Ether for Authors: “Amazon Will Be Disrupted One Day”

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

3 December 2013 prime-air_high-resolution01 texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Dron­ing on About Ama­zon Prime Air
  2. More about Start-Ups – and One Smackdown
  3. Hot Air (not to say Ether) and Business
  4. DRM, Music, and Sales: Briefly
  5. Last Gas: With­drawal Symp­toms Off-Grid?

Dron­ing on About Ama­zon Prime Air

Amazon will be disrupted one day.

Charlie Rose and Jeff Bezos talk in Seattle for the CBS 60 Minutes piece on Amazon.

Charlie Rose and Jeff Bezos talk in Seattle for the CBS 60 Minutes piece on Amazon.

So says Jeff Bezos to 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose.

“And you worry about that?” Rose asks Bezos.

“I would love for it to be after I’m dead,” Bezos says with that infectious, trademark laugh overtaking the conversation.

Come on, admit it: It’s hard not to like the guy when he’s generous enough to volunteer such an idea and to laugh at himself about it.

In fact, some publishing people, even today, are able to hear the name of that South American river without firing off in all directions, as if a clay pigeon had just been thrown overhead. For them, Sunday’s interview—headlined Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Looks to the Future—may well have represented nothing more than some badly needed perspective: Amazon is not just about books or about ebooks or about Kindles or about publishing.

Several of our journalists are trying to flag this for us.

Barb Darrow at GigaOM, for example, in , writes:

The biggest surprise for me came when Bezos, unprompted, referred to the planned cloud that Amazon Web Services is building for the CIA as a private cloud. He didn’t even stumble on the word. Funny, since at AWS Re:invent last month, top AWS execs Andy Jassy and Adam Selipsky went to great pains to not characterize that installment as a private cloud. That’s because the religion at AWS is that there is no cloud other than public cloud.

Jeff Bercovici at Forbes, on the other hand, points to one of the “segment extra” outtakes on Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post. Bercovici writes:

By his own account, Bezos was highly skeptical when Don Graham, the Post’s then-chairman, came to him looking to hand over the paper. He told Graham he “didn’t know anything about the news business” and didn’t consider himself a “logical buyer.”

Morris Rosenthal at Foner Books spent his Monday post, typically, looking at the question, Will Amazon Deliver Coal in the Stocking for Kindle Publishers?

Amazon just announced that the Select pot for December will be $1.1 million, which is a $300,000 drop from December of 2012 and could result in a royalty as low as 99 cents.

Again at GigaOM, it’s Jeff John Roberts this time, reporting .

Can states collect sales tax from online retailers that have no physical presence in the state? For now, the answer is yes after the Supreme Court refused a request by Amazon and Overstock to review a lower court’s decision that upheld a law that lets New York collect taxes if the companies advertise in the state.

It interests many European observers of Amazon, of course, that the company has a longstanding contention over state taxes in its native United States because the issue of corporate taxes in the UK and elsewhere is a major flashpoint, especially during the high-volume holiday sales period.

In eBooks and the Law, the Taxman, the EU and the French, Martyn Daniels raises such points:

We have seen aggressive tax efficiency programmes by many large corporations exploit the low tax rates of some EU member states to the clear detriment of others. We have seen huge subsidies being lavished on the likes of Amazon by UK authorities in order to build warehouse in areas of high unemployment, or to stimulate local communities.

Even those who do follow Amazon primarily as a books and publishing story don’t have to be watching overhead for the first drone fly-over.

The “Kindle First” program, which offers one of four Amazon Publishing books per month in advance of their release to US customers as a free read. And one of those this month is Rysa Walker’s Time Bound, which is, in fact, a “Kindle Second,” if you will, having its first life as a self-published book with a different title before it won the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

At TeleRead, Susan Lulgjuraj wrote in Kindle “First” has second beginning:

It’s clear why authors want to be involved in the Kindle First program. It’s the best marketing you could probably get with Amazon delivering special attention to these books.

But, of course, it was mostly those Amazon Prime Air octocopters folks focused on…and focused on…and focused on.

And as the tweeterie lit up with one buzzing witticism after the next, even the concept of drone deliveries years in the future became the object of serious attention for some.

GigaOM’s eponymous Om Malik, himself, weighed in with  Malik’s five points—including a gracious “Charlie Rose…was so amazed by the video that he forgot to ask a few important questions”—are worth your note. I’m putting a bit of emphasis on one clause, and will pick it up after you look at these:

  • It was less about drones and more about the growing importance of algorithm-augmented retail.
  • It is also a pretty broad swipe at all local retail, especially big box retailers such as Walmart, Kmart and Target. Those other guys are fighting to get their services web and mobile ready, while Amazon is fine-tuning what matters most in digital commerce: supply chain and speed of delivery…
  • It is thumbing Google and eBay in the face, saying go ahead experiment all you want with same day delivery. Retail is Amazon’s core business and it is doing whatever it takes to get even more efficient at it.
  • I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts using an Uber-like service to start implementing a version of this pretty quickly. Even WalMart is experimenting with crowdsourcing delivery of packages and it makes most logical sense.
  • It is a good way to push UPS, FedEx and USPS to come up with new delivery models befitting this new changed retail and consumption landscape.

What may have been the best lesson from the 60 Minutes interview getting so much traction this week is evident, finally, in Jason Del Rey’s piece at AllThingsD. And in bloggy-newsy tradition, it’s all in the piece’s long headline: Afraid Amazon Will Crush Your Small Business? “Complaining Is Not a Strategy,” Says CEO Jeff Bezos.

Del Rey writes:

Yes, all anyone really wants to discuss about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s appearance on CBS’s “60 Minutes” last night are the delivery drones.

But if you’re a small bookseller or retail shop struggling under the pressure of Amazon’s low prices, you were probably more interested in a different part of Charlie Rose’s Q&A with Bezos.

Thanks especially to CBS’ smart provision of a transcript on its page as well as video, we can track easily the part of the interview Del Rey saw as critical:

Charlie Rose: A lot of small book publishers and other smaller companies worry that the power of Amazon gives them no chance.

Jeff Bezos: You got to earn your keep in this world. When you invent something new, if customers come to the party, it’s disruptive to the old way.

Rose: Yeah, but I mean, there are areas where your power’s so great, and your margin — you’re prepared to make it so thin — that you can drive people out of business. And you have that kind of strength, and people worry: Is Amazon ruthless in their pursuit of market share?

Bezos: The Internet is disrupting every media industry, Charlie. You know, people can complain about that, but complaining is not a strategy. Amazon is not happening to book selling; the future is happening to book selling.

If there is a lesson here for publishing folks—other than how much we must hope the FAA does its safety-regulations job well so we don’t end up wearing Amazon Prime Air drones as surprise headgear—it’s that Amazon, itself, and much of the world sees the Seattle-based sea-change in retail as being far beyond something about books.

Context is never easy under stress. But the more publishing can get up to about drone-flight height and take a longer look at what’s happening, the better. These spidery looking aircraft might have done us the favor of laughing about something Amazonian that’s not about books, not about publishing. [Editor’s Note: Let’s also not forget that you can’t deliver e-books by drone, so this might even help support the continued consumption of print books.]

In a “60 Minutes Overtime” package of outtakes from the main segment, in fact, you can hear Bezos talking—as if from far outside pubishing, outside books—about 96 fulfillment centers which, he tells Rose, are now in a seventh iteration in the company’s constant bid for faster distribution. In response to the keenly orchestrated moves of the fulfillment center floor and the incessant, gentle beeps of bar-code scanners at work, Bezos tells Rose:

It’s a symphony of people. It’s a symphony of software. It’s a symphony of robots now we’re starting to put into place.

And for those of us in publishing, it becomes all the more important to repeat these three lines from interview in which Bezos does look at booksellers’ struggles:

Complaining is not a strategy. Amazon is not happening to book-selling; the future is happening to book-selling.

Back to Table of Contents

More about Start-Ups – and One Smackdown

Even as the universe of printed matter continues to shrivel, the book — or at least some of its best-known features — is showing remarkable staying power online. The idea is apparently embedded so deeply in the collective unconsciousness that no one can bear to leave it behind.

David Streitfeld’s Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind might start as an essay on the resilience of the concept of “the book” in the collective cultural mind, but the New York Times writer soon gets in touch with a problem many in publishing are noticing.

What makes all this activity particularly striking is what is not happening. Some features may be getting a second life online, but efforts to reimagine the core experience of the book have stumbled. Dozens of publishing start-ups tried harnessing social reading apps or multimedia, but few caught on.

As covered recently in Publishing Perspectives in Ether for Authors: Is There an “Architecture of Collaboration” for Start-Ups? the publishing establishment and many start-up efforts to help it develop have not always been friends.

Peter Meyers

Peter Meyers

Peter Meyers, author of Breaking the Page and a member of the Digital Book World jury for innovative publishing efforts (the coming Digital Book Awards led by Anne Kostick), talks with Streitfeld:

A lot of these solutions were born out of a programmer’s ability to do something rather than the reader’s enthusiasm for things they need. We pursued distractions and called them enhancements.

Peter Brantley

Peter Brantley

And Peter Brantley of Hypothes.is, organizer off the annual Books in Browsers conference in San Francisco, tells Streitfeld:

The physical book had become a pretty limited thing, dead to design outside of its cover. Then all the constraints were gone.

Ironically, when Streitfeld quotes digital innovator Bob Stein saying that he “can’t stand the question” when people ask him to talk about the future of the book—even though he has founded the Institute for the Future of the Book—Stein seemed none too happy.

In a quick post at the If:Book blog, badly quoted in the NY Times this morning, Stein writes to Streitfeld:

David,

Over the past thirty years I’ve gotten used to misquoting hatchet jobs by the press, but yours was one of the snarkiest quotes out of context I’ve encountered.

As you know from our discussion, I wasn’t complaining about being asked about the future of the book but against the lazy and thoughtless posing of the question where the asker hasn’t bothered to do any prep. I didn’t record our discussion but I’d be quite surprised if I didn’t mention to you that I have learned over the past many years to turn the question around to make an important point about historical context by asking if the questioner is interested in the future as in next year, five years from now, 20 years from now, a century or longer.
b.

Unless we have yet to hear from Brantley, his bits in the piece seem to be in less contention.

He tells Streitfeld:

We will continue to recognize books as books as they migrate to the Internet, but our understanding of storytelling will inevitably expand.

And Brantley puts in a good word for the sometimes beleaguered start-ups of the field. Streitfeld writes:

Much of the design innovation at the moment, Mr. Brantley believes, is not coming from publishers, who must still wrestle with delivering both digital and physical books. Instead it is being developed by a tech community that “doesn’t think about stories as the end product. Instead, they think about storytelling platforms that will enable new forms of both authoring and reading.”

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Hot Air (not to say Ether) and Business

There are currently a lot of dizzy businesses getting more in the way of headlines that actual progress.

Tom Chalmers

Tom Chalmers

Tom Chalmers, Managing Director with IPR License and the writer of Publishing Perspectives’ Book Licensing Market Snapshots, is at The FutureBook blogs with Overfunding and Under-delivering.

His point, which helps explain a lot of the tech world’s fascination with start-ups, has to do with the many times when “there is no there there,” as Gertrude Stein would have it, in “the next big thing” to come along and seize industry attention.

The Next Big Thing – surely it’s got to come online; that is where all the Next Big Things happen…However – and this however isn’t a publishing issue but a general business one – the more funding is read about the more skewed it is becoming.

Amid announcements of new investments in tech efforts, Chalmers writes, you tend to get “lots of word(s) with little substance” when you investigate for actual details, plans, tactics.

As you drift away during the conversation, it dawns on you that there is very little actual strategy. If you push for a definitive plan, you are usually pushed back with we’re currently evaluating, looking at options, recruiting and that person will handle this area etc. etc.  You can fill a balloon with hot air but eventually it will burst or be deflated and discarded.

In fact, echoing Jeff Bezos’ comments to Charlie Rose (see the outtake tape at CBS, Bezos recalls Amazon’s riskiest move), Chalmers takes on a generous confessional tone of his own:

If I had been given a huge pot of gold at the start of any of my businesses I would have wasted at least 99% of it. You start a business, understanding it comes a lot later. I always think of it as fairground syndrome. If you give a child £1 a day to take to the fair, they will very carefully choose one ride each day and by the end of the week will be able to tell you which was the best value for the £1. Give a child £100 each day, they will try everything indiscriminately and end the week dizzy and disorientated with little idea of the best value.

What Chalmers is saying about start-ups, about new ventures, in or out of publishing, is that cutting through the smoke is your key:

If you are assessing a new venture, ignore all talk, funding hyperbole and look for very specific strategy – when, where, how. And if you are considering starting a new venture, unless you know exactly what you need it for and understand exactly how it will work, it doesn’t matter if it’s £1 or £1bn, it will be wasted.

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DRM, Music, and Sales: Briefly

The paper compares sales of 5,864 albums from 634 artists from before and after the music industry eliminated DRM, and finds an average rise of 10 percent in overall sales (though back-catalog experienced more of a lift compared to front-list titles).

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow

Author Cory Doctorow, never a friend of DRM and a major proponent of TOR’s decision to go without “digital rights management” software, directs your attention to a new appraisal in Study shows removing DRM increased music sales at BoingBoing.

Doctorow writes:

Intellectual Property Strategy and the Long Tail: Evidence from the Recorded Music Industry…a new working paper from University of Toronto Strategic Management PhD candidate Laurina Zhang documents the rise in sales experienced by the music industry following the abandonment of DRM in digital music offerings.

There are interesting parallels here to the book industry’s long-running love-hate relationship to DRM.

Comments on the Doctorow flagging of the paper show mixed responses and are worth a look.

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Last Gas: With­drawal Symp­toms Off-Grid?

Infographic by UnplugSeries.com

Infographic by UnplugSeries.com

When Unplug, the Series announced the results of a study, “Taking Time Out from Technology” (using surveys in the US, Australia, Canada, the UK, and New Zealand), author and illustrator Gemini Adams of The Facebook Diet wrote:

What this study shows is the areas where we lose out because of our ‘always on’ lifestyle; books sit on shelves gathering dust, quality face-to-face time with family is dwindling, we feel increasingly stressed out and suffer from anxiety induced conditions such as FOMO. Secretly we’re all craving some timeout from technology, and with the holiday season fast approaching, it’s the perfect time of year to think about how we’re going to refresh, recharge and reconnect with ourselves and our families.

The resulting infographic—click to make it larger—includes input from another author in the field, Daniel Sieberg, a former CNN colleague of mine and technology correspondent who now is with Google.

His book is The Digital Diet. (This “dieting” phraseology is pretty popular among the unplug set).

And what the survey shows us (as we share this time together on the Internet, you see) is that if they were to go off-grid for 24 hours, people have varying ideas of what they’d do.

Seventeen percent, in fact, said they’d use the time to “read a real book.”

Granted, that terminology is disappointing, implying as it does that an ebook is not a “real book—it most certainly is—but it’s good for us in the industry to realize that many in the world still are not even that far down the digital do-si-do we’re dancing, ourselves.

Twenty percent, taken offline for 24 hours, in fact, said they’d feel “crazy, depressed or suffer withdrawal symptoms.”

Ten percent said they’d clean their houses. (I might prefer the withdrawal symptoms.)

Some 6,000 adults aged 18 or older were the respondents of the survey, which is said to have been conducted in July and August.

Some of the more interesting figures about behavior patterns:

  • An average adult is said to spend seven hours a day at a screen.
  • Half of those responding aged 18 to 34 said they check their devices before brushing their teeth.
  • Twenty-eight percent of an average work week is spent managing email.
  • And smartphone users are said to be checking those things for messages every six-and-a-half minutes.

Thirteen percent of the respondents said that if they were off-grid for 24 hours, they would “get outside and spend more time in Nature.”

What do you think they’re talking about?

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London with a live Twitter newsmaker interview hashtagged #PorterMeets on Mondays. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+


Main image – Amazon Prime Air

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.