Issues on the Ether: As at DBW, the Many Faces of Amazon

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

14 January 2014 iStock_000000523408XSmall photog ThePrint texted story image

By Porter Anderson

Table of Contents

  1. Our Live #EtherIssue Chat This Week is on Friday
  2. The Many Faces of Amazon
  3. Friday’s #EtherIssue
  4. Last Week’s Topic: About Those Book Prices

Our Live #EtherIssue Chat This Week is on Friday

  • Each Tuesday, “Issues on the Ether” looks at one issue or a set of related issues. (We’ll also give you a very brief recap on the previous week’s chat.)
  • This week on Friday we want to hear from you. Normally our live Twitter discussion takes place on Wednesday. This week, with Digital Book World 2014 sitting in New York, we’re doing live, real-time coverage there (follow #DBW14). So Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host our live Twitter chat this week on Friday 4 p.m. GMT / 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT. As usual, we’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue

Watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter Friday.

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The Many Faces of Amazon

Main confab panel, largeEven a year ago, it might have seemed unthinkable that organizers of F+W Media’s Digital Book World Conference + Expo would devote the better part of a morning to Amazon.

But on Wednesday, that’s what will happen at #DBW14, as we’re hashtagging the fifth doing of this major publishing conference in New York.

DBW’s three days of programs has drawn an aggregate audience of some 1,500 attendees, according to organizers. None of them will have seen “our friends in Seattle,” as the retail behemoth is at times called, given this level of direct, interpretive attention at this iconic event in the heart of the US publishing industry.

  • The program will be led on Wednesday with Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, starts the day with a talk titled, “Amazon’s ‘Everything Strategy.”
  •  Enders analyst Benedict Evans will then give his thoughts on “Deconstructing Amazon.”
  • “Amazon’s Growing Share of the Institutional Market” is next, from consultant Joseph J. Esposito.
  • And conference chair and programmer Mike Shatzkin then joins them all for a discussion, “The Future of Amazon and the Publishing Business.”
  • In a breakout session, GigaOM publishing reporter Laura Hazard Owen then conducts an “Amazon Q&A” with Stone, Evans, and Esposito.

AmazonAnd for a clue to why such unprecedented focus is in place now, look at Shatzkin’s recent post, one of his most clearly parsed and widely discussed in months: Nine places to look in 2014 to predict the future of publishing.

In an incisive explication of “the Seattle issue,” Shatzkin lays things out very clearly:

It has been happening quietly but it has been happening: we increasingly have two separately-operating book businesses: Amazon’s and everybody else’s. This starts with the numbering system: Amazon uses its own ASINs, rather than depending on everybody else’s ISBNs. It extends to the titles available: Amazon has an untold number, but certainly hundreds of thousands, that it either publishes exclusively or which authors or small presses publish exclusively through them. And it has service offerings from Kindle Owners Lending Library to its recent Matchbook offer to pair ebook and print sales, which range from “extremely difficult” to “impossible” for any other publisher-retailer combination to match. How far can this go? Can Amazon create a closed world which is more profitable for an author or publisher than the whole world that includes everybody else? Or have they already?

In an interesting sidelight, one area in which a publisher is working with Amazon has come to light just as DBW started.

Milan-based RCS Libri’s Rizzoli has announced a new contest program in cooperation with Amazon. From the press release:

Rizzoli, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and the Italian startup 20lines today launched BigJump, the first literary contest devoted to thrillers, romance and historical novels where readers will contribute to award a prize to participating novels. Authors can take part in the contest for free with an unpublished or self-published novel. Registration …ends on February 14, 2014. To learn more about the rules, visit www.bigjump.it.

Mind you, Rizzoli is fond of competitions. Late last year saw the “You Crime” competition in which authors of noir stories were pitted against each other, competing for a publishing contract based on how strongly they could generate social-media support. You can learn more about that interesting contest project here at Publishing Perspectives.

In the case of the “BigJump” promotion, Amazon will give a “BigJump KDP” award to the novel with the most customer support. And the entire process begins, Rizzoli’s announcement tells us, with authors uploading their novel to the KDP network.”

In a sense, then, what Shatzkin’s concept of “Amazon’s and everybody else’s business” represents is a still-active sorting-out, a shakedown in which even some of Amazon’s loudest critics in publishing continue to sell their books with the online retailer because they simply can’t afford to miss such a vast potential marketplace.

For publishing-industry folks, it can be hard to remember, in fact, that Amazon is so much broader a company than a view through the lens of the books business would indicate. At the same time, such a blinkered view is perfectly understandable, considering the force with which the company continues to move in the world of books.

The holiday-season press release from Amazon, for example, included a series of jaw-dropping announcements relative to the publishing industry. Quoting that release:

  • Selection in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library in 2013 grew from 250,000 books to more than 475,000 books—books that Kindle owners with a Prime membership can borrow for free with no due dates.

  • More than 200,000 exclusive books were added to the Kindle store in 2013.

  • The most gifted Kindle book during the holiday season was Sycamore Row by John Grisham.

  • 150 Kindle Direct Publishing authors each sold more than 100,000 copies of their books in 2013. Top sellers this year include Hopeless by Colleen Hoover and Wait for Me by Elisabeth Naughton.

  • The best-selling Kindle Direct Publishing author during the holiday season was H.M. Ward.

  • Kindle Direct Publishing authors sold hundreds of thousands of books in November through the new Kindle Countdown Deals

Of genuine material importance here, of course, is the fact that the Amazonian apparatus is what has finally made not only ebooks but also self-publishing truly viable on a scalable level. Which may mean that it’s no wonder many members of the traditional book business see Amazon as an invading force, an opportunistic creature of crippling commerce.

But such pictures of the company as an unthinking, ham-handed, and ruthless enemy of the realm sit uneasily behind the kind of things we hear Jeff Bezos say in Vivienne Roumani’s film Out of Print, seen Monday evening in #DBW14’s opening reception. Bezos:

“The book has probably changed us more than any other tool…I think I’ve learned more from reading novels than I have from reading nonfiction books.”

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Friday’s #EtherIssue

Because our Issues on the Ether piece today runs prior to #DBW14’s presentation of its Amazon-focused morning on Wednesday, we’ll bring some of what comes from that Wednesday session to our live Twitter debate on Friday.

We hope you’ll want to join us that day at 11 a.m. ET, 4 p.m. GMT, to look at what  may be one of the most bedeviling aspects of the Amazon issue: The company’s many “faces.”

How can we see this unprecedented entity so differently?

And then again, how can we not?

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Last Week’s #EtherIssue: About Those Book Prices

In Issues on the Ether: Is the Price Ever Right for Books?, we looked at the extended and extensive deterioration in book prices, and asked Publishing Perspective readers to discuss some of the questions that surround those issues.

The questions we put to the readership to get them started:

  • What does it do to the perceived value of reading and books by the marketplace when pricing—whether by traditional publishers, retailers, or self-publishers—goes so substantially lower than it once was?
  • Is the dive into much lower pricing inevitable if literature of all stripes is to stand up to other entertainment forms and media?
  • Can you imagine any situation developing that might make it possible for the entire book industry to start pricing upward? Or are we already past the point of no return?
  • When prices go so low, do people read more? Or do they buy more and not read what they buy as often?
  • And do you think—as both Mark Coker’s and Mike Shatzkin’s writings might suggest—that one of the final frontiers of self-pub vs. traditional combat may occur on the far-flung Fields of Low Prices? Is that where the industry finally slugs it out? How long can the bigs “get low” and stay low before the lights start going out in office buildings?

Response from our smart readership was as lively and varied as ever. Here are a few of the key tweets from the debate.

And be sure to join us on Friday — not our usual Wednesday this week, remember — for our next 11 a.m. ET / 4 p.m. GMT #EtherIssue live Twitter discussion. Tweet with you then.

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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. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. 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 #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+


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About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.