Issues and questions of the week: Are the days of the book numbered?

Should Amazon’s latest attempt to dominate the ebook market make us fear for the written word?

The battle for the future of the written word entered a new phase this week with the launch here of Kindle Unlimited, an ebook subscription service touted as the Netflix for books.

The latest move by Amazon to dominate the ebook market comes in the middle of a very public row between the internet retail giant and publishing behemoth Hachette.

In this case Hachette, the Paris-based multinational group with billions in annual net sales, is David to Amazon’s Goliath.

The contract dispute over ebook pricing and distribution reached boiling point last month when a group of more than 900 authors, including Hachette writers Malcolm Gladwell, Donna Tartt and Stephen King, ran a full-page letter in the New York Times claiming Amazon was "harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business".


They were talking about Amazon’s guerilla tactics to discourage customers from buying Hachette books.

Amazon upped prices, delayed shipping and encouraged shoppers to buy “similar items at a lower price”.

Like most dysfunctional relationships, this dispute is about control.

Amazon already controls about 65 per cent of the ebook market in the US and about the same percentage of printed book sales online.

Publishers and writers have been forced to depend on it. With Kindle Unlimited, Amazon could amass even more power over the book market.

Available to Irish customers through Amazon’s UK website, the service offers unlimited access to more than 650,000 ebooks and thousands of audiobooks for a monthly fee of £7.99 (€10.21).

Customers need not own a Kindle– anyone with a smartphone, tablet or computer can use Kindle Unlimited to gain unrestricted access to a wide range of books. Ultimately, however, are they really subscribing to a sales model that restricts their freedom to choose? The fear is many important books never reach an audience because of Amazon’s filters.

And what about old-fashioned paper books, which studies show are not the preference only of cranky luddites? The Bookseller, a British trade magazine, yesterday released statistics indicating that 73 per cent of UK youth prefer paper books, and 31 per cent do not buy ebooks.

Young people seduced by book spines, however, may find it hard to argue with Amazon’s price model.

For authors, the stakes are high. "Right now, the future of our literature is in danger . . . bookstores, libraries, authors, publishers and books themselves are caught in the crossfire of an economic war between publishers and online providers," James Patterson, author of many a bestselling thriller, told a book industry event earlier this year."Amazon also, as you know, wants to control book selling, book buying and even book publishing, and that is a national tragedy."

If this battle scares the likes of Stephen King, maybe the rest of us should be worried too.