Running Smack Into The Garden Wall: More On That ‘Perfect eBookstore’ Project


What If The People Inside The Walled Garden Don’t Want Out?

The problem with The Amazon Problem…is that to the customer, there are no problems.

For once, Laura Dawson isn’t talking metadata. Bowker’s identifiers infanta is, instead, turning the precision of her observational gifts on a fundamental issue for the publishing industry in the shadow of Amazon’s “walled garden” commercial dominance. Dawson:

The problems are with Amazon’s interactions with the book industry – much of which the customer never sees and doesn’t care about.

Dawson was one of 20 participants in the two-day “perfect e-bookstore” sessions in New York City a week ago. As these bright, concerned colleagues review their experiences now, we’re lucky enough to be hearing from some of them.

The first player we heard from was the project’s organizer, Salinger associate producer and Letters to J.D. Salinger co-editor Chris Kubica.  His look-back at the event includes a mildly unsettling — and admirably candid — account of how, after a rich, fast start on Day One, the group on Day Two “found ourselves in a dark wood.”

Apparently, the sheer ambition of trying to spec out something that could approach Seattle’s brilliance was so daunting that, writes Kubica:

We found ourselves focused on finding one thing — just one — that Amazon’s walled garden doesn’t do really, really well.

From the sounds of things, the group never did identify that “one thing” not done “really, really well” in Amazon’s walled garden.

The phrase “walled garden” is used in business to refer to a closed ecosystem of some kind. In this instance, it’s the retail platform on which Amazon sells ebooks in .mobi file editions that Kindles can read, while bringing readers back to buy more with one-click elegance on those same Kindles. A proprietary software loop, if you will, keeps book customers happy with Amazon’s library of offerings — the largest in history — and, of course, the wider Amazonian apparatus makes millions of products and services available with similar ease, speed, affordability…and near-addiction.

In a message to me, Dawson had commented that she found Day Two “squishy.”

And as it comes together in my earlier write at on Kubica’s reactions — A Perfect E-Bookstore? “Maybe Each One Of Us”  — there’s a mildly haunting idea drifting over these discussions: what if the answer to Amazon’s sales power isn’t an equally big counter-emporium but a ground-level network, person-to-person, below Seattle’s radar, a distribution network for reading: low-tech of another kind?

Where we find this going in Dawson’s hands now is less the “what are our alternatives?” direction Kubica takes and more the “who are we really fighting for?” approach. She is, in fact, bringing up a point that many in publishing do not care much to face. We’re all better for her raising this truth so clearly. Let’s have a look:

What If Amazon Already Is The Dream E-Bookstore?

As we poked and prodded, dreamed and built, we kept coming back to this: Amazon works for customers. It doesn’t just work – it works brilliantly.

Dawson’s essay is called Two Days In A Dream Bookstore, and she neatly parses the way publishers, authors, and a commercial creature like Amazon differ in how they see sales. The Amazonian distinction: minimal “friction,” as it’s called, with its consumers.

  • To build a dream bookstore for a publisher necessarily means friction with the customer (publishers would want higher margins and more restrictions in their favor).
  • To build a dream bookstore for an author necessarily means friction with the customer (authors would like to get paid a living wage for their work, ideally, and have more control over sales).
  • Amazon’s ruthless focus on its customers means (a) they are incredibly loyal because Amazon makes it easy for them to be (b) see (a). That model means that by design Amazon has adversarial relationships with its suppliers.

What Dawsons is saying is that however angry the publishing establishment may be at Amazon for “taking” its reader/consumers — with low prices, staggering inventory, seriously effective technology, and world-beating customer service — those reader/consumers are happy. Attempts to build a “perfect e-bookstore,” like the whole “discoverability” debate, are about publishing, not about readers. I’ve found myself writing lately that our authors can be caught in this teary gratitude-fest for “you, the reader,” when, in fact, the reader is doing just fine and the authors need to work on their own problems. Readers have more content than they can even fathom is out there, and much of it at bargain-basement prices.

And they’re buying it? From Amazon. Dawson:

Amazon did not get to be so powerful by accident. They are very, very, very smart, and their customer service is unparalleled. All of our industry hand-wringing over the Hachette negotiations is just that – the customer experience (and I say this as an Amazon Prime member) is just not that horribly affected by Amazon’s refusal to sell most of Hachette’s titles. That’s a tough realization, because Hachette is big.

A  Peculiar Irony: Amazon As “What Many Publishers Were A Hundred Years Ago”

While he wasn’t, to my knowledge, involved with the “perfect e-bookstore” project in which Kubica and Dawson engaged, our good colleague Arthur Attwell of Paperight has an interesting perspective to offer, maybe on what makes a walled garden flourish.

In Fights And Riots — Amazon And The Evolution Of Publishing, Attwell writes of how Amazon is re-synthesizing a group of services that for decades before had been parceled out across the industry.

Amazon is becoming a vertically integrated book company, a single house that handles everything from commissioning to sales. That’s what many publishers were a hundred years ago. Think Virginia Woolf and the Hogarth Press…

Over the years, businesses that specialised in certain parts of the publishing process became independent of the rest of the publishing chain, until they formed distinct industries of their own…Some companies managed to keep two publishing functions in-house: rights and branding…Most of us grew up in that world, so we think it’s normal. But it’s really just a phase in the evolution of the book business. A phase held in place by constraints on what was possible. And perhaps the biggest constraint – an effect of the physical nature of books and the way we sold them – was the book-selling specialists’ inability to sell books to exponentially more consumers.

Amazon changed that. Bezos and his team solved the constraint on sales…“by consistently pleasing millions of customers for nearly two decades.”

Based on the Mail & Guardian’s Alistair Fairweather’s analysis, Attwell concludes that rights are the real battleground for Amazon and publishers to come.

Rights are exactly where Amazon needs to win on its road to vertical integration. Amazon often asks for exclusivity in key areas (such as lowest pricing), for instance. And its direct approaches to authors are a move on original rights. Your best defense in rights discussions may be your own precedents: if you are already creatively exploiting rights you control, it’s that much harder for Amazon and others to claw them off you.

Maybe if we’re too focused on the “perfect e-bookstore,” we’re looking the wrong way.

Seattle Won’t Fall In Two Days

There’s another voice from the sessions in New York, too, that of Booktrix publishing consultant David Wilk, whose Prospecta Press is, as it happens, the print publisher for Thought Catalog Books.

I have his permission to quote to you a bit of his commentary from a private industry email community on the two-day #altbookstore sessions:

There were a number of good ideas that surfaced in a variety of contexts (not atypical for the number of voices and perspectives represented). One concept that did get some traction was the notion of the concierge. In the online world of abundance, we thought that many readers (how many?) would be delighted to have a reliable information and service source – perhaps the online version of a bookseller who knows you well, or a well-read librarian who has great taste.

Maybe this is what Zola is all about. Maybe it is also what some independent booksellers have done already (Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale as an example).

Wilk points up that the group had some difficulty coming in with full knowledge of what already is available in one form or another in the marketplace:

Even during our discussions, some of us found sites doing some of the very things we were trying to imagine and that we had never heard of before (an example is Whichbook – “a new way to choose what to read” – and wondered therefore whether the “under the major force’s radar” is already out there, enough under the radar for 20 dedicated book types not to know even so much of what has been done already in this context.

And, writes Wilk, offering us yet another glimpse of just how vast a task it is to try to embrace both the current reality and the potential:

There were many other well developed projects that we seemed not to even reference in the various conversations we had. That was a bit disconcerting for some of us too. It appears that more than two days of work is needed to even figure out one thing that might be so cool — and worthwhile — as to be worth doing.

And What If We’re In The Garden, Too? (Because Bezos Is “One Of Us”)

Back To Dawson:

We were 20-odd bookish people in the room (with more watching via webcam). And we couldn’t figure it out. We are insiders – collectively, there must have been hundreds of years of experience in the book business sitting around that table. As with most cases of disruption, it isn’t going to happen from inside.

Not stopping there, she goes on to “bring in” one more of those “bookish people” insiders: Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Bezos was “not a book person”. He may love books, but until he founded Amazon, he didn’t work in the industry. Now he actually is in the industry, and has been for 20 years. He’s one of us.

You might remember the “drones interview” with Charlie Rose in which the Amazon chief noted that some day, of course, even his mighty edifice will be breached by a disruption of some kind. What lingers is the charm with which he added, “I would love for it to be after I’m dead.”

This is what Dawson is saying to us. We are all insiders, laboring between walls of our own making of one kind or another — every one of them vulnerable to attack and collapse.

As she writes:

If a major disruption is not going to happen from inside, then “inside” includes Amazon – and any major disruption by definition will disrupt Amazon too.

We just don’t know what that is yet.