Thursday, March 20, 2014

Whether Amazon is Bad for Books

(as found in the New Yorker article “Cheap Words” by George Packer:

Jeff Bezos originally thought of calling his company
The relentless downward pressure on prices that Amazon enforces
has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value—
a widget.
“I just don’t see what value you add.”
Amazon’s shape-shifting, engulfing quality,
its tentacles extending in all directions, destabilizing and intimidating,
is a ruthless predator.
A rising power with stock options and an enormous audience,
a titan of the digital world that helped lay waste to it,
Amazon has more control over the exchange of ideas than any company in U.S. history.
A monopoly is dangerous—
a single owner of both the means of production and the modes of distribution:
the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer,
Earth’s most customer-centric company assembling an ant farm
Amazon’s conquistadors galloped onward.
Amazon’s unparalleled power along with paranoia, resentment, confusion, and yearning.
What remains constant is ambition, and the search for new things to be ambitious about. 
An unrealized dream grandly called the Alexandria Project is to warehouse two copies of every book ever printed.
Amazon began as a bookstore unlike traditional bookstores—
books were a gateway drug—the feeling of your beloved indie bookstore,
full of hip, book-loving people.  
Many of them functioned as cultural centers, people browsed and exchanged ideas,
making their bets on books a matter of instinct rather than metrics.
It’s a tiny little business, selling to a bunch of odd people who read.
What purpose would they serve if reading went entirely digital?

A decade later, the company is a megastore,
not an indie bookshop,
selling more books than anyone in the history of the world.
Judgments about which books are increasingly driven by promotional fees—
ten thousand dollars to be prominently featured on the home page.
Editorial suggestions for readers with algorithms make recommendations for future purchases.
Original writing wasn’t even called content, it was known as verbiage simplified to verbage.
Even its bitterest critics reluctantly admit to using Amazon, unable to resist its unparalleled selection, price, and convenience.
“I drank the Kool-Aid.”
Transactions are as quick and thoughtless as scratching an itch,
just you and the BUY button,
which already knows your address and credit-card information,
and items you don’t yet know you want to buy
in a warehouse near you.
You don’t have to think about how much the cashier, with her wrist in a splint, makes per hour. 
The Internet’s invisibility shields Amazon from the criticism directed at its archrival Wal-Mart.
A high-tech version of the dehumanized factory floor satirized in Chaplin’s Modern Times,
Amazon’s warehouse jobs are gradually being taken over by robots.
Pickers holding computerized handsets are perpetually timed and measured as they fast-walk up to eleven miles a shift, expected to collect orders in as little as thirty-three seconds.
A stress expert said, “The evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.”
None of Amazon’s U.S. workers belong to unions; the customer would suffer.

“Proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job.”
Ceaseless innovation and low-wage drudgery makes Amazon the epitome of a successful New Economy company, pushing American culture under the control of ever fewer and more powerful corporations. Its brand of creative destruction might be killing more jobs than it makes.
The quest for publishing profits in an economy of scarcity drives the money toward a few big books. When consumers are overwhelmed with choices, they all tend to buy the same well-known thing. Americans don’t read as many books as they used to – too busy doing other things with their devices.
Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere.  The real talent—the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing—they aren’t able to afford to do it.
Analyzing surveys and viewing patterns does not describe a path to artistic excellence. You can easily argue that it stymies experimentation, that it prevents innovation, because the audience is telling you what they want.
The prospect that Amazon might destroy the old model of publishing—fifty to sixty percent of the list price goes to Amazon or another retailer, the price of best-sellers below wholesale and so low a serious threat— How long before publishers have to slash the cover price of all their titles?
Amazon had carefully concealed that number from publishers. “We don’t discuss our business negotiations with publishers.”

Bezos announced the Gazelle Project, that Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.
One of the few people in publishing willing to criticize Amazon on the record, faced with his own professional extinction, and perhaps the industry’s, knew that they would stop being favored by the sites algorithms if they didn’t comply, realized that Amazon had their house keys and their bank-account number, and wondered if that had been the intention all along.
By the next day, the BUY buttons had disappeared from Melville House’s titles on
“When are you going to get with the program?”
Like dinner with the Godfather, he capitulated, paid that bribe and the books reappeared.
Amazon effectively had a monopoly in digital books and was selling them so cheaply it resembled predatory pricing.

Amazon’s obsession with secrecy and aversion to scrutiny creates problems for people whose job is to expose what powerful institutions want to hide.
The humanists brought a strain of intellectual irony that set them apart from the company’s cult of relentlessness, and formed a counterculture that never fit easily in a company ruled by computer engineers and MBAs who valued data most and believed only in measurable truths.
That gives you some idea of the level of business focus.
Bezos announced that the next eighteen months would be devoted to making serious profits, suggested eliminating the editorial department, and simply squeezed its suppliers harder.
Amazon demanded ever-larger co-op fees and better shipping terms.
The arrogance level in Silicon Valley is very high.
The virtue of markets in solving social problems.
Sell more devices and sign up more Prime members.
What we want is traffic through our device, and we’ll do anything to get there.

As I recover from being punched in the face by Amazon,
a shared sensibility for a certain kind of fiction or nonfiction writing unites everyone along the way; the only point that Bezos enters that chain is to take all the money and the email address of the buyer.
There’s an entire community of people locked in a death struggle with Amazon and the distracted American reader, and Bezos stands in the middle of it and collects the money.
What gave publishers the idea that this was some big goddam business? It’s not—
Steve Jobs once remarked, “Customers don’t know what they want until Apple shows them.”
Amazon’s view is the opposite:
Publishers are tastemakers deciding what customers should read, listen to, and watch.
But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths.
When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?
Then Amazon will have eliminated the human factor from shopping, and we will finally be all alone with our purchases.
“People forget that John Henry died in the end.”
Machines defeated human beings.
Sweet words

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