Monday, November 5, 2012

Amazon’s Disruption–Some Cracks, but Going Strong

This week started with two eminent sources discussing books and the book business.

The New York Times had a two (digital) page article on  Booksellers Resisting Amazon’s Disruption (published Sunday, Nov 4) and Charlie Rose, on public television, had a 30 minute discussion entitled  A discussion about the history and future of books, which also aired November 4. It’s a vast conspiracy theory (two major articles in one day)! No, but people are noticing the disruption more and more.

Both, not surprisingly, discussed how much of a player and disruptor Amazon is. I know, old news, right?

Sort of.

Technology and technology adoption moves fairly quickly, especially as one enters the handle of the hockey stick of adoption curves. The hockey stick for technology adoption is simple to visualize, Units on the Y-axis, Time on the X-axis. The total units goes up very slowly for a period of time and then shoots upward, making a line graph, or area graph, look like a hockey stick.

We are on the hockey stick “handle” of the graph for eBooks and the technology adoption over all (think tablets). But, we are still near the base of that handle. Things are changing every month, so it is worthwhile visit the topic monthly.

The head of rare books at Yale (if you have not been in the rare book library at Yale, it is very interesting building, with no windows, but thin sheets of marble that let in filtered light) notes that the vocabulary by many at the birth of print and type concerning “the death of books” (referring to those written by hand) and the worry at that time on how books could be “widely available” and put out by almost anyone is virtually the same angst as we hear now about eBooks, Wikipedia, and similar technologies. We all resist change, it is in our nature. Things haven’t changed there. I like that even the very first edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published by his friends, had in the first pages, do whatever you want with this book, but first, Buy it. Below is a snip from the Charlie Rose show and the Shakespeare book.


In other words, we know that authors and publishers and Amazon are trying to make money. Even if sometimes that money is very small.

There is some celebration that Amazon published books are not accepted and do not become best sellers. It is sort of like celebrating, when you get older, that you lived another year. Worth some celebration, but death is still there. Waiting.

Amazon is nothing, if not stupid. Since its inception, it has always taken a “patience” as long as we grow attitude. They are still growing. (Not, by the way, at a rate that justifies their price, but that story is covered other places). Still, the small publishers around the world have just a tiny bit of schadenfreude (I just like that word, the only thing close in English was also stolen: epichairekakia, which doesn’t quite role off the tongue). We like that the authors who deserted other publishers and went to Amazon thinking this was their ticket are, well, not doing quite as well as they might have expected. Shadenfreude. Yup, I admit it. As the New York Times article said (emphasis added).

Crown, a division of Random House, took on Mr. Ferriss in 2007, after more than two dozen publishers said no to him. “Crown put in a lot of effort to promote those books,” Mr. Petrocelli said. “He decided to walk away. That’s his decision to make but I can’t say I applaud it. I think writers should be supportive of publishers that are supportive of them.”

Obviously, to a point. Not blind loyalty, but a certain partnership.

I tend to agree with Jane Friedman’s statement on Charlie Rose that books represent civilization, but they have to be both convenient to consume and affordable. The format for that does not matter per se. However, I do agree that the greater good that the act of buying and selling books once provided does matter with format. There was a bit of the Italian/French “salon” effect with your local bookstore and even at Barnes and Noble. Browsing. Talking. Sitting down and thinking. That may be replaced by something else, but certainly the act of buying and selling an eBook does not include that. Of course this was fading prior to eBooks. The salon effect of buying a book at Wal-Mart or Target is rather minimal. It is all part of that hockey stick.

What the panel on Charlie Rose did discuss that I will also, no doubt, return to again is whether enhanced books (e.g. embedded video) will displace the traditional book—for the eBook is a traditional book right now. It is simply another format.

Returning to the current lack of success by authors going through Amazon’s publishing imprints. Things are changing and these early “big name” authors that are partnering with Amazon are speeding up the change. It would be foolish to imagine that Amazon won’t adopt (any bets on small brick-and-mortar Amazons that allow returns and pickups?). Until then, small publishers and independent booksellers (which now include Barnes and Noble) can gloat with a little bit of malice. Shadenfreude and independent booksellers and publishers live on, for another year, but watch out, we are on the hockey stick handle!

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