Random House Penguin and Amazon: Too Big and Too Fast

Every time I see that condescending actor from AT&T pretending to have fun with kids on TV, I want to strangle Random House — or no, Amazon — for pushing Bigness, Speed and MORE, MORE, MORE as the American ideal in the first place.

I know some people think the AT&T guy is cute and congenial with children, but most of the time he encourages kids to act out, then makes fun of them.

actor from A T & T with kids

actor from A T & T with kids

“It’s not complicated!” comes the steroidal AT&T announcer, and the awful message is clear: Be bigger, faster, and more hyperactive — you’ll go nuts a lot sooner than your parents.

Big, Bigger, Biggest

Recently we all got a similar message when Random House merged with Penguin to become “the biggest and most dominant publisher in the business,” as the New York Times puts it.

Random House Penguin is now so big it accounts for “a quarter of the world’s English language books,” according to The Financial Times. Its annual revenue will be something like $4 billion. The number of new titles every year is projected to be 15,000, coming from 250 imprints.

Ranguin-House-logo And now that that a federal court has ruled against Apple for conspiring with smaller publishers to raise the prices of e-books, Amazon will be even more free to “set terms for publishers, who have had little recourse” finding other distributors, says the Los Angeles Times.

This means Americans should thank the new Random House Penguin for being “large enough to shift the balance a little.” Heartening, isn’t it? The biggest publisher in the world is being portrayed as a champion of the little guy.

We can skip quickly over the stuff you know — that book publishing is an expression of First Amendment protections, that a citizenry like ours needs many diverse voices to keep democracy healthy, that 250 imprints within a single corporation is not the same as 250 distinct publishing houses seeking 250 different directions at once.

All this tells us to be wary of any behemoth pretending to nurture independent thinking under a giant corporate umbrella. What we always see when a company like Random House gobbles up the competition is tyranny taking over, sameness dominating the landscape and expedience the only goal.

For example, I kept hoping during the Paula Deen scandal that Random House would act like a real book publisher for once instead of the big publishing thug it’s come to be. What a naive thought. In a typical move, after making millions on her books, Random House joined other companies to dump the Food Network star like a piece of garbage and walked away.

I don’t mean that Random House should have apologized for or tried to save Deen from her self-made role as America’s Professional Loudmouth. I mean that Deen inadvertently became a lightning rod for the storm of accusations about racism that’s been roiling under the surface since the Rev. Jeremiah Wright gave the finger to white America in 2008. And what a unique book publishing opportunity emerged from the Deen fiasco as a result!

It would only have taken Random House to think creatively about its role — not as a big global corporation with teams of lawyers demanding the safest way out, but rather as a powerful voice for expression and dissent. Had Random House commissioned a series of honest, no-holds-barred books about race by many different authors and contributors (maybe including Deen), history might have been richer for the explosive language, the deep passions, the hatred and also the hope about race that rarely surfaces in the mainstream.

Fast, Faster, Fastest

Meanwhile, in its insane zeal to be the fastest, biggest retailer on record, Amazon appears to be hoodwinking the country (or at least the president) by spending $13.9 billion since 2010 on 50 giant, industrial-sized warehouses in order to beat Wal-Mart and eBay on order fulfillment.

President Obama visits an Amazon warehouse

President Obama visits an Amazon warehouse

Amazon’s goal is same-day delivery, perhaps the most overhyped term since subprime mortgage. It means that in these days of massive job losses and foreclosures, Americans are so coddled and so spoiled that we must receive our thumbtacks, tea bags, golf clubs and flat-screen TVs on the very day they’re ordered.

Do we really? Or is this just a way for Jeff Bezos to spend more money now that Amazon must collect sales tax and aims to drive other competitors (not just independent bookstores) out of business?

Moving faster and faster and getting bigger and bigger has been the aim of Amazon and Random House all along. It’s a takeover gamut with terrifying consequences.

Like those kids in the AT&T ad, we consumers think we have a choice in what we read and how we consume. But the day is coming that “customer-centric” will simply mean we get to buy whatever “they” decide to sell. And no, that’s not complicated.