Duh, Amazon is Bad For the Book Business

George Packer has a really long, really gossipy and great story about Amazon in the New Yorker right now. It is DARK, or it is dark if you love books and care about literary culture and are scandalized by things like this, even if you already knew it, but just to see it spelled out so clearly, my god:

“Where is Earth’s biggest bookstore?”

“Cyberspace,” Bezos replied.

“We started a Web site last year. Who are your suppliers?”

“Ingram, and Baker & Taylor.”

“Ours, too. What’s your database?”

“ ‘Books in Print.’ ”

“Ours, too. So what makes you Earth’s biggest?”

“We have the most affiliate links”—a form of online advertising.

Doeren considered this, then asked, “What’s your business model?”

Bezos said that Amazon intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers. The books would be priced close to cost, in order to increase sales volume. After collecting data on millions of customers, Amazon could figure out how to sell everything else dirt cheap on the Internet. (Amazon says that its original business plan “contemplated only books.”)

Afterward, Doeren told his partner at Rainy Day Books, Vivien Jennings, “I just met the world’s biggest snake-oil salesman. It’s going to be really bad for books.”

The stuff about Amazon’s early days was the most fascinating to me, especially when he interviews early employees who were hired to write early book reviews and other “editorial content” — real people who did the work years before the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought algorithms began driving purchases.

At Amazon, original writing wasn’t even called “content.” It was known as “verbiage,” simplified to “verbage.” Amazon’s writers and editors formed a counterculture that never fit easily in a company ruled by computer engineers and M.B.A.s, who valued data most and believed only in measurable truths. “The key to understanding Amazon is the hiring process,” one former employee said. “You’re not hired to do a particular job—you’re hired to be an Amazonian. Lots of managers had to take the Myers-Briggs personality tests. Eighty per cent of them came in two or three similar categories, and Bezos is the same: introverted, detail-oriented, engineer-type personality. Not musicians, designers, salesmen. The vast majority fall within the same personality type—people who graduate at the top of their class at M.I.T. and have no idea what to say to a woman in a bar.”

Oh and also this is way too real:

One day, Fried discovered a memo, written by a programmer and accidentally left on a printer, which suggested eliminating the editorial department. Anne Hurley, the editor-in-chief of the DVD and Video section, was viewed dismissively by her boss, Jason Kilar, who went on to run the video-streaming company Hulu. He told her, “I’m sorry, Anne, I just don’t see what value you add.” (Kilar denies saying this.)

The whole thing is fascinating and explains Amazon’s relationship with publishers really well. It is also 13 pages and kind of half-calls Bezos a “shmoo.” Vaya con dios.

Photo: uuzinger


19 Comments / Post A Comment

aetataureate (#1,310)

I increasingly don’t know how to respond to this kind of elitist business coverage — listen, this is a capitalist country, and that dictates what happens. If you dislike the people who choose to sell books because their reasons are not . . . What, morally upright? Literarily sound? that’s a systemic problem with an exclusively profits-promoting economy. To be snotty about Bezos because he’s in business to make money (and came up with a brilliant way of doing it) seems not just like sour grapes but misguided.

“We had to prove that our sales language was selling things” as a complaint or plea for sympathy is so weird.

katiekate (#1,051)

@aetataureate Yes, not doing business in a morally sound, ethically upright fashion is a problem! I cannot fathom your comment – just because capitalism is bad we all have the go ahead to ignore morals and ethics? Personal and corporate responsibility can absolutely exist within capitalism, the system just makes it very easy and legal to not have it.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@katiekate This is exactly my point — on what basis is “making agreements with publishers in order to make a profit” not morally sound? If you don’t believe that’s morally sound then the problem is capitalism, not the individual participants. I completely disagree with your statement that capitalism can coexist with what I believe are morally and ethically sound business practices.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@aetataureate based on this article, the publishing industry prior to the introduction of Amazon was a bit old-fashioned. The publishers largely controlled what books were published, which authours where published, how much books sold for, etc. Reading the article, I was appalled by how poorly the industry had tracked sales and made decisions about who and what to publish.

The book Moneyball described how baseball went through a similar process. The baseball scouts used to be old-fashioned relics who made decisions based on gut-feel and inherent beliefs/prejudices. Now decisions are also based on metrics and past performances by players. Some teams like the new approach and some teams like the old one. Blaming the newcomers for shaking up the existing order doesn’t seem to be particularly effective.

sherlock (#3,599)

I know this isn’t at all the point of the piece, but the end of the quote about the typical employee was super disappointing (but not surprising) to me. They might as well have just tacked on ” . . and is also a straight man” to the description.

Meaghano (#529)

@sherlock oof yeah, even more sad is I didn’t blink when I read it.

katiekate (#1,051)

@Meaghano FWIW, Amazon is based in Seattle and SO MANY AWKWARD GAY MEN WORK THERE. Replace “woman” with “man” and that comment still holds up. I’m assuming that statement shows the speaker’s bias more than Amazon’s. I’ve seen and heard of zero bias there, but then again just because I haven’t heard it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen… but still.

katiekate (#1,051)

@katiekate Also for the record I still think Amazon is evil

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

@sherlock Urgh, agreed, just came down here to post similar indignation.

EDaily (#4,396)

Amazon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to put competitors out of business through price-cutting and selling items at a loss, money they probably were okay losing after sheltering billions in a tax haven overseas that the IRS is pursuing. They’re bad guys in my book.

shannowhamo (#845)

So for all the people who think Amazon is evil (I’m not sure what I think, I shop with lots of morally questionable companies because I like/need things to be affordable)…do you not use it? Do you only buy books from independent bookstores? Where I live, there are literally no independent bookstores in the metropolitan area (many used bookstores but with unpredictable stock.)

@shannowhamo I don’t think Amazon is evil per se, but I do try not to spend my money there. I have a kindle, but I pretty much only use it to read the New Yorker. Looking at my past few years of order history on Amazon…yeah, I basically don’t shop there.

There aren’t any good, independent, non-used bookstores where I live either, but lately I’ve been finding a lot of independent e-book stores and online independent bookstores. But yeah, I need things to be affordable (and sometimes, easy), so occasionally Amazon it is. I also try to spread my money around between different evil companies – so sometimes I buy Amazon, sometimes Barnes and Noble, etc.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

I liked Amazon before and I like it even more as a result of reading that article. It is a consumer-oriented company and it has created a number of positives for consumers:

1. If I want to read a new release, I don’t have to buy a $26 hardcover, as customers can purchase them as eBooks at $9.99.

2. Self-publishing opportunities for writers. The writers won’t be at the mercy of the publishing industry anymore. If someone wants to publish a book, they can publish it via Amazon.

3. I have hundreds of books available on my iPad via the Kindle app. I can read what I want, when I want to because I don’t have to carry around physical books anymore.

4. If I want to buy a book, I can purchase and download it in five minutes. I avoid travel time, shipping costs, etc. The publishing monopoly in Australia is broken by the Amazon model.

5. My friends and relatives in rural parts of America can shop at city prices and purchase items which aren’t otherwise available to them.

For these and other reasons, I think Amazon is fantastic. Although this article tried to focus on the negative, it actually made me feel even more favourably inclined toward Amazon.

Meaghano (#529)

@WayDownSouth Ha, yeah, I can see that. It *does* benefit consumers greatly, undeniably in the short-term — low prices, convenience, and so on. I think the interesting point the piece raises by the end is that, in the long run, if Amazon monopolizes content creation as well as distribution, is that better for the consumer? I don’t think so, my hunch is we will have a bunch of crappy books, but it is probably up for debate.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@Meaghano I don’t think you can generalize an entire industry by saying “we will have a bunch of crappy books” because Amazon is really successful. Authors are just too large and diverse and readers’ tastes are so varied.

I know I am not the only one who has discovered amazing books and authors on Amazon that I would have never discovered in a bookshop (big or independent).

Lily Rowan (#70)

@Meaghano But we have a bunch of crappy books now. We’ve always had a bunch of crappy books! And I don’t even mean poorly-written best-sellers. There are a jillion terrible books out there in the world.

Meaghano (#529)

@Lily Rowan No you are totally right. Amended: the same amount of crappy books, probably , but fewer of the good ones who wouldn’t see the light of day were it not for a person working in publishing whose primary motivation is to bring good books into the world. Hopefully things like bookstores and indie publishing can coexist with Amazon — because you’re right, Amazon does good things for readers. And self-publishing. But imagine a movie industry dominated by a single studio, and that studio is primarily interested in selling you toilet paper. Obviously a book industry consisting of only Amazon is (well, to me) a worst-case scenario. But as their business practices get more monopolizing, it’s worth generalizing and speculating over, I think, at the risk of sounding inflammatory, annoying, ‘elitist’ etc.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@Meaghano But as I said before, alot of people have discovered otherwise “hidden” authors and books because of Amazon. My wishlist is filled with hundreds of books that I will buy (one day!). There is no way I would have discovered them. No matter how many trips I would have taken to a bookstore.

Also, why should a person working in publishing be the only one allowed to bring good books to the world. There are alot of authors have become fed up with the industry and are self-publishing. Cuts out the oftentimes useless middleman (or woman). A person in publishing is just that. One person. He/She may have different opinions on what defines a “good” book and I don’t see why their opinion dictate what gets published. So no, Amazon is not bad for the book business. It is quite good for it.

MilsonPoint (#5,960)

@WayDownSouth Great rebuttal. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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