Publishing Evolution

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In “Amazon’s Jungle Logic,” Richard Russo talks about Amazon attacking—perhaps even dismembering—“literary culture” by attacking brick-and-mortar bookstores with its price comparison app.

There is a point there; the app does make it easier for readers to see—in real time—how much less a given title may be on Amazon. And it also feeds pricing data back to Amazon. Russo sees this as, first, an attack on brick-and-mortar stores (trying to drive them out of business) and, following on from that, an attack on what could be called the literary lifestyle.

But is it? Is it either of those things?

Author Marketing
Sure—it might well endanger the traditional author-promotion channels—the symbiosis between author, publisher, and bookstore. The publisher arranges for an author appearance at a bookstore, intended to promote sales of that author’s book. The author benefits from the exposure and the sales, as do the publisher and the store. And the readers benefit from a rare in-person encounter with a favored writer—I’ve been to more than a few, personally. Some favorites include Kathy Reichs (most recently), Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, and more than a few politically-themed readings at Politics and Prose when I lived in the District (right across the street in fact).

Part of the way this works is the personal interaction the reader gets with the author. But in the social Internet… Will this still be the main way authors will conduct this personal interaction with readers in the future? Would this even be the primary way readers will interact with each other? Rhetorical questions…

So while insurmountable competitive pressure from Amazon threatens brick-and-mortar stores, and the old ways of author networking that went along with them, it does not necessarily threaten the literary lifestyle per se. Speaking personally, I love ereading. I have an iPad (and an Android before that), and I find extremely appealing the ability to download almost any book, at almost any time, from almost anywhere. This convenience—rather than price—is why I don’t tend to buy many paper books in bookstores anymore. (As an aside—the main ebook drawback: You can’t get it signed by the author. Someone needs to make an app that can affix an authenticated author signature to a particular ebook file…)

Book Sale Models
But that aside… All this talk about price undercutting; the death of the bookstore; the attack on the author; the end of Reading As We Know It… Sounds familiar… Where have I heard that before…? Oh, right. When Barnes and Noble went big in the 1980s.

One could argue that the superstores have had a negative impact on the book business. Mostly because they may have led both publishers and booksellers to make poor (read: not content-driven) decisions in an industry driven by content. So you get “novels” that are “written by” starlets like Hilary Duff and Lauren Conrad published by major Houses, getting paid placement in Borders.

And we wonder why Borders went belly-up and the legacy Houses are struggling?

But one thing the superstores did—even before Amazon—was throw a huge amount of material at the customers. And with little curating. Some stores would put “staff pick” labels on some books, or create “staff pick” tables. There could have—there should have—been more of this. But there wasn’t and this as much as anything else created an opening for Amazon as something more than a fulfillment company. Except that, for the most part, Amazon does not use expert curators, but algorithms and “crowdsourcing.” Which aren’t going to be better at it than the subjective judgments of an experienced editor (in my opinion, anyway).

The Fruit Rainforest
Which brings me to my next point: Amazon and Apple’s ongoing rivalry. A look at the morphology here may indicate that Amazon’s recent moves (especially including adding a publishing arm) may have less to do with legacy publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores than it does with Apple.

Apple’s ecosystem dominates (at least) the tablet/reader market. Amazon is trying to dent that with the Fire, but early returns aren’t encouraging–Amazon is neither a hardware nor a software company. In the bookspace, it’s a content delivery company. Except that Apple has used its penetration—starting with the music industry (and let’s not even get in to that industry’s mistakes here…) to try to position itself as the premiere—or only—digital content delivery platform, locking out Amazon, who would be left peddling “dead wood and ink” through the mail.

That is, unless Amazon also controls the content. Which is, I think, why Amazon created a publishing arm. True, it’s one that relies on crowdsourcing and proven writers rather than on new author discovery. But doing so means that Apple can’t afford to keep those books out of the iBookstore, and can’t cut Amazon out by going straight to other publishers. Unfortunately, this World War Digital (lets also not forget about Google and Sony…) has collateral damage—legacy publishers and brick-and-mortar book, movie, and music stores.

About Scott Epstein

I've consumed science fiction for as long as I can remember. I've written it since age 8. I founded and edited Proteus Continuum, a Science Fiction magazine, at Tufts University from 1990-1992. Professionally, I've worked in professional publishing for more than 17 years, in both editorial and marketing functions.
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