Let’s assume books — at the margin of course — bring some external social value, perhaps by stimulating ideas production or by improving the quality of voting and citizenship. If that were the case, at which margin should we look for this external benefit? I can think of a few possibilities:
1. More books should be produced. Yet this hardly seems plausible, as there are so many books produced right now and most of them are largely ignored. In any case, Amazon clearly makes a larger number of books readily accessible, although its lower prices may discourage the number of books longer run.
2. Better books should be produced. Arguably this is true by definition, but it is not a useful means of evaluating most proposed changes to the book market. That said, Amazon creates an open forum for useful reviews. That may improve long-run book quality, or at least lead to a more useful matching of readers with books.
3. Books should be cheaper and thus purchased and read more often. Maybe so, but public libraries give books away for free — great books too — and their shelves are not stripped bare. So making commercial books cheaper will get us only so far. If all books were completely free, reading would go up by only so much, because time and attention would remain scarce. In any case, with reference to the recent debates, Amazon does in fact make books cheaper.
4. Books should be more vivid in the minds of readers. People would read more if the books meant more to them and that is a more effective lever than simply making books cheaper. You will note of course that “buzz” can make books more vivid, and so Piketty’s Capital became a vivid book for a large number of people. They bought it, though most of them did not read past page 26. So even making books more vivid will not necessarily bring about the desired end of additional interested readership. That said, Amazon does create various lists to try to boost the buzz around books, and Amazon tries to raise the relative status of reading and book-buying more generally.
It is in fact not so easy to specify how we might reap significant additional social benefits from the current book market. The real externality, if there is one, lies in improving the humans not the books.
In the meantime, Amazon, in its current configuration, seems to be producing some marginal social benefits.