Followers Refusing to Follow
It was an arresting sight – to those of us who still read the papers on paper. Last Sunday two full pages of the New York Times were filled with names. Some 900 names, so the print was small. But there they were, some of them famous, some not, all of them belonging to authors lining up, signing up to protest one of the most visionary of American leaders, the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos.
Like other tech titans approximately of his generation, Bezos has been an American darling, not only because of his technological genius but because of his acumen as a businessman. In relatively short order, Bezos built Amazon into one of the greatest operations on the planet. So for years he was untouchable: we watched in amazement and admiration as he grew his company beyond anyone’s wildest early imaginings.
Now however the worm has turned, at least slightly. First, the size of Amazon’s losses (some $800 million this quarter alone) has raised eyebrows, questions about whether, as the Times put it, “Amazon’s money-losing ways are finally catching up with it.” Second, one major publisher, Hachette, has had the nerve publicly to take on Amazon, to challenge in no uncertain terms some of its most onerous practices. And third… this. This spectacle of many of America’s best known writers – Stephen King, Donna Tartt, Robert Caro, Malcolm Gladwell, and Michael Lewis among them – standing alongside many of their lesser known counterparts to pressure Bezos to settle its pricing battle with Hachette. to “stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.”
By definition writers are a lonely lot. Or, at least, they do not work in groups and they do not travel in packs. This though is an exception to the general rule. This is an example of an assemblage that normally is disparate and disorganized joining forces and getting organized. For the purposes of this protest they have grown a leader – Douglas Preston, who publishes with Hachette – and they have become a group that has a name, Authors United. But the 909 people who signed the letter to lobby Bezos have no common cause – except this one. The fact that they became a collective to oppose the very man on whom they depend for sales of their wares sends a signal that Bezos would do well to heed.