By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From July 12, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
The Prodigal Hour by Will Entrekin
Six weeks after escaping the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Chance Sowin moves back home, hoping for familiarity and security. Instead, he interrupts a burglary and his father is killed.
“Audacious, genre-bending … a thrilling head-rush of a book.” —Elizabeth Eslami
Special note: Writing on the Ether now can be followed not only here at JaneFriedman.com (free) but via RSS at the Publishers Marketplace’s Publishers Lunch Automat, in the section, ePublishing and the Future. (A subscription is required for Publishers Marketplace and its many services — easily worth the cost.) The @PublishersLunch industry news service is led by Michael Cader and Sarah Weinman.
Every year Jeff Bezos does a stint as a customer-service representative, himself, dreading the “excruciating” calls that are left because defect reduction has eliminated the easy ones.
The Financial Times’ major series on Amazon this week includes this anecdote in a story headlined The Bezos doctrine of ruthless pragmatism. And inevitably, there might be industry people who wonder which of our publishing CEOs is likely to get into the call center and make one-on-one contact with readers who are calling in with problems.
Well, you might wonder that until you remember that few of our publishing CEOs have had contact with readers, and especially not in customer-service settings.
Traditional publishing’s “customers” have been distributors and retailers, not readers, for the most part.
“I have an experienced customer service rep sitting next to me helping me because otherwise I would probably give really bad service,” Bezos said.
“It’s not that easy.”
No. It’s not that easy.
We covered Hellman’s commentary then on the Ether.
His well-argued point, now borne out by others’ work, is that Amazon is “fundamentally a company about scale” and about infrastructure, not about books per se.
“The publishing echo chamber is tragically unaware of how Amazon works.”
Jopson, this week’s series writer, is based for the FT in New York.
“I thought you’d be American,” Missingham said to Jopson before the show started.
“No, no, I’m a Brit,” Jopson told her with a laugh from New York.
The recording of the show now is ready for you, The Great Amazon Debate, with a foreword by Jones: It all started in Bezos’ garage in 1994.
And when asked by Jones to start the discussion, the FT’s Jopson was perfectly clear:
Whereas the company is still thought of as being an online retailer, it’s actually shifting away from that and toward becoming an infrastructure services company. It’s allowing other companies to take space on its website, it’s allowing other companies to use its warehouses, it’s allowing other companies to use its service. So as much as being a front-end store in its own right, it’s also a back-office service provider to other companies.
Now, some 39 percent of all things sold from the Amazon website come from these third-party suppliers. And that was about 33 percent a year ago.
UK-based publishing consultant Sheila Bounford, in fact, spoke well to the gulf in understanding. She put it this way:
Amazon are a company that really understand technology and one reason there’s so much distance between Amazon and publishing is that we’re not a tech community and we don’t understand the foundations that modern businesses are built on.
When Jones asked Bounford if it’s not legitimate for other companies (and authors) to “piggyback” on Amazon’s technical power to do business, Bounford agreed that many are doing that and certainly must.
But I don’t think that’s an excuse to be ignorant of the whole technological climate and terms it’s happening in.
Rob Nichols of independent UK publishers Constable & Robinson spoke highly of Amazon’s expansion of the market and their business in his company’s relationship with it. While Dennis Johnson of independent publisher Melville House was on the show from the States as something of a counterweight, having made himself a visible and outspoken critic of Amazon.
One of the most devastating things that Amazon has contributed to the world is a devaluation of the book, of what a book is…denuded of its history as a revolutionary tool…a thing that should be a lot cheaper. It has a kind of set cheapness, it should be $9.99 except when it’s $1.99. That’s the worst thing I think it’s done to the culture.
In Amazon plays catch-up in digital media, Jopson writes with his colleague Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson:
Its ebook dominance has shown the ecommerce pioneer’s ability to upend industries around it even as it reinvents its own business…But while Amazon has transformed reading, bookselling and publishing, the ebooks innovator “is now a follower of others” in music and video.
The FT series on “The Amazon Economy” and the Naked Book show are well worth your attention this weekend, if you can find some time to spend with them, as is a specially illustrated piece from James Bridle, From books to infrastructure, with unique graphs and charting created by the design magazine Domus.
The disparity between Amazon’s vision of the future of books and that of the traditional industry cannot be overstated…The open secret about Amazon is that it’s not a book company, or a retail company, or an Internet company; it’s an infrastructure company. Its warehousing and distribution services outstrip most other retailers, and in many nations, particularly in Europe, their warehouses are the largest in the country.
At times in news coverage, you’ll hear someone refer to a “silly season.” In general, it refers to the latter part of summer. Legislative bodies and other newsmakers go on holiday, the news cycle may ease a bit. And suddenly major stories seem hard to find.
I urge you to use this silly season. We all need to do some wising up.
This is a good moment in publishing to take advantage of these recently produced resources — from the FT and O’Leary’s posts to TheFutureBook’s show and Bridle’s elegantly parsed recounting of Amazon’s transformation, which has taken place all around publishing, without publishing catching on.
As Bounford says, we didn’t understand tech well. And now, we must.
And as Bridle notes:
If the Kindle restricts most of its users to content approved by Amazon — and it does — and if it walls up the reading experience and claims ownership over our highlights and bookmarks — and it does that too — is that forgivable in return for apparent access to all books, now, right now, forever? To what extent are we prepared to have our cultural experiences mediated or even controlled by technology? The answer, it increasingly appears, is quite a lot, and the Kindle, for better or worse, is the tool we have chosen to negotiate for us.
— Peter Turner (@PeterTurner) July 12, 2012