February 10, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff
The book folks have surely seen this already, but at The New Yorker George Packer takes a long hard look at Amazon:
Before Google, and long before Facebook, Bezos had realized that the greatest value of an online company lay in the consumer data it collected. Two decades later, Amazon sells a bewildering array of products: lawnmowers, iPods, art work, toys, diapers, dildos, shoes, bike racks, gun safes, 3-D printers. Amazon’s code of corporate secrecy is extreme—it won’t confirm how many Seattle employees it has, or how many Kindle e-readers have been sold—so it’s impossible to know for sure, but, according to one publisher’s estimate, book sales in the U.S. now make up no more than seven per cent of the company’s roughly seventy-five billion dollars in annual revenue.
Origins, though, leave lasting marks, and Amazon remains intimately tangled up in books. Few notice if Amazon prices an electronics store out of business (except its staff); but, in the influential, self-conscious world of people who care about reading, Amazon’s unparalleled power generates endless discussion, along with paranoia, resentment, confusion, and yearning. For its part, Amazon continues to expend considerable effort both to dominate this small, fragile market and to win the hearts and minds of readers. To many book professionals, Amazon is a ruthless predator. The company claims to want a more literate world—and it came along when the book world was in distress, offering a vital new source of sales. But then it started asking a lot of personal questions, and it created dependency and harshly exploited its leverage; eventually, the book world realized that Amazon had its house keys and its bank-account number, and wondered if that had been the intention all along.
It’s very comprehensive piece and well worth taking the time to read all the way through. At the LA Times Jacket Copy blog, Carolyn Kellog spoke to Packer about how the article came about:
Packer… included a suggestion from super-agent Andrew Wylie that publishers stop selling their books to Amazon altogether. Does Packer think that’s viable? “It’s a pretty radical solution, if you think about what it would do to their sales” he said. “I don’t know enough to agree or disagree.”
But in terms of telling the story, it was helpful. “It seemed like a way to jolt the picture productively. When you’re been an industry for a long time, you can’t imagine things differently. Maybe publishers need to think disruptively and not be victims.”
UPDATE: Packer has posted a short, but interesting, follow-up essay, ‘Amazon and the Perils of Non-Disclosure, at The New Yorker:
To Amazon, any piece of information could give its competitors an advantage. But what if those competitors’ main advantage is the walled-off, impenetrable nature of the company? If Amazon were just selling clothes, this might not be a potentially fatal flaw. But, as I wrote, the company has become a book publisher and a production company, and its owner has bought a major newspaper. Amazon is up to its neck in the world of culture, where nothing good can be done without a little light and air. The fact that Bezos visited his newspaper last month with more stealth than George W. Bush flying into Baghdad—a visit that was so well hidden even from people at the famously wide-open Post that I managed to break the story in these pages—struck me as particularly bizarre. Why not just show up? Because secrecy is in Amazon’s marrow. I’m certain that, sooner or later, this is going to create problems for Bezos’s newspaper, and I’m fairly sure that one reason for the failure of Amazon’s trade-publishing arm has to do with its isolation from the larger publishing world. If editors can’t gossip, speak to reporters, and pick up intel, they’re less likely to spot new talent and incubate ideas. They’re also less likely to be trusted by writers. Book culture and non-disclosure agreements are inimical.