3 Voices In The Age Of Amazon: Tech It To The Next Level

iStockphoto / olaser
iStockphoto / olaser

Rising Above It

Is there a way to hack through the jungle of snarls and get a higher view on publishing’s struggle with and around Amazon?

“Those who think the ground beneath the book business is not moving violently, look away now,” writes The Bookseller’s Philip Jones in his editorial lead for Friday.

And yeah, at ground level? Maintain a good grip. Few watching the events of the week would suggest that these developments, whether directly tied to Amazon or not, aren’t compelling.

Overall, “the direction of travel,” as Jones describes it, “is both sobering and troubling.” He’s seeing 2014 as a turning point in which Seattle is “striking out for new territory” based on its long, complex growth.

Our #FutureBook chat at 11 a.m. Eastern time Friday on Twitter — join us if will — is themed “All About Amazon.” I have this idea it won’t be boring.

But before we “tech” it to the next level, a bright spot.

The Sphinx of Seattle spoke!

One of the most frustrating elements of the publishing industry’s struggle with Amazon’s mounting marketplace power is that we rarely hear from the company. Corporate silence is hardly limited to Amazon; many firms, big and small, do all they can to gag themselves from public statements that might come back to haunt them.

Unfortunately, the result of Amazon’s very practiced “no comment” means that everyone’s out there carrying on about Amazon, but rarely with any input from Amazon. Yes, we hear from Jeff Bezos when it’s time to unveil the Fire Phone, but reactions to the publishing community’s clamor is far less common.

For that reason, I’m really pleased that Kindle SVP Russ Grandinetti is going to do a keynote conversation with Mike Shatzkin and Michael Cader in January at the Digital Book World conference (January 13-15, New York). Grandinetti is well worth hearing out, I guarantee you.

And in response to the German publishers’ complaints about its retail negotiations this week, the heavens over Puget Sound opened and, lo, a statement was released by Amazon, quite a good one. It read, in part:

We would like to present some local context: it’s generally accepted that ebooks should cost customers less than the corresponding print edition – in digital there is no printing, freight, warehousing, or returns. We believe that this fact should be reflected in the terms under which booksellers buy their books from publishers, and this is the case in our terms with most publishers around the world, including in Germany. For the vast majority of the books we sell from Bonnier, it is asking us to pay significantly more when we sell a digital edition than when we sell a print edition of the same title.

Now, that doesn’t sound quite so fire-breathing and malevolent as some might want you to expect, does it?  It might even sound sensible.

And in answer to the German publishers’ assertion that Amazon is delaying shipments of Bonnier imprints’ books to customers, Seattle says? — “not true.”

Would you like to assume that Amazon is telling a lie? Want to give it a good harrumph and claim that you don’t believe a thing coming out of that Northwestern city? That’s fine. You get to disbelieve and discount anything and anybody you want. Hell, I don’t believe a word I say.

But in any argument, it’s a lot better for you to have to stop, even briefly, and consider the fact that someone’s original assertion, especially about a lightning rod like Amazon, may not be accurate. You’re likelier to find the truth if you get a chance to hear more than one side of a problem.

And there are a lot of sides of the problems facing publishing — like those facing Amazon, actually.

Wednesday evening, the self- and traditionally published author Hugh Howey was interviewed on Blog Talk Radio’s Suspense Magazine by a host who studiously pronounces Hachette “Hashay.” At one point, this interviewer wondered aloud why publishers weren’t “stepping up and trying to save Barnes & Noble.” Maybe he doesn’t know that just last year, Barnes & Noble was in a retail-negotiations fight with Simon & Schuster that punished innocent authors and readers, including Howey and readers of Wool, by refusing to carry certain books in stores — very,  very much as Amazon’s standoff with “Hashay” is punishing some of its authors now. This host seemed to have to be reminded by Howey, too, that rising profits on royalty-poor ebooks have been shoring up publishers’ sliding revenues on print.

Howey, on the high ground, patiently talked about the way the industry! the industry! seems to focus on just that — its commercial fortunes, not the value of its content and the reader-writer relationship.

“We see people consumed,” Howey said, “with how things are going to affect these multi-million-dollar corporations, and not the people on either end of these corporations,” the writers and the readers.

You remember the writers and the readers, don’t you? Well, of course you do. And that gets us to that potential higher view and our promised “3 voices.”

Not For Nothing Do We Call It “Digital”

Are we at the beginnings of a backlash against big tech? 

The first of our three voices, in fact, belongs to a small choir, an editorial board. It was highlighted by The Bookseller’s Jones in his Tuesday piece, They might be giants at The FutureBook.  Jones referenced an Observer editorial, From YouTube to Amazon, tech innovators need to  be held to account.

Here you go, from the Observer’s editorial board:

If politicians can be drunk on power, the equivalent for the technology industry is being drunk on your own disruption, when your confidence in knowing better than established industries, regulators and even governments risks tipping into hubris. The biggest technology companies, including Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, are increasingly intertwined in our digital lives, particularly through the phones in our pockets. These devices are also enabling a wave of technology startups, from streaming music services such as Spotify to cab-hire apps such as Uber, to build their businesses. But the big technology firms are also becoming powerful cultural gatekeepers, influencing the way we discover music, books, films and news.

There are many things to admire about this, but it is troubling when technology companies use these powers as leverage in disputes with creative industries or present regulations threatening to limit those powers as unfair.

Feel the lift? Not emotionally, necessarily, but contextually. Suddenly, those Amazonian Agonies aren’t just about books, certainly not just about the publishing industry. And in that context:

Amazon is under fire for halting pre-orders and delaying shipments of books from publisher Hachette and films from Hollywood studio Warner Bros, amid reportedly hardball negotiations over their distribution deals. For Amazon, fewer sales of JK Rowling’s new novel or The Lego Movie DVD are a trifling matter – it has plenty of other books and DVDs to sell – but even for large media companies such as Hachette and Warner Bros, Amazon is an important enough distribution partner for the tactics to bite. The wider issue here is one of large technology companies as cultural gatekeepers, with a significant influence over our consumption of music, books, films and other media.

At the Wall Street Journal, by the way, Greg Bensinger and Ben Fritz report that Amazon, Warner Bros. [Are] Near Resolution on Pricing Dispute. That means, they write, that Seattle “has reversed a halt on preorders of movie discs from Time Warner’s Warner Bros. studio as the two sides near a resolution to a pricing dispute, according to people familiar with the matter.”

I’ve selfishly (for publishing) liked this story because it was an important reminder to bookish Bezos bashers that the tactics used in the Hachette stoush aren’t reserved for publishers.

Nor is the tech-trauma dimension that I want you to consider.

Our second voice: Marc Andreesen, co-founder of Mosaic. In This is Probably a Good Time To Say That I Don’t believe Robots Will Eat All the Jobs…, Andreesen argues, in part:

What never gets discussed in all of this robot fear-mongering is that the current technology revolution has put the  means of production within everyone’s grasp. It comes in the form of the smartphone (and tablet and PC) with a  mobile broadband connection to the Internet. Practically everyone on the planet will be equipped with that minimum spec by 2020.

What that means is that everyone gets access to unlimited information, communication, and education. At the same time, everyone has access to markets, and everyone has the tools to participate in the global market economy. This is not a world we have ever lived in.

Historically, most people — in most places – have been cut off from all these things, and usually to a high degree. But with that access, with those tools in the hands of billions, it is hard to believe that the result will not be a widespread global unleashing of creativity, productivity, and human potential. It is hard to believe that people will get these capabilities and then come up with … absolutely nothing useful to do with them?

But before he can make it to the door, he’s met by our third voice: Alex Payne in Dear Marc Andreesen arrives to clarify a few things about what Jones has mused could be a “backlash against big tech.” And the way Payne does this, thankfully, is by clarifying that to resist the excesses of a cult of techno-supremacy is not to be a Luddite.

But what labor wants is self-determination, not a slowing of technological change. Taxi drivers protesting Uber aren’t saying that they want apps out of their cabs. They want leverage to negotiate wages and working conditions so they aren’t barely scraping by. The pushback is on exploitative business models, not technology.

And as for Andreesen’s benign robots:

What you left out was the essential question: who owns the robots?

Right back to the Observer’s good editorial board:

Our relationship with the large tech companies is based on trust: we trust Google to serve us the most relevant search results ; we trust Facebook to understand which friends’ status updates are worth seeing; young people in particular trust YouTube as their TV replacement.

We trust… but we don’t really understand these algorithms, much less whether other commercial and/or cultural considerations are influencing them. YouTube v indies and Amazon v Hachette are salutary reminders that we should be asking more questions about how technology companies flex their muscles.

In the name of what Howey is talking about (literature and its place among people, those readers and writers) and instead of wailing about the ham-handed shopkeeper stunts of titles withheld and preorders not offered, wouldn’t we do better to think a little more broadly?

We need to hear Amazon and other big tech talk more. And we need to ask better questions. When an independent bookstore goes under, asking Seattle if it’s trying to “wipe out all the bookshops” makes as much sense as asking the tiger who just ate a baby if it’s trying to “wipe out a whole generation of children.”

As the Observer’s editorialists tell us about these big powers:

The better we understand their beliefs and business practices, the better we can hold them to account. And that, in itself, will help us understand when their disruption is positive and important. Which it often is. TC mark

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