The Work

Two Days in a Dream Bookstore

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.

21 thoughts on “Two Days in a Dream Bookstore

  1. Thank you for your post summarizing what seems to have been a great conversation about the Amazon Problem as you put it and what an ideal alternative might look like.
    There are a few questions I’d want to throw into the mix.
    1. Why is it, after 20 years of incredibly brilliant and rapacious efforts, does Amazon only have a 50% market share of the US trade book market?
    2. What factors are influencing the other 50% to NOT shop at Amazon?
    3. From a customer POV, there are things that Amazon does very well and not. What are they? What are the opportunities? (The old SWOT analysis can come in handy.)

    1. Hi, Peter! Thanks for commenting! Let me take a crack at your questions:

      1. I think that heavy book buyers diversify their purchasing. Most people who read a lot go to bookstores and libraries for recreation. Because they like books so much. Being physically surrounded by them is fun.

      2. I don’t think that 50% of book buyers are uniformly not shopping at Amazon; I think that 50% of book purchases come from other stores. Pretty sure most heavy book buyers have bought from Amazon as well as BN, indies, library book sales, yard/stoop sales, etc.

      3. I have never had an experience, as an Amazon customer, of something not going right. So from my perspective, they do customer service very well. We tried to determine what they don’t do well and the only thing we could think of was “Kindle is a proprietary standard.” We spent 2 days doing this (and an informal SWOT did occur) and I certainly came away understanding that Amazon is what it is because it’s functioning as designed.

  2. Sorry, if I wasn’t clear. By market share, I mean that 50% of the books purchased are not purchased at Amazon. Consumers are motivated to make purchases by many subtle motivations. Clearly, Amazon can’t be speaking to all motivations or they’d have more than 50% of the market.

    I beleive there is consumer reported data out there (from Codex) on discovery, where it occurs and where purchases are ultimately made. I can’t cite the data by memory, but I recall getting the clear impression that Amazon was acting largely as a fulfillment vehicle for discovery that happened off site. So, discovery might go in the “Weakness” box. “Community” might also go in there too, along with “Curation” There’s also the very intangible “Feel Good”; some shoppers almost confess guilty in buying at Amazon but complain that there aren’t other good alternatives. One would probably have to explore via a customer survey want that “Feel Good” is and isn’t and how well Amazon provides it.

    1. Yes, that was sort of where we wound up as well – that the discovery experience is sort of generic, and maybe the things you describe are what we should focus on.

    2. Only 50% – ONLY? You ignore the effects of competitive response.
      “A dominant position can generally be said to exist once a market share to the order of 40% to 45% is reached. [footnote: A dominant position cannot even be ruled out in respect of market shares between 20% and 40%; Ninth Report on Competition Policy, point 22.] Although this share does not in itself automatically give control of the market, if there are large gaps between the position of the firm concerned and those of its closest competitors and also other factors likely to place it at an advantage as regards competition, a dominant position may well exist. (European Commission’s Tenth Report on Competition, page 103, paragraph 150.)”
      Rapacious? Vendors (eg. Hatchette?) frequently use that term for large customers who use leverage to obtain advantage they pass on the their customers. Take a look at Amazon’s margins and describe how they define the greed in rapacious. Robin Hood would also be described as rapacious by the rich he took from.
      POV alters opinions.

      1. Yes, ascribing value to actions (“rapacious”, “terrorist”)…well, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

        And of course the Europeans have a much more equitable view of competition than we do here.

  3. At first, please clarify if you’re speaking about an online shop for physical books or an online e-book shop. The former is a completely different story than the latter. Selling physical books via an online shop is primarily a question of logistics. The online physical books retailer with the best logistics will outrun all other competitors, especially since – unlike with brick and mortar stores – there’s no real reason why a multitude of them should exist. Moving physical goods around isn’t something that needs special protection, since there are already and always can be lots of alternative providers, so the most efficient will get dominant, while at the same time a dominant position can’t be effectively abused in a way that prevents people from getting goods, if they really want them. So the main issue with Amazon is their questionable e-book practices:

    I don’t think that there’s no problem for the customer, Amazon is just clever enough to hide and distract from them. Ever tried to print out the contents of a Mobi file? Ever tried to upload a work to Amazon without having a company registered? Ever tried to correct an error in a work sold by Amazon? Technically, there’s no reason why any of those use cases shouldn’t be possible, to the contrary. And yet, Amazon and others managed to fool people into the idea that an “e-book” is much like a physical book while denying most of the advantages of digital works and even get paid for doing so. You might have already noticed, for digital books which go from an author to readers, there’s no need for something called a “bookstore”, instead, a universal platform which lets readers directly support authors is needed. I know what the disruptive force for Amazon is, it is called “Internet”, “software” and “open platform”. Instead of publishing to Amazon exclusively as inflicted by artificial restrictions and vendor lock-in both to the disadvantage of the author and the reader, one instead should publish to the web, where easy payment mechanisms, modern digital business models, powerful tools and respect for digital freedom should be in place or needs to be developed.

    1. Hi, Stephan – to answer your first question, we were scoping out the potential for an alternative ebookstore. So the physical aspect wasn’t really a part of the discussion.

      Most customers don’t seem to want to be able to print – although they probably don’t know whether they want to or not because they’ve not been able to. As far as error correction goes, that’s usually on the publisher to do, and most customers aren’t publishers.

      I would love to see such a platform as you describe – possibly with more library involvement. I agree that the ultimate disruptive force for Amazon is the open web. But so far, Amazon’s been pretty good at keeping that prospect at bay.

      1. Sure, you are right: printing or error corrections aren’t activities a reader is usually involved in—yet. Other activities might be commenting, reviewing, discussing, summarizing, indexing, collecting, extending, interlinking, illustrating, incorporating into own works, curating, distributing and so on. With our computers of today and modern web technology, everyone can be a reader, author, publisher, press and distributor.

        I know that there might be “concerns” (?) regarding business models, compensation and the idea of protecting “intellectual property”, but the reality is that one cannot expect to publish (the term refers to making something available to the public) a work to a random number of unknown people which will all act exactly in the way the copyright holder intended, especially if the digital freedom of the recipient is denied, ignoring his technical capability and, in some cases, inflicting serious harm because actual usage of the publication gets prevented. All of this just because people should pay for copies (which to make doesn’t cost anything and therefore is incredibly profitable) instead of paying for the creation of new works. If any intermediary between author and reader would take the role of a service provider in an open market and stop to exploit usage rights or vendor lock-in, all stakeholders would benefit to an equal level instead of only the one or the other while taking full advantage of the potential of digital technology.

        As you mentioned libraries, I think they are staying at the crossroads right now. Do they either want to continue to try to “lend” (?) digital files to people which in fact are impossible to lent at all in order to solve a problem (= the scarcity of information caused by physical limitation) which doesn’t exist any more to a horrendous price paid with taxpayers money, for which the public doesn’t even get the most basic permission to read for an unlimited period of time, forced to buy the very same files over and over again as if they were “exhausted” (?) because the law allows so, or do they dismiss titles of publishers and authors who have already decided in their licensing terms that they don’t ever want the public to access their works in general, so that they can spent more time and money in cataloging web content, in curating collections of freely licensed works and in establishing libraries as exciting digital workshops (providing much-needed help and education regarding the use of modern media, including support for all kinds of digital projects, tooling, crafting, etc.).

        Last, I want to thank you very much for mentioning Bob Stein and linking to his Wikipedia page, because there I found the Institute for the Future of the Book, which is of high importance both for my own work in this field as well as for the topic we’re discussing here.

      2. Stephan, W3C is working on the formats of those “other activities”, and I agree with your point that everybody can be…well, everything.

        The business models will work themselves out – they always have and they always will. I hold out hope for library involvement, but that gets hampered by publisher trepidation – at least in the US. And I’m aware that our issues in the US are so firmly wedded to extreme capitalism, whereas it’s different elsewhere.

        In addition to Bob Stein, I’d like to introduce you to Liza Daly, Brian O’Leary, and John Maxwell. And there are many more where those came from. 😉

  4. Speaking as a “starving kids book author” and a user of the net for the last 20 years, to me the big problem is the concept of free, that has permeated the net.
    You have a whole generation now that grew up thinking that if it’s on the net, it is or should be free. So when some one like me actually tries to sell their work, it is looked at as wrong, and people are more inclined to steal it.
    The whole argument about intellectual property is based on and getting heated up by all those people who now think that it is wrong for any one to charge any thing for their work.

    As for the Amazon Problem, hey, it’s a really big company, and it didn’t get that way with out making a lot of people happy. So unless you want to make a bigger, or better one, there is no argument. It’s been that way since people started dealing with each other.
    And though folks love to bitch about low royalties, they are way higher than the traditional publishing model.
    Any way that’s my rant for the week, back to work.
    Thanks for listening :o)

    1. Hi, Len – newer models like subscriptions/streaming make payment easier to swallow for the millenials (I have two of them myself, as does my partner). I think that will eventually affect perceptions as well.

    2. Obviously the web is some kind of public space, and works put there are meant to be read, usually provided free of charge. As all kinds of digital devices are more and more connected to the web in general, that public space might actually be quite extensive. At the same time, “to publish” increasingly refers to publishing to the web, because works which aren’t published into this public space don’t seem to be published at all. Therefore, if for publishing in itself can’t be charged for any more, it’s time to adjust and find new business models, for instance voluntary support (subscription) or getting paid for the creation of works. If this doesn’t suffice, maybe there’s no business opportunity in general, especially since everybody can publish now without the slightest expense and there are enough people who are really good at it. I too think that much education is needed to establish the idea of paying the creator of a work which was enjoyed free of charge, but just observe yourself: when was the last time you donated directly to a writer, artist, blogger, freely licensed software project?

      1. Directly, not so much. Via subscription, to content aggregators, all the time. Staten Island Advance, HBO, Netflix, Hulu, FIOS, The New Yorker, London Times (for Caitlin Moran), Time Magazine (a cover story about Benedict Cumberbatch drew me in ;)), Amazon Prime. And iTunes (I subscribe to seasons of Sherlock, Luther, and Downton Abbey – yes, I am an Anglophile).

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