Amazon's last defenders? Literary nonprofits wrestle with ethics of taking Amazon grants

Despite the e-tailer's bigfooting, some nonprofits still view taking Amazon's money as a necessary evil

Published May 28, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Jeff Bezos              (AP/Reed Saxon/<a href=''>Pakhnyushcha</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
Jeff Bezos (AP/Reed Saxon/Pakhnyushcha via Shutterstock/Salon)

The escalating war between Amazon and publishers, specifically Hachette, is only heating up. Seemingly determined to control e-book pricing, Amazon has stripped the "buy" buttons for Hachette titles and informed customers that many Hachette books will be delayed by several weeks. Many publishers and authors believe these tactics -- unnecessarily protracting delivery times, inflating prices, diversion -- to be not only unfair and oppressive, but illegal.

Meanwhile, perhaps to support small presses, or perhaps to curry favor with the literary world, Amazon has for the past few years bestowed monetary grants numbering in the millions to literary nonprofits.

Reporting on this two years ago, Salon speculated that such efforts -- 20 grand here, 25 there -- could either be pure generosity or, just as likely, easy public relations designed to polish Amazon's reputation and drive respected voices in the literary community to their side or even purchase their silence during a controversy such as this.

At the time, when Salon approached staff at some of the organizations that had received support from Amazon, many had arrived at the same conclusion: Accepting money from Amazon was a necessary evil no matter how resounding the company's industry bigfooting had become. Nonprofits, especially, require funding to do ostensibly good work. The value of the work ultimately overshadows the source of the funding.

However, in light of Amazon's most recent battle with Hachette, Salon decided to go back to some of these nonprofits and see if their stance had changed.

Patrick Thomas is the managing director at Milkweed Editions, a small press that puts out 15 to 20 books a year. He says Milkweed took a grant from Amazon four years ago and has not received or requested additional funding since. He admits to being wary of any funder with a reputation as disturbing as Amazon's has become.

"All of that said," Thomas told Salon via email, "we don't have a hard and fast rule about accepting their money. Are Amazon's business practices increasingly disconcerting? Sure. Are they worse than some other corporations funding the arts today? Hard to say.

"Add to this the frequently unspoken reality that, while the publishing world vehemently opposes the devaluing of literature Amazon appears to be engaging in, Amazon sales make up a third or more of net sales across the industry. Without that amount, where would we be? If Amazon continues to dominate the marketplace and own the majority of book sales in the country, I can only guess it will mean less money for writers on a book-by-book basis and a less dynamic publishing environment. But they are simply a business taking advantage of weak oversight, which is what businesses tend do. Hard to throw all the blame at their feet while the government does nothing to level the playing field."

For Chad Post, at the University of Rochester's Open Letter literary translation press, the correlation between funds and work is simple: "The money we receive from Amazon goes directly to writers and translators," Post writes. "As long as Amazon continues to give us an award to pass along to these great -- and undervalued, underpaid -- artists, we'll continue to accept it and pass it along."

The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses has been receiving annual grants from Amazon for years. When asked yesterday if that would continue, executive director Jeffrey Lependorf mostly doubled down on his comments to Salon from two years ago.

"Twenty years ago you might have been asking me if we would accept support from Philip Morris," he writes. "The answer then, as it is now in terms of whether or not we will continue to accept money from Amazon, is yes. Do we support all of Amazon's business practices? No, we do not. Do we feel that they also do good? Yes, we do."

Lependorf explains that the private foundations that have, in previous ages, established and supported nonprofit literary organizations have all but disappeared, leaving a corporate giant like Amazon, with recognizably ulterior motives, to step in and fill the financial void.

"What Amazon and many other corporations do in funding genuinely wonderful causes like ours is what has long been known as 'cause-related marketing,'" says Lependorf. "For years, this kind of corporate philanthropy has both done genuine good while at the same time striving for the imprimatur of goodness from having done so. To their credit, Amazon has put no restrictions on how grantees might or should speak about Amazon, and they have done tremendous due diligence in making their excellent funding decisions."

But many of the nonprofits Salon contacted over the course of two days declined to comment on or off the record -- another scary sign of Amazon's massive power. The PEN American Center refused to comment; Poets & Writers stopped responding to calls;  a whole host of organizations (Archipelago,  Lambda Literary, 826seattle,, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Cooper Canyon Press, and the Kenyon Review, to name a few) never replied at all.

Lependorf, at least, is grateful that Amazon P.R. has never asked him specifically not to talk to the press. "At the point where any of us feel that we're silenced by accepting funding," says Lependorf, "that's when we must say no."

By Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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Amazon Books Hachette Jeff Bezos Literature Nonprofits Publishing