So, this morning, Amazon announced something called Amazon Source, a program to sell Kindles through participating independent booksellers. Yes, seriously. No, really, this isn’t one of my weird jokes.
We created Amazon Source to empower independent bookstores and other small retailers to sell Kindle e-readers and tablets in their stores. We crafted two unique programs with two different kinds of stores in mind, but retailers in select states can choose whichever program they prefer. Through the Amazon Source portal you can order inventory at wholesale prices, communicate with our account management team, and download professionally-designed marketing and merchandising assets to help drive your sales.
Not sure whether e-readers or tablets would be interesting for your customers? You can find out by participating in a completely worry-free trial. The first order you place through Amazon Source can be returned within six months. If you decide that e-readers and tablets aren’t the right fit for your store, we’ll buy back any tablet, e-reader or accessory that was on your first order, no questions asked.
OK, first off, I think most bookstores are going to see this as a huge slap to the face. We can help make money—and more market share—for the company that’s destroying our margins and making our lives that much more stressful??? Fuck. And. No. So, it’s unlikely that this will ever work.
But, at the same time, it’s not too dissimilar from the program whereby indie sell Kobo devices? But replacing Kobo with a device that dominates the markets?
Is there any benefit here? Well, this is Amazon’s claim:
We designed this program with bookstores in mind. The Bookseller Program offers a discount on the price of Kindle tablets and e-readers, plus the opportunity to make a commission on every book your customers purchase from their device, anywhere, anytime. With the Bookseller Program, you get a 10% commission every time one of your customers buys an e-book from a Kindle tablet or e-reader that they purchase at your store. This program allows you to give your customers a choice between digital and physical books, offer them access to a wide selection of e-books, and profit from every e-book they buy on their new device, from your store or on the go.
Buy Kindle devices at a 6% discount from the Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price.
Buy Kindle accessories at a 35% discount from the Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price.
Earn a 10% commission on the price of every e-book purchased from customers’ Kindle devices.
(I believe the 10% commission only lasts for the 2 years following the purchase of the Kindle.)
It’s not even worth parsing this, but 6% of the MSRP for Kindle devices? First off, which Kindle is this—the one with ads for Amazon products, or the one free of ads? And what’s to prevent Amazon from selling you, the bookseller, a Kindle for $100 then dropping the price on Amazon.com to $95? Even if a store gets 6% on the sale of these devices, THEY’LL STILL BE MAKING NEXT TO NO MONEY.
(Again, not worth going into, but there is a second program that doesn’t include the 10% commission, but sells the devices to booksellers at a 9% discount.)
From a reader perspective, does this make sense? I suppose so, sort of. If I could tie my Kindle to Talking Leaves, and give them $.80 for my purchase of Diary of a Wimpy Kid 8 (or whatever it was my daughter bought last night), a tiny chunk of the huge black mass of guilt and self-loathing that is my soul would fall away.
But $.80??? That’s not really going to help Talking Leaves. Especially if they would’ve made almost $7 if I had bought the physical book from them.
Sure, booksellers are aware that more and more people are reading ebooks and that they’re not getting any part of this market, and some of them wish they could capture a part of it . . . but this isn’t the solution.
It’s a fucking genius move from Amazon . . . if stores were to go along with it. In that case, Amazon gets more Kindles out into the world, customers feel slightly more encouraged to buy ebooks from Amazon, thus moving some of their spending money from the local indie bookstore (because really, wouldn’t you just rather buy something from home rather than drive all the way out to the store, which may not have the book, but will definitely be less comfortable than one’s couch . . .), to Amazon.
I can’t wait to read Dustin’s take on this over at Moby Lives/Melville House, but I’m just going to stop here, since I don’t think this is a program that booksellers will get behind, and will be a foggy memory a couple years from now.
It does dovetail nicely into what I was planning on talking to my students about in our “Intro to Publishing” class today. Namely, indie bookstores, the long tail, ebooks, and how Amazon can continue expanding and generating more revenue ($75 billion last year!).
Amazon made a couple of announcements yesterday that, as Amazon announcements tend to do, set the book world atwitter. They announced the next version of the Kindle, but the news that really generated the headlines was the announcement of “MatchBook.”1
Amazon has unveiled a new US initiative to bundle print and e-books, called Kindle MatchBook.
The online retailer is to offer customers the opportunity to buy Kindle editions of print books bought from Amazon.com for prices said to range typically from $2.99 down to completely free.
The offer will set to be available not only on newly published titles, but also titles bought as far back as 1995, where the books are signed up to the scheme.
Russ Grandinetti, vice-president of Kindle content, said: “If you logged onto your CompuServe account during the Clinton administration and bought a book like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus from Amazon, Kindle MatchBook now makes it possible for that purchase—18 years later—to be added to your Kindle library at a very low cost. In addition to being a great new benefit for customers, this is an easy choice for publishers and authors who will now be able to earn more from each book they publish.”
First of all, even if you did buy it when Clinton was in office do not buy the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus ebook no matter how cheaply Amazon makes it via this program. Please. Save yourself.
Now, there are a number of angles to this announcement, but let’s start with some obvious, pro-reader ones: FINALLY WE HAVE BUNDLING. This is something most people with an e-reader and a love of physical books have wanted for a while—and something that music labels have been offering. In terms of music, if makes total sense (to me) that if you buy the vinyl of an album, you get a code so that you can download the mp3 version as well, allowing you to listen to the music while sitting on your couch, or while running at the gym. Basically—and this is a very important point—the music manufacture is selling you the content not the container.
As things currently stand in the book world, if you bought a copy of Javier Marias’s The Infatuations because you love Marias and are willing to shell out $20 for the hardcover version, and then, say, you wanted to take this with you to read Iceland, but, due to the fact that you’re schlepping other stuff, you don’t necessarily have the room for more than your Kindle, you’d have to pay an additional $12+ to get the eversion. Essentially, publishers are treating these two different “containers” (the physical book, the ebook) as separate items to be purchased separately.
But that’s madness. Putting aside the fact that basically no one reads these days anyway, it’s crazy to put your customers in a position where they have to choose between buying either a print version or an e-version of a book when the fixed costs to you (the publisher) are accounted for in the purchase of either one of these. Instead, offer three options: the print book for $20, the ebook for $15, or both for $23. I’d probably choose $23, or maybe $15, but I would NEVER choose to pay $35 to get both. And when a customer has so many other entertainment options, it seems like the smartest thing to do is to make things simple and keep them happy.
Dustin at Melville House disagrees with me, pretty much disagrees with me:
We’ve discussed this before, and indeed, our own Dennis Johnson is less averse to the idea of bundling ebooks than I find myself. but it bears repeating: the problem with ebook bundling is that consumers have no real sense of what a book should cost. Readers don’t know what, specifically, they are paying for when they buy a book. If you tell them, as Amazon has repeatedly done, that ebooks are worth a dollar or less, of course they’ll believe that. After all, there is no paper to pay for.
Unlike the ever-astute readers of MobyLives, the general book buyer might not imagine, for instance, that the price of materials—the weighty stuff of a book, paper etc.—for an average hardcover book from a major publisher will rarely make up more than 15% of the eventual price of the book. Books cost what they do because the services to produce them are expensive, not the paper. Editors, designers, even marketers like myself, all cost money. And while people can and certainly have argued that publishing is broken and all of those professionals that make a book attractive or worth reading or help you find it in stores are essentially obsolete, it is impossible to argue that the value they add to a book is somehow moot if that book is digital. Ebooks from publishers benefit from the hand of an editor as much as their print editions, and that benefit is reflected in the price.
The problem I have with his logic is that he’s not taking into account the fact that this discounted ebook version is only available to customers who also buy the print version. If Amazon was reducing all ebooks to $2.99 or free, then he’d have a point. As things stand, there are like 10 gazillion $.99 books available on Amazon—the vast majority only slightly better than Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus—and that’s not even what we’re talking about. Instead we’re talking about Amazon providing a benefit that a lot of high-volume readers are going to value greatly.
Let’s look at this from a publisher point of view for a second though: We (meaning Open Letter) just looked at the royalty rates for signing our books up for this program. If you decide to enroll a title into MatchBook and sell it for $2.99 or less (with the purchase of the original), you the publisher receive either 70% or 35% of each sale depending on which royalty program the ebook is already enlisted in. That’s not bad at all . . . So, if we sell a copy of Inga Ābele’s High Tide, which retails for $15.95, and the Amazon customer decides to get the ebook for $2.99, we receive an additional $2, $.75 of which goes to the author/translator, and, more importantly, one more copy of the ebook is out there, and one reader is happy that they can read the Kindle version on the subway and the print version at home. (Or, because people are devious like this, that person could give away the print version as a gift, meaning that we lose a potential—emphasis on potential—sale and gain a second reader.)
There’s always an anti-Amazon tack to take on things like this, but personally, as a reader and a small press publisher, I’m totally on board. The one area in which I think this will have a negative impact is on independent bookstores and their agreement with Kobo.
Not too long ago, as a way of getting into the ebook and ereader market, the American Booksellers Association signed a deal with Kobo that let indie stores sell Kobo devices and receive a percentage of sales made through the devices they sold. I’ve heard good things about the devices and the small, but semi-significant, stream of money coming in from this. (I’ve also heard booksellers tell me that this has fuck all to do with their core business, and that indies should focus on their strengths instead of trying to get a piece of Amazon’s ebook pie.)
Anyway, unless Kobo works out something soon—be it an app or a special code or whatever—it’s going to be that much more difficult for your average reader to go with a device/system that doesn’t allow bundling, compared to a very ubiquitous one that does. Hopefully they will figure this out ASAP though, since it only makes sense that you could buy the book in person, pay a couple extra bucks at the register, and download it to your device immediately.
One last thought about “content” versus “containers”: Amazon is extremely good at viewing things from this angle and finding ways to integrate the reading experience in all of its forms. Starting this October, for some titles (I assume), you’ll be able to buy the print book, then add on the ebook for $2.99, and add on the Audible audiobook for an additional $2.99. Then you can listen while you exercise, have it sync with your Kindle version for the subway ride home, then pick up the physical book when you want that (superior, in my opinion) experience. All the same book, the same content, for one reasonable price, in contrast to having to buy three full priced versions (totaling what, $45?) for the opportunity to better integrate reading into parts of your daily life.
1 When I first saw this “MatchBook” terms showing up in my email, I thought that it was some new discovery tool, and if not that, some sort of Amazon dating service: “Seeing that you gave Death in Spring five stars on GoodReads, you might like to meet Carrie, who gave Satantango five stars. LOVE AT FIRST BOOK.”
So, this past weekend, Salon ran this article about Amazon’s “$1 million secret”—their recently created giving program, which has benefitted a large number of literary nonprofits.. Key word there being “nonprofit,” but I’ll get to that in a minute . . .
On the whole, the article is rather even handed. It includes examples of various initiatives that Amazon has funded that are really beneficial to writers, translators, etc. (such as the OnePage feature of the Brooklyn Book Festival, and our own Best Translated Book Award), along with people like Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House who are adamantly opposed to any and all things Amazon.
Since I really want to get to my main point/observation, but can’t stop myself from poking a little fun, here’s a quick run down of some fun or confusing things about this piece:
1) In criticizing Amazon, Alexander Zaitchik includes this line, “[Critics] claim that Amazon bullies small publishers into signing price and promotional contracts that threaten their already slim margins, and doesn’t hesitate to unplug the “Buy” buttons of those who resist.” What you can’t see here is that “resist” is a hyperlink . . . to an article about a small press losing their buy buttons? Nope. It’s an article about the standoff between Macmillan and Amazon that took place in January 2010.
OK, OK, that’s what it is, but more interestingly, when did we start believing that it was Amazon’s responsibility to sell every single book? At the start, Bezos had to go around and convince publishers that people would eventually be willing to buy books through the Internet. Now, if Amazon doesn’t like the terms of a deal they have with a publisher and chooses to not sell their books, it’s fucking criminal. Obviously, no one is outraged when Barnes & Noble or an indie store doesn’t carry something (that’s just smart business!), even when the decision not to stock a title is based on a publisher refusing to pay a “co-op.” (Which, for those not in the know, is essentially a kick back to bookstores small and large to promote that particular press’s titles. I wish we could afford this.)
The strength of Amazon’s position is due in part to stocking everything, so when particular books or publishers are delisted Amazon is really hurting itself. Regardless, I just find this curious. Keep in mind, Amazon is a giant corporation driven by giant corporation concerns, which means it’s in business only to make money—nothing else.
2) I’ll get to my quote about translators in a minute, but just to clarify something, the article ends with this:
“The grants give Amazon something to point to, but people don’t see Amazon’s business practices any differently, says Chad Post. “It’s the same as with any corporation. Money is money. I take money from Citibank, and I fucking hate Citibank.”
First off, if I were a journalist and someone handed me that little bit of vulgarity, I’d end with it as well. But to make this clear: I have never received money from Citibank. I said “I would take money from Citibank.” If they want to give Open Letter $25,000, that would be very appreciated. What’s not in question is my “fucking” hatred of them.
3) I wonder what would happen if the “Big Six” publishers really didn’t sign Amazon’s agreements. What’s not mentioned in this article is that Amazon’s offer is likely the first stage of a negotiation—one that the Big Six almost have to reject in order to get the negotiation rolling. In the words of one of my Simon Business School friends, “It’s irresponsible for a corporation not to maximize their profits as fully as possible—by offering unfavorable terms and never paying tax.” Yeah. Yeah, I know.
What’s interesting to me about this—and I know, I sound like a broken record—is that the primary arguments against Amazon is that they’re taking over everything by being aggressive and “mean.” Book publishing has been gentlemanly (sort of, if in a bit of a misogynist, classist way) for so long, that we cringe at these sorts of things. The only real question is whether or not Amazon is doing anything illegal. I’m still waiting to read the article that intelligently—and with examples—breaks down Amazon’s practices and evaluates them against current (not imaginary) anti-trust regulations.
But when it comes to talking about anti-trust and Dept. of Justice investigations, the only people currently under fire are five of the Big Six and Apple. Which leads to this very telling paragraph:
Publishers large and small are on the same side as Barnes & Noble and Apple in challenging Amazon’s attempt to gain a death grip on the exploding e-book market. Amazon’s success, say its critics, will lower price expectations for physical books to the point where they become untenable for the Big Six’s business model.
Emphasis mine. Amazon convinces people they shouldn’t be paying so much for books, which unends the “death grip” the Big Six have had on publishing, which is TOTALLY EVIL.
4) The award Amazon funds is the “Best Translated Book Award.” Not the “Open Letter Best New Translation Award,” and not the “Open Letter Translation Award.” Just a point of clarification.
Also, this is totally true:
Nor has anyone yet heard from a Big Six publisher eager to fund a translation award of their own.
5) I just want to stick by my belief that Amazon’s giving program is really good for the Best Translated Book Awards and translators in general. I try not to ever read quotes that I give (I usually sound like a jackass), but I’ll stick by this one:
This is especially true of literary translators. Along with its own translated feature series, AmazonCrossing, the company funds several original translation projects, including the PEN Translation Fund and Open Letter’s Best New Translation Award, to the tune of $20,000 annually. The result has been some new friends for the Yellow Giant. “Translators love Amazon,” says Chad Post of Open Letter, an Amazon grantee and publisher of translated fiction at the University of Rochester. “They’re working for maybe $500 a book, books no one wants to touch. Then Amazon comes along and suddenly they’re benefiting from an industry that doesn’t help them, ever. Five thousand dollars is enormous to them. I can understand people are concerned with Amazon’s power in the marketplace, but I have a hard time chastising them when they directly benefit people who struggle their whole lives to do what they think is important.”
6) The comments beneath this article are HYSTERICAL and worth reading. I could quote a dozen, but I’ll stick with this one which might cut a bit close to home:
Yeah, Amazon looks really awful until you look a lot more closely and the print publishing industry. I worked in the book publishing industry for nearly 35 years; about half of that time I was in New York City. The print publishers make a profit by scamming the authors and underpaying staff and suppliers. In fact, for many years most of the editing, copyediting, proofreading, and even much of the graphic design and typesetting have been done by “independent contractos” who work without benefits and then wait months to get paid. Decent jobs they can live on? In publishing? Hah.
OK, fun and games over, and on to the main point: nonprofits. The one thing missing from this article—and all the others just like it, and all of Dennis Loy Johnson’s blog postings—is a discussion of nonprofit publishing. The only organizations eligible to receive these grants are nonprofit literary organizations. What does that really mean? That these are organizations that are mission-driven, that publish books, or assist a particular constituency in ways that will almost definitely lose them money.
That’s not to say that for profit publishers always turn a profit, but when it comes to deciding about programming (be it publishing a particular book, starting a reading series, organizing a conference), a nonprofit makes this decision from the perspective of whether or not this activity would help to “fulfill its mission,” NOT whether or not this activity will make money. A good executive director is capable of evaluating a particular project and figuring out how much money it will lose and where he/she will raise that money from, but turning profits isn’t the motivating factor in their decision making.
Bit more fact-dropping for a second: A “for profit” such as New Directions, or Norton, or Goosebottom Books (quoted in the article), or Melville House, spends all of its time undertaking activities that will help it to sell more product. They make editorial decions with literary taste and an awareness of the market, they spend money on promotions in order to sell more books.
Nonprofits spend at least 50% of their time either raising money or doing “educational” activities that don’t have a direct impact on increasing sales. I teach classes. We run a reading series on campus that loses us $20,000 a year. We give away books to prisons. This blog educates, informs, entertains, and makes us no money whatsoever.
Point is, when you’re a nonprofit, you approach the world differently. You are aware of the fifty shades of grey1 that come along with significant donations. Receiving money from Individuals can be as tricky as receiving it from corporations. Rich people have rich people egos. The potential exists for a large donor to shift who you are. If you’re in the nonprofit world, you navigate this as best you can.
And god bless you if you’re a literary nonprofit who can turn away money. Aside from the National Endowment for the Arts (whose budget is basically the same as it was 25 years ago, you know, because there’s no such thing as inflation), there’s only one foundation in the country that funds nonprofit presses across the country. ONE. Granted, Minneapolis has a solid funding community, but that’s it. There’s basically no money for nonprofit literary publishing in Boston, Chicago, Rochester, Miami, you name the place. But that’s the situation we decided to deal with to accomplish what we feel is important. (That we’re passionate about. Nonprofit publishers aren’t in this for the money. If they are, they live a life of constant disappointment.)
So when I read comments from Dennis Loy Johnson in which he poses as the “great independent crusader,” I get really irritated. He doesn’t deal with this world at all, so for him to criticize decisions that we make is a bit ludicrous. If he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t have to take Amazon’s mon—— wait, that’s right, he can’t. He chose to go a different route, so he doesn’t spend 90% of his life in a state of anxiety about grant deadlines and individual fundraising efforts and trying to be good enough to attract more than a $100 donation. He has other, equally valid concerns. But I would never harass Melville House if they sold $25,000 worth of books through Wal-Mart (would they? I’m willing to bet that all moral issues about that awful company go by the wayside if given the opportunity), even though I hate that store in ways unhealthy. Shit, even if MHP sold $25,000 of product to Citibank, I wouldn’t criticize him.
I don’t understand the pressures—physical, mental, ethical—of being a for profit, in the same way people who haven’t worked in nonprofits don’t understand what we go through. Different presses have different needs, different situations, different goals. I wish an article would be written in which it’s not nonprofits talking nice about the one grant they received all year, and some bitter sounding for profit publishers criticizing them for it.
That is all.
1 Yep, I totally used that phrase to try and attract people searching for mommy porn. I can be devious at times.
E.J. and Nate have censored this post for reasons that are probably obvious.
I swore to myself that I would never write about Amazon, pricing, price checking, and the suckery of NPR ever again, but
then of course, NPR has to go and run this insipidly stupid piece about a “predatory” Amazon. I’m half-tempted to go back to my normal argument that of course they’re predatory, in much the same way all corporations are predatory and take advantage of the system as it exists and tax loopholes and economies of scale and all of that shit. Bottomline: corporations only exist to make money, not to make the world a better place. Does that disturb me? Hell yes it does. I’m a pretty anti-corporate person, but trying to change the nature of Amazon by complaining that what they’re doing is unfair seems similar to trying to convince people to read translations because it will “make the world a better place.” Not to go all 2002 on this subject, but this is a time when the phrase “don’t hate the playa, hate the game” is pretty fitting. But I don’t want to talk about Amazon in this post . . . Instead I want to talk about how NPR sucks and is helping make this conversation about Amazon and other corporations really stupid and middlebrow and unproductive. Let’s start with a little thing called timing. Aside from the bit about Nancy Pearl’s new book series (which no publisher would touch until Amazon decides to publish it at which point everything is EVIL), everything in this article is at least a month old. The Price Check App? We burned that bridge long ago. And then there’s those pesky little things we call “facts.” This article, which is as typically lazy as all NPR journalism is, implies that the Price Check App applied to books, which is PATENTLY NOT TRUE. But why bother researching things when you can just throw shit at a wall and create a “controversy” by just riding whatever opinions get you the most hits. But the thing I really want to get at is how this article actually impairs any sort of intellectual discussion about the corporation vs. culture situation. Check this quote from O’Reilly’s publisher, Joe Wikert:
“The word ‘predator’ is pretty strong, and I don’t use it loosely,” he says, “but . . . I could have sworn we had laws against predatory pricing. I just don’t understand why that’s not an issue — because that’s got to be hurting other device makers out there in trying to capture this market.” Now what should follow this quote? If NPR had any journalistic balls, they would do a bit of research into anti-trust laws, and explain whether Amazon is violating something or not. If not, the discussion could be about whether anti-trust laws need to be updated, or why they’ve been corroded over the past half-century and what that’s resulted int. THAT would be an interesting article, and a fucking useful one. Does NPR go in that direction?
But Wikert is also well aware that Amazon has made life very convenient for consumers. GAAAAGGH! This is not journalism, this is explaining that we need air to breathe. Well done, NPR. Glad no one broke a sweat on that. One last example of the illogical crap that is this article. Dennis Loy Johnson (an amazing publisher and the face of the War Against Amazon), talks about an app he wants to create to promote independent bookstores:
Melville Publishing is trying to develop a number of products to help booksellers. One of them is the “shelf talker,” a digital display that helps customers browse through print books in a brick-and-mortar store but buy e-books from that store’s website instead of Amazon. Naturally, because everyone at NPR is so tuned in, they realized immediately that when you buy an ebook from an independent bookstore, it’s actually being supplied by GOOGLE, another corporation that is EVIL and should be investigated and could be violating anti-trust laws. Did they ask Dennis whether he’s uncomfortable favoring one corporate behemoth over another?
But such devices might be too little, too late. Johnson would prefer to see Amazon investigated for antitrust violations, but he doesn’t expect that will happen anytime soon. Why not? Tell me why no one will investigate them if they’re obviously breaking laws. THAT IS WHAT WE ALL WANT TO KNOW. Explain something useful to me, NPR. Please. Go out and dig around. Learn things. Pass along that knowledge. Just once, NPR, just once. God damn it.
OK, I got my heart rate back under control, but
then came across this piece about Kodak’s bankruptcy and how Rochester “hasn’t lost its sparkle,” and which may well be the most insincere article I’ve ever read. Thanks to Kodak’s inability to adapt to the world around it, Rochester is getting a ton of attention these days, with most pieces being of the “what will Rochester do without Kodak?” variety. Despite the fact that Kodak’s decline took place many years ago, and this bankruptcy just a formality, questioning Rochester’s future is a valid enough approach to the story. The problem I’ve had with all of these articles is that they address absolutely none of the actual problems present in Rochester, instead covering up everything with pollyannaish statements about how everything here “sparkles.” Seriously, Rochester (especially at and around the universities) is a very decent place to live, but the weird segregated nature of the city, the terrible impact of the soulless suburbs, the incredibly high teen pregnancy rate (one of the highest in the country), the laughably bad urban planning, the mismanagement of almost all beautification projects, the fast ferry failure, and the implosion of the city school district are REAL ISSUES. But rather than even mention that Rochester faces a plethora of challenges and has to be very ingenious to save itself from becoming yet another mid-sized American city whose main export is crippling depression, lets just reiterate that we love our hometown because it is wondrous good and filled with unicorns!
Every time I turn around it seems like there’s a new building in the medical center. There are gleaming spaces full of people in lab coats and blinking racks of computers. From new medicines, to computer chips — it feels like it’s all being invented here. People walk together with their heads down in deep discussion and you can just sense them going places no one has ever gone before. What does this even mean? The U of R Medical Center is stunningly impressive, but I’m pretty sure they don’t make computer chips there. (I know, I know, but this article is intentionally misleading in those juxtaposed sentences, which is exactly why it makes me furious.) So for anyone struggling to survive in a former blue-collar town, they should look ahead to the future with stars in their eyes because people in lab coats walk around talking about “deep” subjects?!?? Are you even serious? NPR has gone from being the alternative to the crap that is Fox News and CNN and MSNBC to being a voice of middlebrow authority that is absolutely unquestioned by most left-leaning thinkers. Which is a terrible mistake to make, and will only drive the conversation about important issues into a more banal and misguided place.
That is all.
Following on my post from yesterday, which was following on Richard Russo’s op-ed piece, which was following on Amazon’s “Price Check special,” today Slate’s tech guy, Farhad Manjoo, has his own piece about Amazon and indie bookstores—one that has seemingly pissed off everyone I know.
If there’s one thing to say about this, Manjoo brings the provocation right from the get-go: “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller: Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.”
That sound you hear is the sound of 99% indie booksellers exploding simultaneously. And for that last 1%? Check this:
I was primed to nod in vigorous agreement when I saw novelist Richard Russo’s New York Times op-ed taking on Amazon’s thuggish ways. But as I waded into Russo’s piece—which was widely passed around on Tuesday—I realized that he’d made a critical and common mistake in his argument. Rather than focus on the ways that Amazon’s promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents), Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores. Russo and his novelist friends take for granted that sustaining these cultish, moldering institutions is the only way to foster a “real-life literary culture,” as writer Tom Perrotta puts it. Russo claims that Amazon, unlike the bookstore down the street, “doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe” and has no interest in fostering “literary culture.”
That’s simply bogus. As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books. With his creepy laugh and Dr. Evil smile, Bezos is an easy guy to hate, and I’ve previously worried that he’d ruin the book industry. But if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.
Yep. “Crushing that precious indie on the corner.”
Before getting in to Manjoo’s argument, I just want to highlight some of the terms and phrases he uses in relation to bookstores and their fans:
“most mistakenly mythologized”
“frustrating consumer experience”
“no customer reviews”
“no reliable way to find what you’re looking for”
“dubious recommendations engine”
“difficult to use”
“my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist”
“hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists”
“allegedly important functions that local booksellers”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that a bookstore must’ve stole Farhad’s girlfriend at some point in time. This is vitriol, or in schoolyard parlance, them’s fightin words.
Manjoo’s anti-bookstore argument mostly revolves around price—the idea that you can get 2 books on Amazon for the price of 1 that you can get at the local bookstore, and jumps from that to the conclusion that the only reason bookstores sell books at list price is because they are riddled with inefficiencies.
He does at least try and understand why some people like bookstores:
I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay extra to shop there. They find browsing through physical books to be a meditative experience, and they enjoy some of the ancillary benefits of physicality (authors’ readings, unlimited magazine browsing, in-store coffee shops, the warm couches that you can curl into on a cold day). And that’s fine: In the same way that I sometimes wander into Whole Foods for the luxurious experience of buying fancy food, I don’t begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they fancy.
Cause yeah, the experience of visiting a store like Talking Leaves in Buffalo, NY or Square Books in Oxford, MS is pretty much the same luxurious experience you get in any of the 304 Whole Foods locations littered across our country. Exactly.
But this starts to get at Manjoo’s prejudices and where he’s really gone astray . . . More on that in a second, first, here’s one last damning quote about the (non-)value of bookstores:
Say you just care about books. Well, then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read. This is the biggest flaw in Russo’s rant. He points to several allegedly important functions that local booksellers play in fostering “literary culture”—they serve as a “gathering place” for the community, they “optimistically set up . . . folding chairs” at readings, they happily guide people toward books they’ll love. I’m sure all of that is important, but it’s strange that a novelist omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.
What this all boils down to is Manjoo’s unabashed desire to operate like a rational consumer. If the goal of every entity—business, consumer, etc.—is to “maximize surplus value,” then you should try and wed yourself to the principles of neo-classical economics, in which the free market determines the price (there’s nothing preventing bookstores from discounting, and thus increasing demand), and it’s your job to only purchase things in which you get the biggest bang for your buck. It is absolutely 100% economically irrational to purchase a book you’re willing to pay $30 for for that $30 if there’s a $20 version available through means that don’t entail a lot of opportunity costs. This is the primary consumer advantage for online retailers. It’s just as easy (or even easier) to buy the Steve Jobs bio via an online retailer than it is to drive to a store and buy one, and that way you’ve accrued surplus value.
OK, fine. Tech people and stock brokers and MBAs and some Slate writers think like this and want to live like this. Two things: first off, people don’t behave rationally, especially when it comes to price, and secondly, there are hidden opportunity costs in this scenario that relate to community.
Manjoo, in a myopic fashion that is stunningly boneheaded, equates the “buy local” movement with bookstores supporting local authors. That is foolish and beside the point. One of the primary purposes of bookstores is building a literary community. Sure, you can point to readings (which, unless it’s Richard Russo are generally attended by 10 readers and a few homeless) as a physical representation of this, but it’s actually something much larger. A good independent bookstores is a place where you know you can interact with people who read as much as you do. It’s a safe haven for the literati in a world that’s increasingly rationalized and scary. It’s one of the few physical spaces where you can talk about literature and art after college.
This all sounds sort of dreamy and pollyannaish, but bear with me for a few sentences . . . In a way, a good bookstore is the equivalent of Cheers. Sure, I could buy a six-pack for less than half of what it would cost in the bar, but I wouldn’t get to chat with my favorite bartender, laugh with my friends, or check out the pretty people. OK, this is maybe as shitty an analogy as the Whole Foods one, but the “value” of a store like Schuler Books in Grand Rapids, MI, is the social experience AND the book selection. Manjoo’s focus on cushy chairs and shit belies the gross materialism that underlies his entire worldview. (Which helps when you talk about tech, I suppose. And explains some of that social awkwardness thing.)
The reason bookstore lovers advocate for bookstores rarely has to do with the actual books available. We all know that we can find anything we want in quicker, easier ways that cost less money. The reason people sign petitions to save St. Mark’s is because of the enjoyment you get of people watching there, or chatting with Margarita about crazy Russian writers and the East Village poets. Things are learned in bookstores and in interactions that are not able to be learned in online experiences. And for some people, that value exceeds the $10 that you could save buying Steve Jobs online. This isn’t true for all people, but it is for some. Like, as he admits, Farhad Manjoo’s wife.
Anyway, to parallel yesterday’s post, here are three ideas:
1) If you value this community experience and feel like online retailing (especially the big-A) will eradicate it like polio, you should try and find ways to help your local retailers and rail against the online stores. This is the route a lot of booksellers take, and it is an admirable one based on beliefs. I’m not sure how much of a difference this makes in the end, since technology is molding society and our values, but it’s an option.
2) You can give up. Buy books online and use that extra $10 to meet your bookish friends at a local pub. Invest in anti-depressants and Match.com subscriptions. Pray that you become part of the 1% even as you watch hyper-capitalist companies suck your surplus dry in ways so insidious that you think you’re actually signing up for them.
3) Maybe there’s an evolution that could take place. The U.S. Government and other municipalities should make it easier for bookstores to become nonprofits or get grants or find ways to support their base costs. Maybe bookstores and libraries or museums or cafes or bars or other community spaces could join forces in creating spaces for post-grad thinkers to share ideas and passions and books and whatever. The idea of a bookstore a la 1990 starting up in any mid-sized town and surviving is difficult to imagine, but there are always places like Writers & Books and whatnot that can combine bookselling with writing with the love of books with the idea of desiring social interaction.
Oh, and as a friend (who is also writing about Manjoo’s “boneheaded” article) pointed out just now, this article reeks of link bait. Manjoo could be gaming us all, hoping we get pissed so that the read rate on his articles spikes leading to more money for him to spend on $.99 books at Amazon, thus maximizing value.
We talked about this very briefly on last week’s podcast, but now that Richard Russo has written an op-ed piece for the NY Times, I feel like it’s worth exploring this Amazon Price Check controversy in a bit more detail.
First off, for anyone not familiar with this recent Amazon vs. Indie Bookstore kerfuffle, here’s a quick synopsis: About a week ago, Amazon posted this offer explaining that on December 10th, if you use their Price Check App in a physical store, and then buy the product via Amazon.com, you’d get $5 off. Sort of.
To keep this as logical and accurate as possible, here’s the “fine print”:
Use the Price Check App with the location services enabled on your mobile device. See below for information on enabling your mobile device’s location services.
While you are out shopping, you may optionally provide the Price Check App the in-store advertised price of a qualifying product in the eligible product categories (Electronics, Toys, Sports, Music, and DVDs).
Place a qualifying product (shipped and sold by Amazon.com) into the shopping cart within the Price Check App.
Within twenty-four (24) hours of placing a qualifying product in your Price Check App shopping cart, complete your purchase from any Amazon channel (Price Check App, Amazon website, or other Amazon apps). If you do not make your purchase within this time period, the discount will expire.
Your discount of 5% off Amazon’s Price (up to a maximum of $5.00*), will be automatically applied at checkout within the Price Check App.
Naturally, indie bookstores (and Dennis Loy Johnson and many others) got PISSED about how this behavior (using customers to spy on competitors) was evil and would destroy all independent bookstores everywhere, and maybe cause Melancholia to crash into Earth. (Or something like that.)
What was pointed out in the comments section at MobyLives, and is absolutely evident in the instructions above is that books were not included in this program. Sure, some bookstores sell DVDs and Music, so they’re not completely unaffected by this program, but indie bookstores selling DVDs and CDs are making bigger mistakes and should be worrying about things other than Amazon.
Not that this “books aren’t included” argument had any impact whatsoever. Some of my favorite bookstores in the world took this Amazon program and used it as a marketing tool to reinforce local loyalties. Third Place had a special offer all day on the 10th, Diesel started an “Occupy Amazon” Facebook page and movement, and the ABA CEO Oren Teicher posted an open letter to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos that opens “We’re not shocked, just disappointed,” then builds off the sales tax controversy into an attack on the price check program.
Personally, I think the ABA should keep these two issues separate and deal with them on their own terms, but whatever. The point is, most indie stores seemed to follow a similar logic: Amazon may not be targeting bookstores with this particular offer, but they will in the future, and they’ve done enough damage that we need to react now. I worked in indie stores, I get this.
Yet, for some reason, this program didn’t bug me that much. I guess because a) I knew books weren’t included and that’s all I ever buy, aside from wine and b) I fucking hate Target/Best Buy/WalMart/Sam’s Club/Toys R Us and all the other crappy big box stores that sell Electronics, DVDs, Music, and Toys and make Henrietta, NY (and a billion other cities) a veritable wasteland of disgusting warehouse-style buildings and parking lots. To me, there’s little more depressing than driving down one of these streets in Anytown, USA passing by Applebee’s, Chili’s, Best Buy, a vacant Circuit City building, WalMart, and a nondescript sadness-inducing shopping mall. So, had I been motivated to leave behind the couch and my books to save 15% or $15 (whichever is less), to screw Target for its general state of sucking, I would’ve driven over to Sorrowville and scanned some toys that I would then buy from Amazon. Fuck em.
The thing is, shopping in all of these above named locations is an absolutely awful experience. And to pretend that even 25% of America is all quaint locally owned shops where customers get to know the owners and everyone smiles and bakes cookies for each other is foolish. Maybe in NYC and San Francisco and Seattle (ironically) and Chicago and large cities, this is the case. But where I live (where most people live), you can frequent the handful of decent locally owned restaurants and bars in town, but if you need to buy your daughter Mousetrap, you have to go into the bowels of hell. Or order it online. That is the truth.
I love shopping in indie bookstores. Whenever I visit a city, I check in at as many of them as I can. And buy books every single time. I have a problem. (I literally gave away 13 boxes of books when I last moved. And still have 10 in storage to go along with my 4 bookshelves at home, the 2 at work, and the growing stack of books next to my bed. DISEASED.) And I sincerely desire a situation in which indie stores populate the U.S. and most people have an actual choice between ordering books online (which you pretty much have to do if you live in Rochester) or buying from Bookstore X just down the road. I think that should be the goal of anyone advocating for buying local, or restricting Amazon’s influence, or whatever. What we want in the end is a healthy book culture in whatever form that takes.
Which brings me to Richard Russo’s opinion piece from today in which he goes after Amazon in praise of indie stores:
I first heard of Amazon’s new “promotion” from my bookseller daughter, Emily, in an e-mail with the subject line “Can You Hear Me Screaming in Brooklyn?” According to a link Emily supplied, Amazon was encouraging customers to go into brick-and-mortar bookstores on Saturday, and use its price-check app (which allows shoppers in physical stores to see, by scanning a bar code, if they can get a better price online) to earn a 5 percent credit on Amazon purchases (up to $5 per item, and up to three items).
Books, interestingly enough, were excluded, but you could use your Amazon credit online to buy other things that bookstores sell these days, like music and DVDs. And, if you were scanning, say, the new Steve Jobs biography, you’d no doubt be informed that you were about to pay way too much. I wondered what my writer friends made of all this, so I dashed off an e-mail to Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, and cc’ed Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Andre Dubus III, Anita Shreve, Tom Perrotta and Ann Patchett.
I’m not entirely clear that the first sentence of that second paragraph makes sense, but let’s let that go for a minute. Here’s my problem: Richard Russo and everyone he mentions in here are corporate authors. They are published by the largest media conglomerates in the world, who have used their power and money and influence to shape the book retail world to their advantage.
Who was the target of the last Robinson-Patman anti-trust ruling? Penguin and the other members of the Big Six. They were giving unfair discounts to B&N and Borders at the expense of indie bookstores? Why? Because they could make more money by aligning themselves with the big box stores. (Death to Big Box Stores!)
The reason I bring this up is because it’s worth wondering if the Big Six are in this publishing game for the benefit of book culture as a whole, or to make as much money as possible for their shareholders. The correct answer is the latter, and that’s reflected in nearly every decision they make. As a result, people like Richard Russo and Stephen King publish their books with Random House and Simon & Schuster so that they can reap the benefits of these corporate practices. Namely, Russo and King get way more cash and reach way more readers by being part of this system. They’re also not motivated by “doing the right thing for book culture” but by trying to maximize their impact, relevance, and earnings.
And that’s totally well within their rights. And by “their,” I mean Russo & Co., the Big Six, and Amazon. If one of these parties does something illegal, that’s a different matter, but as I well know, arguing against any of these entities from a moral “you shouldn’t maximize profits by being evil” perspective rings totally hollow in today’s business climate. Banks run rampant, oil companies are less than trustworthy, GE and all fellow corporations game the system to avoid paying any income tax whatsoever to the U.S. government. All in the name of capitalism and the free market, something that we’ve all unwittingly signed on to, and are still coming to fully understand the long-term impact of.
So it seems to me like there are three major ways to approach Amazon and this situation:
1) Acknowledge that what they’re doing is what every corporation would do if in their position (Amazon is not a bookstore, Amazon is more a tech company meets retailer), and that if you don’t like it, you should do everything in your power to benefit those outside of the corporate system and try and take down capitalism as a whole. Publish with nonprofits. Buy all books from local stores. Donate heavily to worthy literary organizations like PEN and Words Without Borders and Open Letter and the Center for the Art of Translation. Help foster and maintain a book culture that’s based in something other than price and hype.
2) Agree that capitalism rules the day, and go make your money in whatever way necessary. Amazon probably sells more Russo books than all the indie stores combined. (Maybe. I could be wrong, but if not now, then soon.) Random House’s colophon and publicity office gets Russo & Co. on the front of the NY Times Book Reivew. Use every advantage the current corporate and social structures give you to make as much money as you can, and if some presses and stores don’t make it, don’t worry—that’s capitalist Darwinism. The weak fail because they aren’t savvy enough. (I cringe writing that whole paragraph. Sorry.)
3) Figure out a valid third perspective or way of accomplishing what you really want. To say Amazon is a completely bad thing is to ignore the fact that someone living in a remote part of the country may not have access to books and other goods through their local stores. Or they have to deal with the obnoxious lighting of Target anytime they want to buy a TV or a copy of Twilight. That sucks. But it’s also true that book culture has been altered by the existence of Amazon. In some ways that are good (more people buying books), in some ways that are not-so-good (fewer communal places for book people to hang). Advocate for a fixed book price law. Work on finding ways to benefit local readers while acknowledging that a lot of people (especially in this economy) are very price sensitive. Find partnerships that benefit the culture as a whole.
I have no answers here. But I don’t think you’re going to get a capitalist company to stop acting in as capitalist fashion as possible, so rather than try and guilt them into “better” behavior, especially since MBAs around the world would likely applaud Amazon’s tactics, or say that they’re not going far enough, since the only goal there is in business is to make as much money as possible at the expense of your competitors.
I’ll be interested to see what Amazon’s table is all about when it comes out, but I have to admit, as someone who still reads and actually likes books, I’m a bit wary . . .
The New York Times has an interesting piece about this that highlights the contradictions surrounding this device. On the one hand:
The retailer is on the verge of introducing its own tablet, analysts predict, a souped-up color version of its Kindle e-reader that will undercut the iPad in price and aim to steal away a couple of million in unit sales by Christmas.
And on the other:
“The No. 1 thing consumers do on tablets is e-mail,” said Sarah Rotman Epps, a Forrester analyst. “The No. 2 thing is look up stuff on the Web. Then playing games and watching video. Amazon will offer all the tablet that many consumers need.” She estimated initial sales of as many as five million devices.
Based on the success of the iPad—which was supposed to “magically” save the publishing industry1—it’s more important that ereaders allow for simultaneous emailing, tweeting, and video watching for those times when, you know, you’re not doing anything but reading . . .
1 In a way it did. Not necessarily as a device or a way of making ebooks as popular as streaming movies or music, but in the way that Apple’s entrance into the market led to the adoption of the agency model and higher prices for most ebooks.
For those of you who listen to our (semi) weekly Three Percent podcast, you may remember a discussion Tom and I had a month or so ago about the idea of a “Spotify for books,” whereby someone could subscribe to have unlimited access to all ebooks available on a given platform. As with Spotify, you wouldn’t actually “own” these books—if you stopped paying your $10/month (or whatever) the ebooks in your “library” would become inaccessible, etc. (Critics of this model like to point out that the same thing would happen if this “unlimited subscription” service were to go bust at some point.)
This is a rather simple model, one that’s very much like Spotify and Netflix, and only really applicable to books now that ereaders are fairly affordable and a significant number of books have been digitized.
It’s also an idea that Amazon is trying to put into action:
Online retailer Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN: News ) is close to launching a digital book library and is in talks with book publishers, according to the Wall Street Journal on Sunday. The library will enable customers to access a digitized content by paying an annual subscription fee, similar to the service provided by Netflix, Inc. (NFLX). [. . .]
The launch of the digital library by Amazon could also further harm the print media and could lower the cost of print books and the demand for them.
Couple quick points:
1) I am a shitty capitalist. Not that I’m the only person to have ever thought about this, but it seems like one of those things that a smarter, more money hungry sort of person would’ve been proposing to a venture capitalist/Amazon a million months ago.
2) I actually think these services are good for print media (and the music industry). The issue of why you read/listen to what you read/listen to, and how you stay within your prescribed comfort zone, is a topic much to large for this ephemeral blog post, but if there’s ever a situation where readers/listeners are willing to “take a chance” on something out of the ordinary, it’s this sort of unlimited subscription model. Before Rhapsody (which I subscribed to for a decade before shunning them in favor of the younger, sexier Spotify), I bought maybe 6 CDs a year, listened to music occasionally, and would pirate things I maybe thought sounded OK, but wasn’t necessarily sold on. Rhapsody changed everything. This past weekend, I listened to tracks from at least 30 artists I had never before heard of, discovering a few I liked, and a number that were just meh. From a user’s perspective, this sort of noodling is essentially free, since you pay $10/month to check out any and everything you want. For presses like Open Letter, a service like this could be golden, since someone interested vaguely in international literature, but unwilling to spend $15 or even $9 on a book by an author with a strange name, would be able to start reading that book for a price that, within their mind at least, is basically $0. It’s like how you start watching strange shows on cable just because they’re there . . . There’s no risk in starting Museum of Eterna’s Novel and finding out if you think it’s the “First Good Novel.”
3) This service would convince me to buy an ereader. Not to replace my current book collecting obsession (on recent trip to New York I gave away 4 Open Letter books to reviewers and booksellers and bought 6 new titles), but to supplement it. There are things I don’t want to own, and books I’d like to just check out. It would be like a massive library right in your hand!
Over at The New Republic, Ruth Franklin has one of the most rational pieces on Amazon.com that I’ve seen in a long while. She wrote this in response to Colin Robinson’s The Trouble with Amazon article that appeared in a recent issue of The Nation. (And which I haven’t read, because after subscribing to The Nation, I received all of four issues before someone promptly deleted my information. I’ve been too busy/lazy to try and correct this, so I’m always behind . . .)
Thankfully Ruth recaps this piece and Colin’s main objections: that “its business policies are inarguably draconian,” that discounting has hurt publishers and authors, that the “tendency of the Internet shopper to search rather than browse leads to a ‘loss of serendipity’ that was once key to the way people discovered new books. Criticisms that are valid and valuable, and also fairly common and well-documented. As Ruth wittily puts it, “I might as well try to defend Pol Pot.”
(When I gave a report on Jeff Bezos for business school, the general reaction was that Amazon’s business practices weren’t nearly as vicious or capitalist enough. Most b-school kids think book people are sissies. Then again, these opinions were coming from students who respect the banking industry. And EvilWylie has shit on the bankers of the world.)
Ruth nails it when she points out the primary advantage of Amazon:
But we have known all this for a long time. The real trouble with Amazon, it seems, is that nobody truly believes we were better off without it. This is where the often-made comparison of Amazon with other monoliths such as Wal-Mart falters. Wal-Mart is not known for its catalog of obscurities; the merchandise it sells is all available elsewhere. It put the mom-and-pop drugstores and hardware stores and grocery stores out of business by offering the same items that they sold, just at lower prices.
This isn’t the case with Amazon. Before it appeared on the scene, if you lived in a part of the country that happened not to be served by a great independent bookstore, you were out of luck when it came to getting books other than bestsellers. As a child growing up in suburban Baltimore—not exactly a backwater!—I felt keenly the lack of ready access to the books that I wanted. (Remember the joke of a selection at your local mall’s Waldenbooks?) And with the quirkier independents—such as the great Louie’s to which I paid tribute above—you were at the mercy of the owner’s idiosyncrasies, which meant that you might find shelves stocked with contemporary poetry but nothing by, say, Tolstoy.
I know I’ve said this before, but I grew up in Essexville, Michigan. You know how many books by Tolstoy were available at our local bookstore? Exactly zero. Same as the number of bookstores we had in town. I don’t even know what my childhood would’ve been like if I could’ve ordered any book my head desired.
It’s all fine to now praise the availability of near everything to nearly everyone, but I particularly like this bit about the general publishing business model:
If the publishing industry is suffering from the price-lowering trend that Amazon has led (though not entirely on its own), it also has its own poor business practices to blame. Robinson quotes a boss at Scribner, where he used to work, saying a few years ago that in terms of advances, “$50,000 is the new $100,000.” This isn’t a scandal; it is a necessary correction to inflated prices in the wake of a global recession. I understand that the metrics can be somewhat complicated, but a system in which 70 percent of books do not earn back their advances is destined to collapse. There’s something to be said for supporting books of quality regardless of how much revenue they bring in—this is why literary houses also publish diet books—but in recent years the amounts have gotten out of hand. Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones was a prize-winner and bestseller in France, but no one could have imagined that a 900-plus-page novel about a Nazi could sell anywhere near enough copies in the U.S. market to earn back the $1 million that Harper paid for English rights. (It reportedly sold fewer than 20,000.)
This is also all very true—and very well documented.
I know this is a personal flaw, but I tend to get defensive when people lay into Amazon and complain about how it’s ruining book culture. For fuck’s sake, there are dozens of things that have been ruining book culture for years and years and years. Suburban chains, TV, World of Warcraft, thousands of crappy books that are shoved down our throat, etc., etc. But what really gets me is what I see as the inherent hypocrisy in all this. Big publishers are big corporations wedded to the concepts of the free market and pure capitalist beliefs. The same principles that ensure that way more of [insert big six publisher of choice here]‘s books are displayed, sold, reviewed, and pimped than those from [insert indie/nonprofit publisher of choice here]. The same principles that ensure certain books don’t get published because they’re “too literary” and the P&L sheets don’t work out. This is the same game that allowed Amazon to become so powerful. As Ruth Franklin concludes, “Amazon is a quintessential capitalist enterprise, and it cannot be faulted for exploiting the free-market system that, for better or worse, we have embraced.” And yet we do. Loudly and vitriolically.
Ideally things would be different. I’d love to live in an America where literary fiction was still appreciated, where indie bookstores were a key business in every neighborhood, where people talked more about actual books and less about how well they did in the marketplace, where there was a lot more book coverage and a lot more book coverage devoted to “smaller books” from smaller presses. A LOT would have to change for something like this to happen. A fixed book price law. A much larger public-private investment in literature and literary culture. A bit of a cultural sea change away from TV and Twitter and back to reading. In this socialist paradise, Amazon probably wouldn’t be quite so powerful. But until that day comes, I have to say, for all the unsavory business practices they might embody, it sure is nice that I can order a copy of Cossery’s The Jokers, since there are no indie stores in town and the local B&N doesn’t carry it.
Since I’m fuming today over a number of things (including the general shittiness of my ultra-slow computer), I want to end by simply saying that I don’t think the relationship Amazon plays in book culture is all that cut and dry. There are good aspects and bad. There are nuances. There is predatory pricing, the long tail, a wonderful grant program, ways to make book recommendations more social, and the questionable effects of automatizing recommendations. We all love having a purely evil enemy, but Amazon is part of a complex publishing ecosystem that has a lot of flaws and middling enemies.
At least that’s my opinion. At this moment.
This piece at GalleyCat about the “informal boycott” going on at Amazon for e-books costing more than $10 is very curious. Readers are tagging $10+ e-books with a 9 99 boycott tag and making rational arguments as to why the price should be under $10:
“Kindle books are kinda like movie tickets. While you can re-read the book, you cannot: donate it to a library, sell it to a used book store, sell it on Amazon’s Used Marketplace, [or] trade it to a friend . . . The publisher does not need to pay for paper, glue, press time, press employees, insurance, ink, boxes, or shipping. Amazon does not need to stock its warehouse, pay staff to fulfill orders, or pay shipping. The price needs to reflect these VERY important facts.”
Of course, a couple months ago Bob Miller of HarperStudio posted an argument about why e-book prices should be almost the same at traditional print book prices:
Whether a book is printed on paper and bound or formatted for download as an e-book, publishers still have all the costs leading up to that stage. We still pay for the author advance, the editing, the copyediting, the proofreading, the cover and interior design, the illustrations, the sales kit, the marketing efforts, the publicity, and the staff that needs to coordinate all of the details that make books possible in these stages. The costs are primarily in these previous stages; the difference between physical and electronic production is minimal. In fact, the paper/printing/binding of most books costs about $2.00…so if we were to follow the actual costs in establishing pricing, a $26.00 “physical” book would translate to a $24.00 e-book…
Related to this, when I was at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, a representative from Hachette gave a speech about ebooks and expressed a great fear about the “iTunes price setting model,” in which publishers have little to no control over how much their ebooks are sold for.
His argument was that publishers had to be able to set their own price to ensure that they make enough money per unit to stay in business. In my opinion, he seemed to be completely ignoring the market forces on price points, instead sticking with the old, obscure, cost plus value, sort of way of setting book prices.
This isn’t nearly as big as the Tropicana redesign, but it’s in the same vein . . . Granted, it’ll take more than 250 Amazon customers tagging books to effect a change, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the prices of the tagged books. And if $9.99 becomes the accepted standard for e-books, what’ll happen to HarperStudio and their innovative model?
Kindle sales figures continue to be as clear as mud . . . After yesterday morning’s announcement of Kindle 2.0, it was reported everywhere — thanks in part to the
misleading awesome chart below and to Bezos’s actual words: “Today, more than 10 percent of the units we sell are Kindle books.” — that 10% of Amazon’s sales are of e-books.
Which, as CNN pointed out, is a bit odd, since only “200,000 titles — a tiny fraction of the books offered on the site — are available in digital form.”
Well, thankfully GalleyCat followed up on this:
GalleyCat asked an Amazon spokesperson for clarification. They reduced that early number: “Kindle sales make up more than 10 percent of sales of books that are available in both traditional and e-book form.”
That’s an awful big difference . . . Really makes me wonder about that 500,000 unit claim that’s been floating around . . .
If you’re curious about the new Kindle, Engadget has a hand-on photo gallery and some video..
Heidi, over at Omnivoracious, Amazon’s weblog, has an interview with Chad, and some nice things to say about Open Letter:
If you looked at the recent media frenzy over Bolano’s 2666 (even The Economist has a story about it), you’d think that translations were really hot this year. According to a translation database manually compiled by Open Letter this year, though, the percentage of new books published in the U.S. that are translations is still coming in at around 3% or lower. Open Letter’s mission is to try to change all that.
A number of presses publish translations, but Open Letter (a small press out of the University of Rochester) only publishes translations. Their blog, Three Percent (based on the 3% mentioned above), has done a lot to promote international literature—it regularly features reviews, lit mags from other countries, and programs like Reading the World and Words Without Borders. This week they’re previewing their Spring 2009 line-up.
This is a great idea:
Amazon.co.uk has launched a new Literature in Translation store, highlighting hundreds of titles from 27 countries across the world. The site went live last week and is linked via the books homepage and the crime, fiction and poetry category pages The Bookseller
Can’t say it’s the easiest store to find, but that might be my faulty searches and the fact that I need some coffee . . . Nevertheless, here’s a link to the front page of the translation store.
Independent bookstores such as McNally Jackson, Quail Ridge Books, Talking Leaves, and others, have implemented similar ideas, creating a foreign fiction section and organizing the books by country/region. Similar to a special display in a store, Amazon is also highlighting books from particular authors and presses, which is a nice touch. (Personally, I think it would be great if there was a bit more editorial info included in these spotlights. An interview, a more complete description, etc., would go a long way.)
From my experience at Quail Ridge Books, creating a section like this worked really well in terms of increasing sales of translations, which is something Kes Nielsen, head of book buying, seems to believe in:
Sales of the genre had been growing in recent years. “By creating a dedicated Literature in Translation section on site, we are making it easy for our customers to discover a wide selection of great books by new authors from different countries that we hope they will enjoy,” he said.
“Customers will always respond to well written books, regardless of whether they were originally written in English. However there is also the appeal of reading fiction set in cities or countries that are either familiar based on travel or that are simply different to the traditional setting of most books, specifically the US and UK. It can make them all the more exciting to read.”
The one disappointing thing is that this is only on Amazon UK—not on the U.S. sister site. Sort of embarrassing that the original Amazon is a step behind . . .
Richard Nash pointed this out on Friday, but Business Week ran an interesting article last week by Sara Lacy about how book publishers should learn from Web 2.0 ideas and revitalize their practices.
Publishing is a subject near and dear to me—and not only because for the past two years I have been writing my first book. One of my parents was a philosophy professor and the other taught high school literature. Books were everywhere in my upbringing.
bq, I want to keep it that way. A way to do that is to ensure that publishing learns how to exploit the full benefits of the social media tools now taking hold of the Web. Newspapers dragged their heels and look what’s happening to them. As great as the Kindle is, publishing has a long way to go.
She then goes on to list five lessons for book publishers:
“There has to be a way for Web 2.0—a movement whose raison d’etre is to connect people—to meet the ongoing need for building community around books. Every publisher should at a minimum build a Facebook app. around its titles. The limitation with book clubs is time- and space-related. Not everyone can get their schedules (and geography) to mesh, and not everyone can read a book in the same time frame. But social networking could do for book clubs what Scrabulous did for fans of Scrabble—it let them play games together online, whenever they want.”
“The conventional wisdom in publishing is that book tours no longer work. I agree, insofar as tours are confined to bookstores. The sad truth is that bookstores are declining in relevance. There are exceptions, of course, but even stores that draw big crowds for an author will struggle to reach the wide community of people interested in a particular author.”
“When an author is established, publishers have to do less to make a book sell. So bidding wars start. As a result, even some best-sellers aren’t very profitable.
Instead, publishers should take a page from the handbook of Gawker founder Nick Denton and create stars. Find micro-celebs with a voice, talent, a niche base of readers, and most important—enthusiasm. Then leverage the publisher’s brand (and the techniques I advocate, of course) to blow them out.”
“Publishers would do well to keep the book electronic— even if it’s PDFs of typeset pages. That would help them blast teaser chapters around the world (engaging bloggers and the long tail of the press). Presumably it would help get the book on Kindle and other e-books from day one.”
“Yes, Amazon transformed how we shop for books. But the industry can go much further. Take the titles far beyond Amazon.com—through one-click widgets appended to blogs, Facebook pages, and other sites across the Web. Link these tools directly to PayPal and Google Checkout (GOOG). Think: one-click purchase, not one click takes you to Amazon.”
Most of these things seem pretty basic, yet it’s true that there aren’t many publishers engaging in these kind of activities. At least not many getting a lot of exposure or press. Of course, her reference to low advances, like in the $50,000 range, indicates that the type of publishers she has in mind aren’t your New Directions or Archipelagos or New York Review Books.
Equally interesting though is a mention in the comments section of the recent slew of SEC filings from Amazon. I don’t claim to fully understand (or even partially understand) the stock market, but it does seem suspicious that in the couple weeks following the “leak” of info regarding Kindle sales (a number a lot of people—myself included—find rather suspicious) more Assistant Directors at Amazon sold off stock than at any other time this year. Which may be natural, since the price rose based on the rumors that the Kindle was doing so well . . . still, if the Kindle is about to really take off, and there’s a cool new version coming out in the near future, wouldn’t the stock rise continue to rise? I would think so, unless the sales figures weren’t very accurate . . .
Amazon has been keeping a lid on the number of Kindles they’ve sold since it launched, but apparently somebody has finally spilled the beans:
Ever since Amazon launched the Kindle last November, we’ve been wondering about just how successful it’s been. The electronic book initially sold out and supplies have been tight. The Kindle is such a small part of Amazon’s overall business that the company does not break out how many it’s sold. But we found out anyway: 240,000 Kindles have been shipped since November, according to a source close to Amazon with direct knowledge of the numbers.
It’s hard to say whether that’s a good number or a bad one, but it’s more than I would have guessed anyway.
Some of the ‘Acts’ are a little meh, and I’m particularly sick of everyone comparing everything to 1984, but there are some goodies about Amazon’s new Kindle, which I expect to have completely forgotten in 6 months time.
Act I: The act of buying
When someone buys a book, they are also buying the right to resell that book, to loan it out, or to even give it away if they want. Everyone understands this.
Jeff Bezos, Open letter to Author’s Guild, 2002
You may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.
Amazon, Kindle Terms of Service, 2007
Apropos of the link, I’m starting to get the feeling that 1984 is like palm reading or a horoscope: if you want to see a point of comparison between your day and your horoscope (or between 1984 and…anything), you just need to look hard enough.
via Daring Fireball.
Newsweek was nice enough to allow them to advertise their Kindle on its cover this week, if you want to read about it. I was following the live blog of the launch event on Endgaget and some of the things Mr. Bezos said in launching the device were nearly the same as the quotes attributed to him in the Newsweek article.
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