Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why I Hope Amazon Takes Over The World

I had a couple blog posts I wanted to write that revolved around Amazon, about its products and services. In my mind, I imagined these pieces as being written very objectively and dispassionately, so as not to alienate the people who don’t like Amazon. But as I was scribbling out notes and outlining what I wanted to say, I realized that it would be impossible—or at least disingenuous—to pretend that I didn’t have very strong feelings about what I was going to write about, especially concerning the latest front-page news about Amazon, which we will tackle later. So, I’m going to get this admission out of the way and tell you up-front:

I Love Amazon.

This is basically going to be a very opinionated, very biased love letter to Amazon, which I don’t feel a particular need to apologize for. I’m sorry if you’re one of those people who hate Amazon—this blog post won’t be of much interest to you. (Or maybe it will be, insomuch that it’ll provide you with plenty of stuff to rebut along with ample opportunity to hurl invective at me.) My one concession to the Amazon-haters is that I’ll try to incorporate the 2 or 3 posts I had into one mega-post and get it all out and not have to fill the blog with more “I Wanna Have Amazon’s Babies”-type posts in the future. Ok? Ok. Let’s get started….

My First Amazon Purchase

If you go to your Amazon account, you can see your complete purchase history. It’s kind of cool to browse this list. You can see where your interests lay at various times in your life, what deals you got from used-book sellers in the Amazon marketplace (and when you overpaid, grr!), which years you made the most purchases, etc.

It can be interesting to check out the very first Amazon purchase you ever made. Like most people, I had forgotten what my first order was. It was nearly 10 years ago, a book called Kieslowski on Kieslowski. (My interest in Kieslowski arose from conversations at my work with some Slovakian students who were studying abroad for the summer, one of whom I had a minor crush on, but I won’t get into that here. Suffice it to say, Kieslowski was one of her favorite filmmakers and, having seen none of his films before, I felt compelled to brush up on him. J)

After that first purchase, I see that over the following year I used Amazon to build the bulk of my David Mamet library. Amazon was especially useful in tracking down those obscure plays that I had never even heard of before.

I eventually started buying all sorts of things from them: DVDs, music, gum—you know, all the stuff the average person regularly buys from Amazon. (The story with the gum is that there was this 6-month period circa around 2006 when my girlfriend and I were convinced they had discontinued this flavor of Dentyne Ice we were huge fans of, and so when I saw it for sale on Amazon I was over the moon.)

Amazon is well-known as the place to get great deals, but back in the day I used it more to get things that were simply not to be found in the brick-and-mortar stores around where I lived. You could pretty much describe my town as being rural, and there was no Shakespeare & Co.-type bookstore around. Just the big chain stores like Borders, Barnes & Noble. While some of these stores looked big and well-stocked, they were seriously deficient in the more esoteric stuff. Yes, they had Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on DVD, but no way was I going to find Kieslowski on Kieslowski there. And sure, they had Glengarry Glen Ross, but I don’t think any Borders store at any time in history ever had The Poet and the Rent in stock.

But Amazon had those things.

And that was what was so magical about Amazon in the early days. Not only did they have these books that you had never seen and desperately wanted to read, but they delivered them right to your door a couple days later. I even overpaid for some of these things, but I didn’t care. It was amazing just to have them and be able to enjoy them.

That was when my love for Amazon started to bloom. Thinking back on it, it’s really no wonder that they captured my affection. I couldn’t articulate it at the time but now it seems so obvious. When you went looking for a specific book at a Borders or a Barnes & Noble and they didn’t have it, what they were implicitly telling you is that the things you were interested in didn’t matter to them. Sure, they could order it for you, but that always left you with the distinct impression that you were inconveniencing them, with the way they’d wearily sigh and take down your information, acting like they’d rather be doing anything else. It’s almost as if they were saying Why are you so weird, why don’t you like the stuff everyone else likes, aren’t all these books good enough? and you ended up feeling weirdly chastised.

Not so with Amazon. They had everything. No matter what you were interested in, they supported it with a plethora of books or movies or whatever on the subject. Here was a place that said We care about what you’re into. They seemed to stock everything, all of it in stock just in case you might someday want a copy. No subject was too obscure, no book was unavailable—especially with the advent of the Marketplace, which was like having a hundred thousand Strands at your fingertips.

By creating the biggest bookstore in the world, Amazon allowed me to explore my interests—and in turn, develop my imagination and creativity—more than any other corporate entity I can think of. And for that they have my eternal gratitude and enduring affection.

E-books vs. Physical Books

I was not the earliest adopter of the Kindle, which was the first e-reader on the market. I definitely wanted one though. I would read all I could about it and clip newspapers articles about it. I knew I would get one eventually, and I was excited about the possibilities the device seemed to offer.

When the Kindle 2 was released, I bought one despite my reservations about the price, which was still rather high ($360). But when it was delivered to me and I had it in my hands, I couldn’t have been happier. It was everything I had hoped it would be.

I was amazed that it had the capacity to fit your whole library on it, provided you didn’t own a real library (I certainly didn’t possess more than 1,500 books). It brought reading into the 21st century—an iPod for books. It was lightweight and portable and the reading experience was pleasant. The free 3G was insane. (I still don’t know how they can pull that one off.) My only criticism was that the text on the screen was a little wispy, a problem they fixed with the K3, or Kindle Keyboard (which I also bought). I also wish I could load the Kindle with all the physical books I bought through the years, the same way you can transfer all your CDs onto an iPod, but I understand the financial impediments to this.

I very quickly preferred reading things on the Kindle as opposed to reading physical books.

The reasons for this have to do with some of the features of the Kindle that don’t get talked about as much. One of these features is the built-in dictionary. It’s a pretty good one too—the Oxford American. This is so useful it’s not even funny. It totally obviates the need to either A) get up and go get the dictionary when you encounter a word you don’t know or B) guess what an unfamiliar word means, which is even worse. One is an interruption that takes you out of the story and the other dilutes the impact of the writing through an imprecise—or outright wrong—understanding of a carefully chosen word.

The other thing I love about the Kindle is the possibilities that the 3G (and now wi-fi) connection offers. It’s about more than web browsing, which admittedly isn’t the most pleasant experience on the Kindle. For starters, I subscribe to USA Today and The New York Times, and it’s beyond awesome how they are waiting for me as soon as I wake up every day. There’s no better way to start the day, in my opinion.

Having an internet connection also allows you to use some web-based resources that augment the reading experience, and Kindle integrates these resources seamlessly. It’s really, really cool to have Google or Wikipedia at your fingertips while you’re reading. A lot of books mention concepts, events, or things that you aren’t familiar with that can’t be summed up in a dictionary entry. Getting up and looking these things up at your computer or another mobile device would cause one of those interruptions that are so annoying when you’re really into a book. But the Kindle is set up so that these websites are a quick click away. You can zoom to Wikipedia and go right back to the book without having to look up. This feature has the possibility to really enrich your reading of a book. I had this experience when I read Moby Dick, my first book on the Kindle. (Which by the way is a fantastic novel, completely undeserving of its reputation for being drearily boring. It’s surprisingly brisk and entertaining. Give it a try!) I was reading along and I came upon the following line: “But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower.” I had no idea what he was talking about so I wikipediaed it and found out about this cathedral in Germany that was left unfinished for over 400 years, epitomizing the abandonment of a grand project. (It was later completed.) The coolest thing is that there was a picture of how it looked in 1856, which was how it looked to Melville (Moby Dick came out in 1851), and you can see the little crane that he mentions! I thought that was so cool, and it really showed me how the Kindle could make the reading experience better.

I know that to some people it’s blasphemous to say you prefer eBooks to physical books, like physical books are these sacrosanct objects that must be preserved. Look, I do really like physical books; just take a look at my bookcases. But ultimately, the reason I love books is for their content, not the vector by which their content is delivered to me. I don’t have a particular emotional attachment to cracking open a paperback and peeling back pages, but the comfort of reading a good sentence remains for me ever-present, whether that sentence is printed on a page or displayed on an e-ink screen.

The eReader is a great invention, and the Kindle specifically is incredible. Since I already have warm feelings about Amazon, I’m glad they were the ones at the forefront of this new technology and I continue to be more than happy to support their endeavors in this area.

The Battle Over $9.99 eBooks

So finally we arrive at what’s been making headlines lately. The US government is suing five major publishers andApple, accusing them of fixing eBook prices. It’s extremely gratifying that the government is confirming what we all know happened. It was such a joke when Apple set up their iBookstore and the publishers entered into that “agency model” agreement with them. I don’t pretend to know exactly how it all worked, but the results were obvious: The publishers set the eBook prices and Amazon had to conform to those prices. So a lot of the books that were previously $9.99 on the Kindle store were now $12.99 or higher. Which sucked.

The champions of fair market practices heralded this as a boon for readers because it allowed other eBook stores like Apple’s and Barnes & Noble’s to compete with the Kindle store and competition is supposedly always good for the consumer. I guess as a consumer I was supposed to jump up and down and celebrate the fact that I could pay more for an eBook from a variety of vendors instead of getting a low price from just one of them. But since that would be stupid, I remained seated and seethed instead.

Listen, we all know this was not about equity in the marketplace—this was about Apple wanting to get a foothold in the eBook market and taking advantage of the fact that all the traditional publishers had all of a sudden decided that they hated Amazon for no good reason. Those publishing houses decided that entering into this “agency model” with Apple was the only way to get back at Amazon. But did it really do anything except alienate their customers? Did they really think it out, or just blindly rush into a deal because they felt they had to do something? Apple’s motivations were at least about money and therefore understandable; who knows what the publishers were thinking. And now most of them have just as quickly terminated their contract with Apple as part of the settlement agreement in the face of this impending lawsuit. And a couple of them have agreed to fork over tens of millions of dollars to bilked consumers, handing over money they've been telling us for a few years now they just weren't making in these dire times. These actions are at best erratic. Do they have any idea what they’re doing or do they just decide on an immediate course of action over coffee every morning? They’ve never looked more greedy, financially stable, impulsive, and clueless than they do now. (Quick side note to Random House: Why did you set up this big release date last month for Of The Farm, Updike’s 50-year old de facto novella (144 print pages), a book I had been looking forward to reading on my Kindle, and then price it at $11.99? Is it any wonder no one’s buying it?)

As unhappy as I was as a consumer with all this price-fixing collusion, I’m finding that I’m even more upset as a self-published author. Apple’s strategy basically worked: Amazon had a 90 percent share of the eBook market when the iBookstore launched; now it’s about 60. (Not that the iBookstore is a success—they have about 15 percent and Barnes & Noble has 25.) Now the market is divided enough that a self-publisher has to take into account all the other outlets besides Amazon.

Am I crazy to say that I wish I only had to deal with the Kindle store? that I wish Amazon was the only game in town? I hate that I have to waste time thinking of putting the book on other stores, with their own format specifications, devices, promotional tools, etc. If Amazon still had that 90 percent market share, I wouldn’t have to worry about setting up my book with Barnes & Noble, a brick-and-mortar company that won’t be around in 10 years and whose only asset is a copycat eReader (just ask its stockholders).

It’s just easier to deal with one company, especially one that does a great job on their end. It’s similar to the people making apps for the Apple App Store. I have a friend who’s doing extremely well programming apps and he loves Apple’s hegemony in the app world. Being a one-man operation, he is grateful that he doesn’t have to spend countless hours adapting his apps for Android devices.

Now, is it easier for me to put a book on Barnes & Noble than it is for him to reprogram an app for Android? Undoubtedly. That doesn’t mean I look on his situation with any less envy. He has a one-stop destination for his product, a place that will offer him the best chance at finding success, and he doesn’t have to worry about other platforms at all.

It’s true that the Kindle store resembles the Apple App Store in the way that it’s clearly the most important outlet for what it is selling. If a book from a new author takes off, it’s going to happen on the Kindle store, not the Barnes & Noble store or the iBookstore. But there are enough people out there with Nooks and Kobo readers that it can get frustrating for an author trying to accommodate everyone. I want the Kindle to be the clear-cut choice for eReaders, for people not to even consider the alternatives, just as no one considers buying an mp3 player other than the iPod.

As a reader, as an author, as a fan, I celebrate every Amazon triumph. Others who bemoan Amazon’s ever-increasing influence on the book industry are just people who would benefit from a return to the old way of doing business—the booksellers, the publishers. But under the old way of doing things, I was an unpublished author facing the insuperable task of getting through the multiple gatekeepers standing between my book and its potential audience. Amazon has done nothing but facilitate the delivery of my book to people across the world, so excuse me if I’m on their side. I know it’s not very ecumenical of me to say this, but I hope that Amazon continues to flourish at the expense of all their competitors, and that, in the end, they are the only ones left standing.


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