Mad, bad and dangerous to know

It took me a while to read George Packer’s endless New Yorker piece about the evil empire.  No, not the Yankees, Amazon!  Most of what he writes about may be news for people outside our business, but all of us much maligned gatekeepers have long known that anyone who doesn’t spout Amazonian corporate-speak like it’s English will feel dazed and confused when dealing with Bezos’ army, and that the company’s strong-man tactics and culture of silence vis a vis the rest of the publishing world seem positively Orwellian.

But what’s interesting about the article is the fact that despite the behemoth’s disdain for publishing as an industry and book readers as a class, Amazon has managed to make books more accessible to a greater number of readers than any entity before it.  It has also, although publishers might deny it vehemently, injected a competitive edge (okay, desperation and rage)  into the book making process that has lifted traditional publishing out of its complacent, vaguely condescending status quo, and challenged it to think about itself and its role in the marketplace in a new way.

Progress?  Who knows?  But, the piece is a must-read for all of us who buy books, often with one click.   After doing so, I hope you’ll share your thoughts about the role Amazon plays for you as a consumer and as an author.

12 Responses to Mad, bad and dangerous to know

  1. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    Amazon is a classic good news/bad news deal, but here’s a bet for the future: After Barnes & Noble finishes their slow-motion suicide in order to cash out for the top 3% in the org, Jeff’s latest market takeover will be-wait for it-BRICKS & MORTAR!What could be more revolutionary than a well-placed venue where you can order hard-to-find books, etc., (at that location only)as well as all kinds of fun reading material along with certain legal stimulants to help sharpen the edge? Hell, Target sort of does that and makes money, and as long as Jeff doesn’t hire the kind of high-performing Rite Aid rejects (What us? Know something about the book business or care?!) that are Nooking B&N to an early grave, he can’t miss. Oh, and here’s a warning, B&N: I’ve referenced your chain in a favorable way in my latest book; don’t think I’m not ready to change it to Books-A-Million if you piss me off………….

  2. Katie Newingham says:

    There seems to be extremes on both sides: traditional publishing caters to and predominantly works with elites (celebrities, academics, pro athletes and people who otherwise have been successful) while Amazon claims to work with all. Only with Amazon, they’re not really working with the author, they’re taking their money with no guarantee of it being returned. Neither extreme is the best for the reader or the writer.

    While reading the piece, I definitely thought why don’t these publishers join together and form a third party website where they can all sell their books directly. This would make sense, but it seems like traditional publishing is very risk averse. They rely on their own formulas, like Amazon, for what’s going to sell, instead of on intuition and then get stuck with the same old, same old and lose money.

    Peoples tastes are ever changing and agents should rely less on market based formulas and more on whether or not the work before them is original in voice and concept or could be with development. Really good stories will always sell. It’s bottom line thinking that keeps the middle from reaching readers. But somehow the bottom line still suffers, so maybe it’s time for ingenuity.

  3. Hillsy says:

    Amazon are a little bit like those Utopia stories that always end up with the “new world” being worse than the old one. It could have been so good, but greed and market-warfare power struggles ensued and we ended up this polarised stand-off. On one hand the publishers have retreated back into old habits, by clamouring for “sure-fire hits” and spending less time and effort on the new. I mean look a the film industry – how many re-makes? All because they come with a guaranteed audience. On the other, the religious anarchy of Amazon: All are welcome and through our numbers we will tear down the old and rebuild the new in My…Ahem….OUR image. It’s short-termist, destructive business at, essentially, it’s best. You only have to look now how they are shifting towards being a business broker and less of a stockist and seller already – they have supplanted the highstreet with their own, online version called Amazon.

    Anyway – I don’t buy from Amazon. I loath them. They’re parasites – and that by the way is a fact. In the UK they pay no corporation tax, AND were given a £250m “incentive” to build some warehouses here. I mean they built an app whereby you walked into any bookshop, scanned a book, and AMAZON would beat the price by at least 10%. I mean WTF?!?! They were effectively using bookshops as 3rd party displayers (because Amazon have no shops) then not having the decency to pay them. They only exist by leaching off existing markets simultaneously, allowing them to under cut EVERYONE because they’ve got no overheads to maintain.

    It’s actually very interesting to follow the change in society in the wake of Amazon’s success. Before, there was a bit of risk piled on the consumer – you had to shell out some money and you may not enjoy the outcome. Amazon’s race to the bottom has consistently undercut consumer risk. Now look at the world of media and entertainment. Other than the BIG blockbusters the modern theory is to give out for free and try and monetize from there. Giveaways on books, Free2Play games, Netflix trials, I mean even a podcast site I follow has created a paywall to incentivise subscription. The modern world is shifting more and more risk to the creators, but making the rewards if you make it HUGE. This is boom and bust people and there’s no way back – it’s market entropy.

    I can see Agenting surviving in this new world of books. After Amazon has destroyed all the modern systems of marketing and publishing and divided that money between them and the Author, the only marketing method will be social media, SEO and Amazon charts (which you can pay for BTW….through 3rd parties, not Amazon). Agencies could fill the gap of polishing books for sale, and then acting like an online champion for the Author. Market forces might dictate that they’ll become like online only publishers, but as the Publisher’s aren’t showing any signs of heading that way so why not? Agents have a little stable of Authors and do all their legwork for them so they can get on with writing books. The cut will be smaller, but then the skill set is slimmer – no more need for negotiating skills….the only deal in town is sign up with Amazon.

    Amazon is a great, brilliant, faultless distributor. The problem is when they moved into retail they were so big they broke everything. And what’s the one thing we know to be true??

    Business has no conscience.

  4. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    All true, of course, but Jeffrey Bee doesn’t sound like a guy who likes to leave a lot of unclaimed money lying around on the sidewalk. After all, there will be a lot of available framework already in place after Barnes & Noble checks the insurance check for it’s planned suicide, so does the term “Amazon Superstore” sound so far off the sclae?

    • Hillsy says:

      I kind of agree – once you’ve toppled an establishment, there’s countless examples of identical establishments being erected in their place. Amazon’s methodology so far has been to destroy competition through diversity. Once that competition has gone, there’s no need to NOT invest in a retail wing, because no one is left to undercut and thus make savings.

      The only reason I’d be a bit doubtful is because I don’t know Amazon’s warehousing structure. At the moment I’m guessing it’s highly industrialised and streamlined (certainly if the horror stories from the UK at least are to be believed with pick-time targets, overloading delivery drivers and fining left right and centre)…it would seem to me to go agains tthat mindset of efficiency by packing up massive superstore deliveries to the stores, only to potentially move them around later on because that particular item’s sales aren’t high enough.

      To be honest I think you’d see something more akin to what Apple have done – creating a sort of “shrine” to themselves where stock isn’t the priority, but instead brand is. ESPECIALLY with Amazon’s distribution skills. I guess they’d be vast stores lined with touchscreen terminals (argos style), agonisingly helpful staff, demo models that you can leave “reviews” on in real time, coffee houses and small booths with a small selection of tv series running 2-3 minute clips on a reel. Once you’ve made your purchase – load it direct onto your kindle, or tablet, or mp3 player…OR boom! it arrives at home the next day. I’d assume they’d fold in all the 3rd party sellers who pay for stands and advertising and so on….

      ….Ugh it sounds vile.

  5. Miriam says:

    Wow, great and terrifying analysis Hillsy. And, Katie, publishing people do reward ingenuity and good storytelling but publishing is still a business and people have kids they have to send to college and you need to minimize risk where you can paradoxically in order to do some pretty risky things here and there. And, Kevin, I had a theory when B&N’s troubles started becoming dire that Amazon would just buy them and take over their stores. Hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a Brave New World.

    • Kevin A. Lewis says:

      Set & match, and by the way, that’s “off the scale”, in case anybody gets the idea I’m posting this after midnight in a downtown Glasgow pub…

    • Katie Newingham says:

      Yeah, that makes sense.

      I can see why Hillsy is boycotting Amazon, it’s the same rationale as buying local. These mega stores don’t provide as many jobs as the local market, or produce the tax revenue for schools. But mass production and storehouses placed where real estate is low, means lower prices, and the difference between a family being able to buy books/crafts/hobby related materials or not.

      For me, I buy local when it makes sense, but superstores still play a large role in my life (forgive me, Hillsy), frequenting Target for diapers and Costco for milk and meat without hormones. Strangely enough, Amazon isn’t really on my radar, having only purchased a few digital books from them in the last year. I don’t plan to change this, but if I needed to economically, I’d do what I had to do.

      As an idealist, I do wish there was a happy medium, some sort of space between, where what is good for the bottom line is also good for the family and the individual. I understand that business doesn’t have a conscience, but the people making business decisions can/should be conscientious.

      • Hillsy says:


        I’m not against non-localism. I understand the desire for cheaper, mass produced products. That’s fair. I also think that in the modern world a lot of companies haven’t moved with the times fast enough. The publishing industry (through traditional bricks & Mortar stores), for instance, might have curtailed this by improving online services, so Amazon wasn’t the biggest and best in town. 2 UK companies here that’re all but bust is HMV and GAME. Both could have built online distribution networks if they’d moved faster, cashing in on their brand, but instead the sat on their hands and Amazon & Play grabbed market share.

        But I object to 2 things – rampant competition and tax avoidance (evasion? I can’t remember which one it is). If a huge business makes efficiency savings and massive profits, the amount of tax still bleeding into the economy isn’t hugely reduced. They will also generate subsiduary business – home delivery services because of amazon must have boomed I’m sure. Also the current model of growing so big you destroy competition at low, low profits, then once you’ve got a bit of a monopoly increasing prices…..well it ain’t helpful.

        I think the happy medium you’re yearning for, certainly in the instance of publishing, is possible. But it’d need a sea change of attitude. Amazon could have competed, even won out in providing the ultimate online distribution system around. However, in the search for growth and market share, they targetted BOTH those that wanted ease of delivery (no local bookshops) AND those wanting a fair price. As such rather than offering the same book but with a more convenient delivery system at the same price, they lured typical book lovers over with big savings in the process. They took a hit, but because of their size they could afford to absorb those losses until attitudes changed.

        In essence, capitalism is a game, but government sets the rules and the winning conditions. At the moment the way you win the game is to make more and more profit, driving growth. Because the rules are so streamlined (levels of regulation), it gives rise to people doing anything to win because – look at the bank accounts of the big companies – the prizes are GIGANTIC! As such you create a situation where a lot of companies start and die in the hope they’re going to be the one that goes global. But the game isn’t fair, because the big players don’t want to lose and can influence those that make the rules and winning conditions: government (through lobbyists).

        If you want a better type of player, don’t blame the game – blame the rules.

  6. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    While it’s already been true that “God is on the side of h(s)he who owns the most senators” it’s also greatly in evidence today that upper level pay and perks are no longer tied to performance; you see this both in agencies (present company excepted, no names of course) and publishing outfits where twee, grossly unsellable books are quite often signed for top dollar over stuff that might reach an actual audience (sorry, but I’m a believer in both quality and commercial viability) and retail companies where any losses generated by top tier incompetence are simply shunted down onto the nuts and bolts workforce;
    when sagging sales and double-digit shrink get to critical mass, the cream gets a golden lifeboat while everyone else gets to pound the sidewalk. Pardon me if I sound annoyed here, but I was on the deck of the SS Borders when they managed to get 500 million in debt while the economy was still cooking. That took work. There was, and is, absolutely no cessation in demand for a social venue/marketplace bookstore, (as 10 million stray Manga kids while now tell you) but as long as results are divorced from reward this won’t change. Back in the 50’s execs killed themselves when stuff like this happened, today it just goes on their resume. My thought is if I’ve got 75,000 ounces of of literary gold to sell, somebody will buy it; I just hope people don’t have to take a slow raft up the Amazon tro find it….

  7. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    One last thought here (this discussion’s getting longer than the New Yorker article) by way of explaining why a Amazon morphing into a Bizzaro World Borders isn’t all that farfetched… Aside from the real-world market calculus which Hillsy’s done a great job of explaining, I’d like to share a weird little holiday moment I had the Christmas before last, when I and a lot of other people were drifting from one depressing temp job to another. Anyway, I ended up running the shoe department at Target over that holiday, and every night when I ran between sections I used to see a 60-something man who would pick out a new hardcover from the book section and to the nearby home furnishing display and climb onto the easy chair 4 feet off the floor and settle in with Tom Clancy just like the good old days at Borders, which was a dark, empty rental space 3 doors down. I could’ve rousted him off the display, but the surrealism appealed to me and I just left him there. Then one night while I was sorting the shoe displays, who should I see but a group of Manga kids I recalled from the Borders store I worked at trying to make the scene at Target in their cat-ear headbands and candy-raver duds; they apparently thought the feng shui was just too weird in the book section (Target doesn’t sell Manga) so they all sat down in the aisle of my shoe section and tried to pretend that it was like old times. Saddest thing I ever saw, but food for thought… After texting their scattered clique about the great time they weren’t quite having, they decided to head for the Starbucks across the parking lot to perk themselves up; after first agreeing amongst themselves that the Starbucks in Target was too blue-collar for their tastes. “Have yourselves a strange little Christmas,” I wished them as they headed out into the rain. “It’s definitely going that way,” one of them said……….

  8. Betsey says:

    I will be putting this daznlizg insight to good use in no time.

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