book market?

Yes, the German book market is also at stake. The Bonnier example happens to be the one that has come to the surface. Other cases have so far remained less public.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is under pressure from around the worldImage: picture-alliance/dpa

It's clear that the growth of Amazon's power has changed the style of negotiations, and our decisions as consumers also influence the market. Many people are too lazy to walk to the bookstore around the corner; they prefer having books delivered right to their door. It is our comfort that has created this monster. We have supported this monopoly, which is now using its own power to profit as much as possible.

Does that mean that in the protest letter is also an appeal to readers to rethink their consumerism?

Yes, because that's a factor that could hit Amazon in a sensitive spot. It can exist without me - but without customers, it's a bit more difficult. If our open letter reaches book buyers, that is Amazon's Achilles heel. All I want to say is that people should become more aware of what they are doing when they shop, and that they are always following the powerhouse.

These facts are not new, so why is the protest gaining momentum now?

I think it has something to do with fear. Who dares to attack a giant? That's why the protest took so long. And the publishing houses prefer to fight behind closed doors so they don't jeopardize their own business. And certainly there's a sense of fear among the authors - I'm sure I'm no exception. Who are we? What is Amazon? That's why this move by the American authors was so important in giving us the courage to speak up and say that we won't remain silent.

Have you come across authors who have a contract with Bonnier and are already at a disadvantage because of Amazon?

Some Bonnier authors whose books have been hindered by long delivery times. It is quite possible that there have been manipulations. I do think it's possible that in such a conflict situation, Amazon will do anything it can as Internet giant. As business people, they sometimes flex their muscles.

How long did it take to mobilize the authors?

The German Pen Center and the German Publishers and Booksellers Association took the initiative and sent and email to many authors and the list of signatories filled up very quickly. I immediately said I'd get involved and sign my name because it's important.

Do you feel compromised in your work by Amazon?

Until a few weeks ago, I didn't think much about that, because I haven't suffered from any setbacks due to Amazon. But when you talk to people in the business who see the bigger picture, you get concerned about the future since Amazon's monopoly is continually on the rise. That's why I thought we should do more to oppose this trend, even at this late stage. That's why I decided to become active.

Is there still a real chance of stopping the online giant?

That depends on all of us - not only on the authors, but also the consumers. And that not only concerns Amazon, but our entire purchasing behavior. We like to pretend that we are helpless, but in reality we are the ones who make decisions that benefit monopolies like Amazon. That's why this is also an appeal to us as consumers to think harder about where we shop. There's a lot we can do to help shape the world.

Is a world without Amazon still thinkable?

Amazon is an online shop, but not the only one. Amazon is a good thing for people who don't leave their home. But for those who do leave their home, walking to the closest bookstore to order a book is unproblematic. That only takes 24 hours and you don't have to go to the post office. There was life before Amazon, and there will also be life after Amazon.

The protest letter was jointly initialized by the German Pen Center and the German Publishers and Booksellers Association. John von Düffel was one of the first authors to sign it. The German author was awarded the Aspekte Literature Prize for his first novel, "Vom Wasser." He was a member of the jury of the German Book Prize in 2006. Düffel now works as a dramatic adviser at the Deutsches Theater Berlin and as professor at the Berlin University of the Arts.