Amazon update: when will the Justice Department step in?

A lot has happened since I wrote about how Amazon has pressured Berkshire Publishing (“How is hurting readers, authors, and publishers” -  4 June 2014). There have been accusations, petitions, and even a network TV documentary. BBC-Newsnight-tweetI received many thoughtful emails and was interviewed on BBC TV Newsnight and by the New York Times (“Amazon, a Friendly Giant as Long as It’s Fed“). My article was widely distributed and reprinted, and turned into a podcast interview in “Beyond the Book,” a series hosted by Copyright Clearance. Continue reading

@BerkshirePubGroup @BIBF

Thomas ChristensenThe Beijing International Book Fair takes place at the end of August, and Berkshire Publishing will be represented by Tom Christensen, speaking at the International Digital Publishing Forum Conference on the 29th. Tom has been our “China guy” since he was a teenager. This photo shows him teaching at Langzhou University in western China in 2009, when he was a visiting scholar on a research project organized by Professor Gregory Veeck.

Friday 29 August 1:00-1:25 Reference Publishing case study – Tom Christensen (Associate Director, Berkshire Publishing) Berkshire Publishing, founded in 1998 as a print-centric reference and encyclopedia publisher, has evolved into a multi-channel publisher of print and digital resources on a wide range of topics, with a distinctly global perspective. Berkshire Associate Director Tom Christensen will outline the practical issues Berkshire has wrestled with in moving to digital as a mainstream form of content, and in navigating the print-to-digital transition as a smaller publisher that nevertheless undertakes global distribution.

Tom is also planning some research on Chinese food for our latest project, the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines, by going to the hotels that each province operates in Beijing and talking to restaurant staff about their most important dishes and ingredients.

Register now for IDPF@BIBF! Produced in partnership with the China National Publications Import and Export (Group) Corporation (CNPIEC, the BIBF organizers), IDPF@BIBF is the first-ever International Digital Publishing Forum event in China. The practical program (English and Mandarin simultaneous translation) will feature publishing senior executives and thought leaders and is designed to offer actionable insights and empowering tools for executive, business, and technical leaders in publishing houses and publishing industry suppliers seeking to go out into the global market. To register, email: . The conference price is US$195.

Train Campaign success!

I’ve written before about the Train Campaign, an effort that began in 2011 after author David Christian and I took the existing train line from New York to visit Berkshire Publishing in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. We received stunning news in July: the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) Board of Directors had authorized an investment of almost $50 million in improvements to the historic line to the Berkshire Hills, which now runs only freight trains on tracks dating from the 1920s. The improvements will be to passenger standard, laying the groundwork for passenger rail service between Pittsfield, MA, and Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Read more by clicking here.

West Cornwall Train Campaign meeting, August 2014.

West Cornwall Train Campaign meeting, August 2014.

Here’s an op-ed I wrote to explain how this effort is aimed at creating a model and tools for passenger rail restoration initiatives elsewhere in the United States, and why it fits so well with Berkshire Publishing’s focus on sustainability: Return of rail service within reach. I also wrote about how I was inspired by trains in China. Though the hills and valleys of New England will not allow for high-speed rail, rail connectivity is something that will be every bit as important here.

We welcome information and comments from people anywhere in the world, and you can help the Train Campaign with donations and by signing our Bring Back the Trains! petition at

Fireflies by Carl Kurtz

America’s Dream for Independence Day

My garden is full of fireflies on these hot summer nights. They sweep through the damp grass, like tiny falling stars. When I was a child in Iowa, we called them lightning bugs and collected them in jam jars to make magical glowing lanterns. Tonight, we’ll have fireworks in the sky above, because it’s the 4th of July, the US Independence Day. Fireworks are an essential part of the celebration. Like lightning bugs, they’re magical and meaningful. A warm hearth or campfire brings a family or a band together, but fireworks are for everyone within view – a symbol of our bigger connections, and of our national unity.

Their brilliance sparks our imagination, and sets off our dreams. Night falls, but light comes. The blazing fountains reach for the sky. This year, they make me think about the dreams and aspirations we have for our country, these United States, this America the Beautiful. Berkshire Publishing is proud to announce the publication of This Is America: A Short History of the United States, which will help students understand the aspirations of our country’s founders and leaders of the past, and to get a better idea of what the American Dream is all about.

In 2014, many people are wondering about the American Dream. Is it about absolute equality or equality of opportunity? Is it about material prosperity and getting rich? Is sustainability the new American dream? A report from the PR firm Ogilvy & Mather found that “local community” was  now the focus for the majority of those polled, and that “consumers didn’t fully understand the idea of sustainability until they found themselves living unsustainable lives – working too hard, carrying too much debt, and not living or planning for the long term. Now consumers are re-imagining their lives for a sustainable future for themselves and their families.” Individuals have dreams and aspirations, and in some sense groups and societies do, too.

Over the past year we’ve heard a lot about the Chinese Dream from president Xi Jinping. This echoes the concept of “The American Dream,” which has been around for nearly 100 years. Journalist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently wrote that “It’s Now the Canadian Dream.”  These national dreams reflect human aspirations for happiness and community as well as for economic prosperity, but economics provide the foundation, the base of the human well-being pyramid, and I’m glad we included a good deal about the wealth question in the final chapter of Berkshire’s newest book, This Is America. You can read an extract at This Is America: Unity From Diversity.

Further reading


This Is America: Unity From Diversity

This Is AmericaFinal chapters are always difficult, and I put a lot of time into “Unity from Diversity,” the last chapter of This Is America, which we’re thrilled to announce on the 4th of July 2014, US Independence Day.

I’d had little involvement in creating this book, and I need it as much as anyone because I ignored US history entirely as a student, eager to learn about the rest of the world but dismissive of my own, rather boring country. I made my staff miserable for a week with demands for changes in the final sections, even though I reassured them that the same thing had happened a couple of years ago when we were finishing This Is China: The First 5,000 Years. I become conscious of all the criticisms that could be leveled against us, in summing up a nation. In this case, the section on wealth proved to be even more difficult than the one on religion. Here’s how we dealt with income equality, the Occupy movement, and global capitalism in a few short paragraphs:

The United States is among the wealthiest nations on Earth, with a gross domestic product (based on purchasing power parity, a measure favored by the World Bank for determining buying power) of $52,000, compared with $58,000 in the United Arab Emirates, $35,000 in Japan and Great Britain, $23,000 in Russia, $11,000 in China, and $459 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2011 data). Within the United States, as in many other nations, there is a considerable gap between the people who own most of the nation’s wealth and the rest of the country. The average US household’s wealth has declined and income has been flat for decades. Many economists argue, however, that quality of life for poorer Americans has in fact increased overall, due to the cheapness and ubiquity of consumer products such as flat-screen televisions and smart phones.

One Oxfam report estimated that the 30 richest individuals in the United States owned as much wealth—over $790 billion—as the nation’s poorest 157 million people combined. This disparity is increasing: income and wealth disparities in the United States are now more similar to those in Russia and China than its historical peers in Western and Northern Europe, such as France, Denmark, and Finland. According to Thomas Piketty’s 2014 book, Capital in the 21st Century, this is a matter of simple economics: as long as the income an individual can collect from his or her wealth is a higher percentage than the percentage growth of the economy, the larger this gap will become. In a time of slow growth, the wealthy will take an increased share of national income.

The disparity in wealth in the United Status was brought to the public eye in 2011 by the Occupy Wall Street movement. One of the movement’s principles was that the “one percent” was controlling too much of the nation’s wealth, to the detriment of the other “ninety-nine percent” of the population. This, in turn, led to accusations that the wealthy did not pay their fair share of taxes, because they had the means to pay skilled tax accountants and tax lawyers, and capital gains tax rates can be half that of normal income taxes. The wealthy countered that increasing their already high income tax burden would only serve to drive down the nation’s economy; they also argued that wealth distribution is not a matter of fairness or unfairness but rather is a reflection of global economic realities.

One common criticism of the Occupy movement was that it did not have goals or leaders and did not offer much in the way of practical solutions, and while some believe that income disparity goes against the very idea of the American Dream, others argue that the American Dream is, in fact, the market at work. The founding fathers did not have wealth in mind when they spoke of all men being equal.

One result of this growing disparity that is not up for debate is that Americans now have a lower level of economic mobility than do people in most developed nations. In other words, those who are born wealthy are likely to remain so, and if an American is born poor, he or she is far more likely to remain poor than someone who lives in Canada or the Scandinavian nations. This was not the case in the past, and the United States referred to itself as the land of opportunity.

A related issue is that of political spending. In 2010, by a five-to-four margin, the Supreme Court overturned its own twenty-year-old ruling that barred corporations from unlimited spending on political campaigns, sparking widespread controversy. As a result of this decision, corporations and non-governmental organizations have begun spending money on political activities at a greatly increased rate, and often anonymously. The question of how much money individuals and corporations can shower on political parties is one of the more controversial issues in modern American politics.

This Is America is the fourth book in a series called “This World of Ours.” The series is designed for use by non-US students as well as by general readers anywhere in the world. This Is America is also an excellent refresher on US history for Americans, and contains fun things like “China’s (First) Embrace of American Food” – which took place during the Ming dynasty. The book is a perfect springboard for a new edition of Berkshire’s Global Perspectives on the United States. The new edition will cover world opinion about the United States through the Obama years and will include new articles on many topics that have come to the fore since the first edition came out in 2007, near the end of the George W. Bush presidency.

Use this code to get 25% off on your purchase: SUMMER14.

Recipe: Strawberry Shortcake

Shortcake is not shortbread, the crisp buttery squares that go so well with tea. I described shortbread as a kind of scone, served as scones are, in Cornwall, with clotted cream and jam. I preached the virtues of unbleached flour, sweet butter, and an added egg yolk, and haven’t changed my mind. The one variation I make on the traditional American dessert is that I do not add sugar and vanilla to the whipped cream, after becoming addicted to the thick plain cream served in England. In Great Barrington I can buy fresh, heavy local cream and it’s delicious on its own, but if your only option is ultrapasteurized whipping cream from the supermarket I urge you to add a little sugar, or stevia, and vanilla extract (known, delightfully, as vanilla essence in the UK).


Strawberry Shortcake
Recipe type: Baking
Cuisine: American
When I lived in London in the 1980s I often had a party on the 4th of July. Although this meant competing with the tennis finals and coping with some snarky comments about upstart Yanks, no one could resist our Independence Day treat. I almost always double this recipe, even for a small group. Leftovers, if you have them, are delicious for breakfast the next day with strong coffee.
  • 2 cups unbleached white flour (this is a US measure, and 2 cups of flour is approximately 8 oz.)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder (or substitute mixture of cream of tartar and baking/bicarbonate of soda, 2 parts to 1 part)
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • ½ stick butter (2 oz.)
  • 1-2 egg yolks, depending on size (1 large or 2 small)
  • Between ½ and ¾ cup milk
  1. Combine dry ingredients with butter – I use a food processor for this. In a bowl, beat egg yolks with part of the milk. Add to the dry ingredients with enough milk to bind. Mix as little as you possibly can, turn onto a floured board or cloth (I love pastry cloths!), press together into a smooth ball and roll out about ¾” thick. Cut with a round cutter or glass dipped in flour. Bake at 400” until golden.
  2. Allow to cool, then split horizontally. Butter each piece on the inside if you are truly unconcerned about calories and cholesterol. Place the bottom half on a plate or in a shallow bowl (not Styrofoam though), pile high with strawberries that have been cleaned, sliced, and mixed with sugar. These preparation can be made ahead of time, with assembly right before serving. Add a blob of whipped cream, and put the top of the shortcake on top. Add more cream and then a final spoonful of strawberries and their syrup.


Does copyright protect Elvis sightings?

As we celebrate the founding of the United States this Friday, it’s salutary to remember that the US’s record is mixed, and mixed-up. These Frequently Asked Questions about copyrighting Elvis sightings and star namings come straight from the US government’s Copyright Office.

How do I protect my sighting of Elvis?
Copyright law does not protect sightings. However, copyright law will protect your photo (or other depiction) of your sighting of Elvis. File your claim to copyright online by means of the electronic Copyright Office (eCO). Pay the fee online and attach a copy of your photo. For more information on registering a copyright, see SL-35. No one can lawfully use your photo of your sighting, although someone else may file his own photo of his sighting. Copyright law protects the original photograph, not the subject of the photograph.

Can I get a star named after me and claim copyright to it?
No. There is a lot of misunderstanding about this. Names are not protected by copyright. Publishers of works such as a star registry may register a claim to copyright in the text of the volume [or book] containing the names the registry has assigned to stars, and perhaps the compilation of data; but such a registration would not extend protection to any of the individual star names appearing therein. Copyright registration of such a volume of star names does not confer any official or governmental status on any of the star names included in the volume. For further information on copyright protection and names, see Circular 34, Copyright Protection Not Available for Names, Titles, or Short Phrases

Latest news about’s battles with publishers

We distributed the story I’d dashed off about Berkshire Publishing’s experience with Amazon ( and were surprised by how much response it got. It was redistributed by Publishers Weekly and will come out in the Independent Book Publishers Association magazine, and I appeared in an episode of BBC TV’s Newsnight program, and was just interviewed by the New York Times.

New information about Amazon’s ongoing pressure on publishers – large and small, trade and academic – continues to come out, and the questions I’ve received have made me think more deeply about the problem. As one interviewer said, “It sounds like you like Amazon.” In a way, I do. I admire the Amazon platform and appreciate it as a channel to a wide audience. And as an author and a small publisher with a technology background, I understand the frustration people feel with big-box publishing companies.

But recent news from the UK ( and Germany ( as well as US news about the ebook settlement ( confirms my sense that Amazon is determined to bully publishers into submission. The fact that their contracts are unilateral (that is, the terms can be changed by Amazon, one party, at any time, like it or lump it), is evidence not of efficiency but dominance – and monopolistic power over the entire book world.

One question I’ve posed, and not yet had an answer to, is this: Why can’t Amazon allow the market to decide what good value is? If we publishers were allowed to compete freely with one another on Amazon, customers would soon tell us what they’re willing to pay. But at the moment Amazon controls pricing and alters search results in order to improve its own margins, and its hold on the markets, not to help the customer get the best possible product at the best price.

I did not have a good answer to one question the Newsnight presenter asked, “How did publishers let themselves get into a situation where they can’t walk away, where they are so dependent on Amazon, where Amazon is dictating terms?” Maybe some of my colleagues will have an answer. I certainly hope we can come up with alternatives, and do what we can to give Amazon some healthy competition. (

Today’s Publishers Lunch headline is “Amazon Revises 20-Year Customer-First Policy.” The article explains:

In brief remarks to the WSJ, longtime Amazon executive Russ Grandinetti has rewritten the core principle that has guided Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos for the past 20 years…. Their position has always been, ‘We start with what the customer needs and we work backwards.’ They ‘don’t focus on the optics of the next quarter; we focus on what is going to be good for customers.’ There have been ‘three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.’

But the newly revised version of that mantra sets out a parental ‘we know what’s best for you in the long-term Janey’ paradigm instead: Grandinetti ‘indicated the retailer was willing to suffer some damage to its reputation and was simply doing what is “in the long-term interest of our customers.”’ So Amazon now has insight into the difference between consumers’ long-term interests and their immediate ones, and has empowered itself to put the former above the latter.

We’ll be continuing this discussion, and welcome comments from academics and university presses, whose interests are not given much attention in the general press.

Now available: Religion & Society series and Encyclopedia of World Environmental History

Encyclopedia of World Environmental HistoryBerkshire Publishing is pleased to announce that the acclaimed Religion & Society series produced with Routledge (a division of Taylor & Francis) is now available from Berkshire, along with the Encyclopedia of World Environmental History, another award-winning publication developed originally with Routledge in New York. Orders for print volumes (in limited supply) or for digital access can be placed with Berkshire or with your favorite distributor. A list of titles and ISBNs is below.

The Encyclopedia of World Environmental History is the work of the world’s leading historians and is the definitive reference on a burgeoning discipline. It has never been available in a digital edition, and Berkshire is developing an updated and expanded version for online use. Click here to read the flyer.

“If we are to understand where we are and where we are headed, it helps to know where we have come from.”Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute and former president of Worldwatch Institute

“This is the most ambitious effort yet to offer a comprehensive overview of the long-term history of human interactions with the natural world on a truly planetary scale.” William Cronon, Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Encyclopedia of Religious Freedom
The Religion & Society series offers a unique and modern perspective that has been welcomed by scholars and students around the world. Ebooks will shortly be available, and subscription services such as GVRL will be able to offer an integrated and expanded database of material on Religion & SocietyClick here to read the flyer.

How is hurting readers, authors, and publishers

Amazon doesn’t just take orders. They are used to barking orders at publishers and getting us to salute. But bullying only goes so far, and I’m thankful that a single large publisher, Hachette, has stood up to them and that today the New York Times ran an editorial about their strong-arm tactics.

I’ve been sitting on my own Amazon story for a while, after having receiving a threatening phone call from their legal department when I refused to agree to a unilateral change of terms. But with all the publicity and debate about Hachette, I thought Berkshire Publishing’s friends, colleagues, and customers might like to know about our experience and why I believe that Amazon is destroying healthy competition in the publishing world. Some of this was included in a feature article in the Seattle Times, and Steve Wasserman wrote about Amazon in The Nation and quoted me there (links below).

I am an academic publisher as well as an environmental author (with one book published by Hachette, in fact). My company is very small. has a market cap of $US141 billion. “They have infinite resources,” said a friend when I told him that I had received an angry phone call from’s legal department. The telephone call wasn’t to discuss terms, but to threaten me for “telling lies about Amazon.” What I had written is that if we had to stop supplying Amazon I would have to write to all my customers, authors, and colleagues to tell them why.

My fight with Amazon began when they decided to go after traditional “short discount” publishers (academic presses as well as presses like Berkshire Publishing) with a unilaterally imposed change in business terms announced only within their order-processing platform. This platform is normally used to enquire about the availability of certain books and used by customer service staff. A colleague whose staff was puzzled enough to pass the “case note” along to him asked to be contacted directly by telephone or email, saying that business terms were a matter for the executive team. Amazon refused to talk – communication would only take place through the “case.”

Berkshire Publishing had sold print through since 2006. Although they originally demanded a 40% discount, four times our standard, I decided that we should make books available through any major platform that individual readers and libraries use. Our authors like knowing that their books are readily available worldwide. And we reach some people who would never otherwise know about our titles. In fact, I was recently at a meeting in Beijing and showed a copy of our book This Is China: The First 5,000 Years. Two of the editors started whispering and giggling and finally one spoke up, “I have that book. I ordered it from Amazon!”

Their demand in 2012 was for an additional 5%, bringing it to 45% (some academic presses had been at 25%, so the change to 45% meant a reduction of 80% in their net income from Amazon sales). Bookstores generally get a discount of 30-40%. Amazon has been getting 50-55% from the big trade presses, and the current battles are in part over further discounts Amazon is demanding to increase its marginal profit.

And it is not only publishers who are affected (who, after all, really feels sorry for publishers?). Independent bookstores cannot compete with this kind of pricing, and Amazon discounting also affect authors, because many book contracts specify a lower royalty percentage if the discount is 50% or higher. The more Amazon demands, the more authors will be hurt. And in the end it is readers – students, professionals, and readers for pleasure – who will suffer because innovative writers won’t get the chance they deserve and hard-working midlist authors won’t be able to afford the time they need to write.

And who says cut-rate pricing will continue once Amazon’s market dominance is assured? Self-published authors love the 70% Amazon pays on ebooks now, but the figure was reversed (30% to authors, 70% to publishers) until the big presses jumped in, and there’s no reason to think Amazon won’t impose changes on any group of suppliers (and that’s all we authors and publishers are).

Amazon, by the way, does not necessarily pass on those discounts to the customer. Most Berkshire books are academic reference works that sell for hundreds of dollars, and Amazon has generally sold them at full price, keeping that substantial “discount” as their profit, which is far greater than our profit on our own books.

Amazon is destroying competition and innovation because it is not letting the market determine winners and losers, but is instead making the selection itself, deciding arbitrarily where to take its pound of flesh and shore up its feeble margins. Publishers (and authors) would be fine if they were actually competing with one other for sales without Amazon’s sucking the life out of every transaction.

Finally, what happened? Are Berkshire Publishing titles available through Amazon? Dear reader, I capitulated after four months. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t good for anyone but Amazon, but I was losing sales I needed and I gave in. Amazon made one change, too: they hired their first small-press liaison and I met her at BookExpo last year. I didn’t hear from her this year and have no idea if that department of one still exists, but I hope that in future we will be able to discuss and agree on terms that make sense. “Hurrah” for Hachette and to everyone who is now standing up to Amazon.

Karen ChristensenBest wishes,
Karen Christensen
Karen Christensen 沈凯伦, CEO & Publisher
Berkshire Blog:

Read More
“Amazon’s Power Play” New York Times editorial, 3 June 2014
“The Amazon Effect” by Steve Wasserman in The Nation, 29 May 2012
“ trying to wring deep discounts from publishers” by Amy Martinez in the Seattle Times, 1 April 2012

The Seattle Times’s article is accompanied by a slider showing two Amazon logos: the smiling Amazon and a parody with devil’s horn and tail, “Nothing speaks to the escalating tensions more plainly than a parody Amazon logo circulated among publishers. Pull the slider to the right to see Amazon’s logo, and to the left to see the parody version.” The parody logo (which I included at the top of this letter) has, as you can see, a Creative Commons license and can be used and shared freely.

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