Chris Kubica, founder of NeverEnd Media, editor of “Letters to J. D. Salinger”, and associate producer of the documentary “Salinger”, convened a group of book industry mavens (recruited primarily via a listserv called “Reading 2.0,” which is hosted by Peter Brantley) in New York City on July 29-30, to discuss what he called “building a dream bookstore” – and I was fortunate enough to attend. There were about 20 of us, from a wide variety of positions within the industry: literary agencies, IP lawyers, publishers, librarians, book designers, technologists, and Bob Stein. I was wearing my “I used to be a bookseller” hat, mostly.
This arose, of course, from a commonly-held desire amongst the attendees (and some attended virtually as well) to really probe The Amazon Problem. Amazon is many things. To customers, it’s an ideal store that basically sells everything you could possibly want, and delivers it almost before you know you want it (yesterday on Twitter I was calling this #acciostuff). To developers, it’s a technology company that basically invented what we know as “the cloud”. To publishers, it’s a disintermediator, a disruptor, a strong-armed bully upending business models and shrinking margins. To authors, it’s a benefactor and a cruel mistress.
The problem with The Amazon Problem, however, is that to the customer, there are no problems. The problems are with Amazon’s interactions with the book industry – much of which the customer never sees and doesn’t care about. As we poked and prodded, dreamed and built, we kept coming back to this: Amazon works for customers. It doesn’t just work – it works brilliantly. To build a dream bookstore for a publisher necessarily means friction with the customer (publishers would want higher margins and more restrictions in their favor). To build a dream bookstore for an author necessarily means friction with the customer (authors would like to get paid a living wage for their work, ideally, and have more control over sales). Amazon’s ruthless focus on its customers means (a) they are incredibly loyal because Amazon makes it easy for them to be (b) see (a). That model means that by design Amazon has adversarial relationships with its suppliers.
My dream bookstore would sell browser-based, open, standardized, interoperable, web-enabled ebooks. But right now, customers don’t know they want that. It may be that Amazon is building towards some of these features (without the ISO and W3C standards, of course, because they don’t want a platform that makes it easier for customers to buy their books at other stores). Amazon is a world unto itself. And customers seem to like it that way.
This was an incredibly valuable experience. It taught me several things. One is, Amazon did not get to be so powerful by accident. They are very, very, very smart, and their customer service is unparalleled. All of our industry hand-wringing over the Hachette negotiations is just that – the customer experience (and I say this as an Amazon Prime member) is just not that horribly affected by Amazon’s refusal to sell most of Hachette’s titles. That’s a tough realization, because Hachette is big.
Another thing is that we were 20-odd bookish people in the room (with more watching via webcam). And we couldn’t figure it out. We are insiders – collectively, there must have been hundreds of years of experience in the book business sitting around that table. As with most cases of disruption, it isn’t going to happen from inside.
But the third thing I realized is that Jeff Bezos was “not a book person”. He may love books, but until he founded Amazon, he didn’t work in the industry. Now he actually is in the industry, and has been for 20 years. He’s one of us. If a major disruption is not going to happen from inside, then “inside” includes Amazon – and any major disruption by definition will disrupt Amazon too.
We just don’t know what that is yet.