Best-Selling Author Richard Russo Has Harsh Words for Amazon at PaidContent Conference

Richard Russo: attack dog sicking Amazon

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

Richard Russo thinks Amazon’s business practices are “unfair.”

The best-selling author of Empire Falls and other titles called Amazon’s business practices “predatory” and “unfair” at the PaidContent 2012 conference in New York City today.

Russo spoke of his daughter, Emily, who owns an independent book shop that is under pressure because of Amazon, according to Russo. He described a scenario in which readers would spend time enjoying the tactile experiences of a physical bookstore and his daughter’s literary expertise and then go home and buy the book online at And Emily will tell shoppers about new readers they’ve never heard of, to boot.

“These young writers that you’ve never heard of you’re not going to find out about because of Amazon’s algorithm,” said Russo. “Independent booksellers have never faced anything like Amazon.”

Russo was interviewed at the PaidContent conference, usually dedicated to high-level media strategy and investment discourse, because of the recent rise in interest in the future of book publishing, the Department of Justice investigation into Apple and the so-called agency five and Amazon.

Russo didn’t mince words.

“Right now, the government seems to have Amazon’s back,” said Russo. “They seem to want to referee the match but only call fouls on one side.”

Despite Amazon’s non-involvement in the lawsuit the Justice Department filed against Apple and five of the largest U.S. publishers, some in the publishing industry see Amazon as connected. Letters to the Department of Justice from literary agent Simon Lipskar and industry consultant (and DBW partner) Mike Shatzkin about the lawsuit and settlement both discussed Amazon’s place in the marketplace and effect on the system. With a reported 67% of e-book market share in the U.S., Amazon plays a significant role in the marketplace.

It hasn’t been reported whether Amazon is in any way involved. The day the lawsuit was filed, Amazon released a statement praising the Justice Department’s action. Being the largest U.S. bookseller, Amazon will certainly be affected by the outcome, as will many others.

According to Russo, the danger of the current direction of the book publishing industry is that if Amazon continues to gain market share and put other booksellers out of business, the industry will be “centralized,” which would be bad for authors, publishers and readers who depend on a vibrant bookselling ecosystem to foster content creation and consumption.

When presented by the interviewer, PaidContent reporter Jeff John Roberts, and audience members the fairness of Amazon’s actions considering the rise of digital reading, online retailing and other changes in the business landscape, Russo softened slightly.

“I am not anti-Amazon. I am in favor of Amazon playing nice in the marketplace,” he said. “Amazon is a wonderfully well-run company; they just need to stop some of their predatory practices.”

Write to Jeremy Greenfield

14 thoughts on “Best-Selling Author Richard Russo Has Harsh Words for Amazon at PaidContent Conference

  1. Henry Baum

    “These young writers that you’ve never heard of you’re not going to find out about because of Amazon’s algorithm.”

    Why not? I’m not being facetious – Amazon’s algorithm, “people who bought this also bought,” works pretty well. You can potentially find more books than you could in the past. The personal touch is nice, but it seems more like he’s being defensive on behalf of his daughter’s bookstore.

    1. Jeremy Greenfield Post author

      Just to offer one possible explanation — and the one I think Russo was invoking: If nobody has bought a book before (or very few have) then it’s unlikely to come up in the “people who bought this also bought” recommendation engine.

      So, in the case of a young author, it would be hard to be discovered in that way.

      Of course, that’s not the only way people discover books.

      1. Henry Baum

        That’s true, but I imagine that by the time it starts getting recommended by bookstore staff, it’s probably sold one or two copies.

        I don’t know why I’m saying this though, because I’ve sold more of my first novel through a Powell’s display than has sold on Amazon. Other novels have benefited from the algorithm.

      2. Jen Talty

        My understanding was that the algorithm also kicked in based on searches, so if your book was found during a search for something else, it could end up in the “other’s bought this”. I’ve seen my book next to some pretty big names. Doesn’t necessarily mean anything other than someone saw my name, but that’s all part of discoverability–getting your name out there.

        1. An engineer

          There are several algorithms at work in different parts of Amazon’s website. “Customers who bought this also bought that is one of them, and that is strictly driven by purchases. However, there are also “customers who viewed this also viewed that”, and that can obviously show a book before it has many sales. If you go to the recommendations pages, those take into account things that people have liked on Amazon (Amazon has a “like” mechanism), things on people’s wishlists, and several other sources of such data.

  2. Bob Mayer

    Once again, someone who is on the inside of the top 5% of legacy publishing defends the business that treats him well. Certainly understandable. Everyone is protecting their turf. And his daughter’s turf. Overall, my experience with indie bookstores has been negative as a genre writer. More than 50% of the time the owners turned me away, with little interest, as I was not a literary writer. Of course, since genre sells over 90% of fiction, one would think that’s not a smart way to run a business.

    I suggest Mr. Russo pull all his titles from Amazon since he finds them so distasteful. Same with Scott Turow and Malcom Gladwell. That would be making a true statement. I don’t believe people should have their cake and sell it online at the same time they badmouth the online venue that is paying them.

    I love Mr. Russo’s books, particularly Nobody’s Fool and recommend them all the time. But I would hope he understands everyone is not in his situation. And, again, if he really, really feels Amazon to be so bad, he really, really needs to insist his books not be sold on it.

    I would submit that if the day came that his publisher didn’t offer him a new deal, we would suddenly start seeing Richard Russo publishing on KDP. I’ve just seen another legacy bestselling author do this. She bad-mouthed eBooks for years, but now suddenly is clearing out her old files and publishing old short stories and even original chapters of drafts of published books on KDP.

    Seems people can change their opinion when their situation changes.

  3. Will Entrekin

    “These young writers that you’ve never heard of you’re not going to find out about because of Amazon’s algorithm”

    Really? I’d think that’s patently untrue. Since I got a Kindle in 2010, I’ve tried way more books by way more young writers I’d previously never heard of. I’d wager a lot of discoverability comes via Twitter, but just as much comes from browsing Amazon’s lists of top-selling and most popular Kindle books on an almost-daily basis.

    “Independent booksellers have never faced anything like Amazon.”

    Really? Not even Barnes & Noble? I think B&N did way more to drive independent booksellers out of business than Amazon ever did. Heck, independent booksellers can use the Amazon Affiliates/Associates or Amazon Marketplace programs to actually make money through Amazon.

  4. Mary Lisa Bailess

    As a young writer nobody’s heard of, I believe it is Amazon’s algorithms that give my book an audience. My little novella sells in the UK and Germany, and I don’t believe Emily, Richard Russo’s daughter, could have done that for me.

  5. Jayne

    I have some harsh words for Mr. Russo: I will not ever be purchasing or reading another book written by you. I would never be able to enjoy it knowing that you prefer collusion over competition.

  6. Eric Welch

    This is so sad. It smacks of desperation and the worry of a father for his daughter’s, but it is so divorced from reality. My experience with independent bookstores has been so negative. They rarely want to carry local authors or anyone without a name. I can understand that, after all, they have limited shelf space. As for people coming in for the \tactile\ sensation and then running to order books from Amazon, I suspect it might occasionally happen, but I bet Mr. Russo has no empirical evidence that it does. Amazon has clearly done more for unknown authors than anything in the past one hundred years. The idea that legacy publish are the guardians of \quality\ is contradicted by a mere glance at their catalogs.

    The legacy publishers are free to start their own Amazon competitor and if they do it better and cheaper I will be the first to switch. The fact remains they have no interest in selling anyone’s books but their own so it would be a limited store indeed.

    The legacy publishers are saddled with an immovable infrastructure, a business model that often sees 50% returns and requires printing way more than will ever sell, not to mention an accounting system that harms authors, and a system of advances that severely limits their resources to back unproven authors.

    I wish Russo’s daughter well, but she might want to consider selling some other things in addition to books and Mr. Russo might want to try publishing his next book using CreateSpace so he would at least have a little knowledge before he speaks.

  7. Jiilian Dodd

    I don’t have print books to sell in Indie book stores, but readers seem to be finding my books thanks to Amazon. My e-books sell on Amazon’s site 30:1 over any other online bookseller. I’m grateful for them. I also think if you want to own a successful business, you have to be on top of the trends in your industry. Pretending the trends don’t exist and calling your competition an attack dog is not going to help your business.

  8. Annie Cosby

    Agreeing with most of the above comments!

    “These young writers that you’ve never heard of you’re not going to find out about because of Amazon’s algorithm.”

    I think that’s precisely what Amazon’s (many) algorithms do!

  9. Steve M

    Independent booksellers have been on death’s doorstep ever since Borders and Barnes & Nobel came to town. Now indeed, one of the above killers may have been killed in turn by Amazon, but the days of the Independent were marked long ago.

  10. Rod Younger

    As an independent (online) bookshop totally concur with Richard Russo’s views. In fact we have some specific examples of amazon approaching our reviewers on an unsolicited basis.

    I discussed this with mike shatzkin at LBF and have written to D o J, EU and UK Competition authorities about their behaviour and the fact they need investigating for abusing their near monopoly and the affect they have on independents (off or online).

    To date amazon have not been able to explain how they came to approach one of our reviewers – 6 weeks later and 3 “holding” emails.

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