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Entries in Amazon (6)


Black holes, dark matter, Amazon, and other mysteries of the universe

Ardent Amazon critic, Sherman Alexie, has books on display. Ironic photo by the Seattle Times.It's weird. It's mysterious. And it’s official. Amazon has opened an actual, honest-to-betsy, retail location in Seattle—a physical bookstore—the very thing that was anathema to all things Amazon for the last decade.

And no one knows quite what to make of it. 

When looking at photos of the new bookstore my first thought was of the Final Fantasy movies. The producers used the latest, greatest, state-of-the-artiest technology to create what was then deemed to be the most “life-like” animation ever. But the characters on screen, while beautiful and gorgeously rendered, lacked a certain spark. Their souls were missing. One reviewer called them “cadaverous.”

That’s how Amazon’s bookstore feels to me. It appears to be a data driven replicant of a bookstore experience. A facsimile—like Frankenstein’s monster. On the one hand, the sheer audacity and genius is amazing to behold. But on the other hand, you’re left wondering when this creation will break loose and start eating villagers.

And yes, I am colored by my personal experiences with Amazon.

That is to say, I sell a ton of books via the giant online retailer. (So...yay!)

But I also once created a tiny promotion aimed at supporting Indie Bookstores and was told that by doing so I had jeopardized my chances of being one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month. (So...boo!)

And a year later I was curious about all things Amazon, so I flew to Seattle to meet with their head of publishing, who was quite wonderful and told me how much she loved working there. And then she quit a month later.  (So...huh?)

I guess that's a fancy way of saying that I have more questions than answers. Like you, I'm left wondering...why a bookstore?

  • Is it to test drive/sell more Kindles?
  • Is it like sending in the infantry to mop up the retail battlefield that’s been crushed by Amazon's online cavalry charge? 
  • Is it just a PR stunt to further augment stock price?
  • Of has Amazon renewed its vows and actually fallen in love with printed books?

Who knows? I certainly don’t. And maybe Amazon doesn't even know. But either way, I’ll be making popcorn and watching curiously from the sidelines.

What’s your theory, wiseguy?


Authors United, Readers United, and Stephen The Mad Irishman

Hmmm...apparently while I was getting lost in the mountains all weekend the battle between Amazon and Hachette Publishing has escalated from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 3. I'm not sure what happens when we reach DEFCON 1. Will Amazon launch drone strikes on NYC publishing houses? Will James McPatterson enlist his crack squad of ghost-writers to pen skeevy biographies about Jeff Bezos? Who knows? But it's sad to see the once beautiful and relatively harmonious publishing industry so divided.

On the one side, you have Authors United, representing 900 best-selling authors (and probably 10x that many who would like to sign but are afraid of reprisals from Amazon). And on the other side you have Readers United, which isn't really readers, but Amazon itself turing George Orwell's words upside down and urging their self-published authors to rattle some cages.

Where do I stand on all of this? Well, I'm on Hachette's side of the argument (for now), but with a fierce independent streak. Think of me as Stephen, The Mad Irishman in Braveheart"The Almighty tells me he can get me out of this publishing contract, but he's pretty sure you're fucked."

That being coarsely stated, here are some general thoughts:

  • I sell books on Amazon. But, I’ve been openly critical of them. I love America, but at times I’m openly critical of the govt. That’s okay. That’s healthy. The attitude of “Love it or leave it!” when applied to ANYTHING is lame.
  • Everything Amazon does is for the primary benefit of Amazon (and their shareholders). And they’ve never made a profit, so as Paolo Bacigalupi stated so beautifully, they’re a subsidized underseller. As a business model, that makes me sad because I have an affinity for mom & pop stores on Main Street America and they have a hard time competing with an entity that doesn’t need to make a dime.
  • With that in mind, everything Amazon does, PR wise, should be taken with a grain of salt. This is a company famous for hosting press events and showing bar graphs with no numbers (But look at our upward trend!) So when Amazon calls Hachette a $10 billion dollar evil, greedy corporation, they’ve ignoring the $150 billion dollar mote in their own eye. Amazon is in no way the underdog here. This is like a billionaire NBA owner doing battle with a millionaire NBA player.
  • That being stated, I didn’t sign the Authors United thing because, well, James McPatterson doesn’t write his own books and I have a hard time siding with someone who is basically the Burger King of literature. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, he doesn’t kick puppies and beat his child, but I’m not that impressed. Also, I like having my own voice and there’s the off chance I could do/say something crazy and then I’d sully Authors United with my big mouth.

  • Speaking of big mouths, many of the self-published mega authors who are always championing the little guy (you know, Amazon), they all have special deals and get special treatment like all-expense paid trips for them and their families, free goodies, and worst/best of all, non-exclusivity, so I find it disingenuous (and borderline unethical) when they tout Amazon as the Messiah to other indie authors who won't get the same treatment. It’s like Animal Farm, where all indie authors are equaljust some authors are more equal than others. They are Amazon’s “Golden Children” and Amazon’s de facto PR dept. There’s a saying, “If I tell you I’m the world’s greatest lover, that’s advertising, but if I ask a friend to tell you I’m the world’s greatest lover, that’s PR.” These guys are blog-happy, constantly saying, “Amazon is great in the sack” and for them, Amazon really is.
  • But what about the bazillion indie authors signing that petition at Change.org? *facepalm* When I think about Change.org, I think about altruistic things, not a lover-letter to a billion dollar corporation. They also changed the wording of the letter AFTER thousands of people signed it, which tells me that some indie authors could use a good editor.

  • There’s a lot of animus toward traditional publishing. No doubt about it. My agent receives 40,000 queries each year, so there are a lot of budding authors out there who’ve been told that their baby is ugly by the traditional publishing world. It’s easy to sell this group on the notion that Hachette is big and evil and Amazon is their new BFF. Hence the Readers United email which didn't go to readers, it went to Amazon's self-published authors.

  • But, it’s all about price! No, it isn’t. Seriously. It’s about making eBooks the preferred platform and giving Amazon total dominance of that market. Imagine how much easier it would be for the workers in Amazon warehouses if people stopped ordering physical books and simply ordered off their Kindles. This is about pushing the eBook platform over traditional books. It’s a win, win, WIN for Amazon. Traditional publishers are worried about that agenda, because the lower pricing will hurt their bottom line and give too much control to an entity that already controls 50% of the marketplace. Do you want that? I don’t want that. I like bookstores and I like balance. But I also live in Montana and there are communities that can’t sustain a bookstore, so Amazon and eBooks are great! But real books are more important. I’m doing an event with Bernie’s Book Bank in Chicago this fall. Bernie’s gives new books to poor kids in inner city neighborhoods. These are kids who don’t own a single book—not one! They’re certainly not going to have a Kindle lying around.

  • And lastly, it’s worth noting that a year ago I offered a free short story to anyone who pre-ordered SONGS OF WILLOW FROST from a traditional bookstore. Someone at Amazon lost his or her mind over this. They called my publisher and took issue with my tiny gesture of kindness to indie booksellers. And when I refused to include them in my free deal, it was intimated that my book was being considered for Amazon’s September Book of the Month and that status was now in jeopardy. I told them to go perform hideous obscenities upon themselves. I don’t like bullies, even if they do offer free shipping.

You know you've entered Crazy Town when Amazon starts quoting Orwell.


Torn between two lovers

Digital vs. Analog. North vs. South. Crunchy peanut-butter vs. Smooth. Amazon vs. Hachette. Chuck Wendig offers what I think is the best, most even-minded, most humorous, and simply enjoyable take on the latest fracas in the publishing world.

Meanwhile, the battle rages.

But...I'm waist-deep in Storyland, working on the new book which is set between Seattle's two worlds fairs, in 1909 and 1962. Both are strange time periods, from women kicking off their corsets, to the button-down, post WWII, babyboom, Mad Men-esque suppressive splendor of the early 60s. Ah, life before the Internet.


Why bookstores matter. A biased report

There’s been an ongoing showdown between Hachette Books (the 5th largest US book publisher) and Amazon (who controls 50-70% of the ebook market). What they’re fighting about is up for speculation.

But what’s not up for debate is that Amazon has removed the buy buttons from the books of Hachette authors, like JK Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith) and Michael Connelly, just to name a few. (The Everything Store did this once before, in 2010, during a spat with Macmillan Books).

The knee-jerk reaction from mainstream authors is that Amazon is the one doing the bullying. While those indie-authors who publish with Amazon are naturally claiming that Hachette is the real thug in this first world, corporate knife-fight.

Regardless of which side you’re on, or just an innocent, curious bystander, it’s important to note that Amazon has a valuation of an estimated $58 billion, so this isn’t exactly a donnybrook of two goliaths. This is like an NBA journeyman doing battle with the richest owner in the league. Sure, they’re both wealthy, but one could literally buy out the other 500x over.

Those who know me can guess where I stand on this whole thing. Despite selling a ton of books on Amazon, I do see them as the bigger bully on the playground. But that’s not what bothers me. What worries me is that they’re in a position to deforest the literary landscape. Yes, Borders and Barnes & Noble wreaked havoc on indie bookstores, but at least they replaced them with other bookstores.

The vibe from Amazon, like many corporations beholden to the expectations of shareholders, is that for them to succeed, everyone else must fail. And I don’t think that’s true—furthermore, I don’t think that’s even wise.

Here’s why:

Amazon will always need a showroom. They can do all the database marketing they want but their major attempts to sell their own traditional books have been dismal failures because their books weren’t showcased in physical bookstores. Your average Kindle user might think, who cares, physical bookstores are dinosaurs. They’re not. Bookstores are cultural showrooms and Amazon should find a way to compliment that business model rather than trying to eradicate it.

I’m Batmaaaan. Hear me out on this one (with or without a Batman voice). Comics used to be available at newsstands, grocery stores, 7-11s, basically everywhere. Now they’re primarily available at specialty stores. But when comics were everywhere, Batman’s circulation averaged 900,000 copies each month. Now, even with recent movies, the Caped Crusader is lucky to hit one tenth of that. Physical presence = top of mind awareness = sales.

Boxing used to be the greatest. If you’re old enough to remember watching ABC's Wild World of Sports (for free) then you remember them showcasing Muhammad Ali and boxing as a sport with national interest. Now it’s a niche sport. Not because of Don King’s hair or corruption, but because the pay-per-view model made a ton of money in the short term and shrunk the fan-base in the long-term. Boxing fans gladly paid to watch Mike Tyson, but a generation of potential fans was lost because they were never exposed to the sport.

Still not convinced about the showroom effect? Let’s talk about Apple, which had a superior computer product, a dedicated cultish following, and were widely available on the Internet, but their products didn’t soar into the cultural mainstream until 2010. What happened around that time? Apple Stores.

Bookstores matter because they are a vital part of the publishing ecosystem. Amazon needs them. I just hope they don't grow up and learn that lesson the hard way.