Manipulation Versus Inspiration

George Packer delivered his version of the ever-popular “Amazon is destroying book publishing” theme in a recent long form piece in The New Yorker.

A consummate journalist and skilled writer, Packer’s points are compelling and consistent with Brad Stone’s reporting in his book The Everything Store, a book I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Here are just two nuggets about the company that hit me in the solar plexus:

1. Amazon’s “down with the Gatekeepers!” messaging is outrageously self-serving and hypocritical. While it publicly batters the snobby New York publishing establishment and the big five corporations that control it, Amazon holds these same companies up for extraordinary sums of money just to keep their BUY buttons live and in front of Amazon’s customers.

While “co-operative advertising” has been around for decades and is essentially legalized graft to get around U.S. Fair Trade and Anti-Trust regulations (don’t get me started), Amazon has perfectly the co-op “negotiation” to an art form.

As Amazon’s mean girls ridicule the publishers in the media as the arrogant enemies of egalitarian creativity, their schoolyard bullies are contemptuously shaking them down for their lunch money.

Who ultimately pays for the payoffs? Writers, of course. Less money equals fewer book slots and lower advances for those lucky enough to get one.

But the last I heard Random House has never threatened to stop people from being able to buy MacMillan books or vice versa. But Amazon pulled down MacMillan’s books just hours after their CEO John Sargent told them something they didn’t want to hear.

This kind of business Realpolitik doesn’t exactly warm the cockles of anyone’s heart.

2. Amazon’s mantra “we’re all about the customer” is about to be taken to odd extremes. What they really are all about is customer metadata. Repeat users get the promise of low cost/hassle free consumption. But the way Amazon delivers the value to Joe Average is to squeeze their suppliers (publishers and kitchen knife makers alike) and use predatory pricing to knock out their competition. (See the acquisition strategy for

Once Amazon has crunched our metadata history, their plan is to anticipate our material needs/wants in the future and use non-human delivery systems to mainline it right to your door. Before you know you need/want it. Thus increasing their volume of sale (which gives them even more leverage over their suppliers) while decreasing their cost of goods sold (fewer employees, more drones). No, I’m not kidding.

Whoopee! Big Brother as toilet paper anticipator! And we were worried about totalitarianism.

I think we all get it by now. Amazon is not the benevolent Libertarian Prince of a corporation that it tries to persuade us it is. How many more long form pieces do we need to read to take this in?

At this point in the narrative, a question that I think is far more fun to explore is…How can Book Publishing Davids compete with the Amazon Goliath? What is its vulnerability?

Instead of whining and holding up Amazon as the boogeyman, why not take matters into one’s own hands and do something about it?

And I don’t mean running to another big Daddy corporation and fiddling with terms of sale. I would bet a few bucks that the debacle with Apple and Penguin’s 75 Million dollar fine for the whole Agency Model eBook disaster led to Pearson PLC’s throwing in the towel and agreeing to merge with Random House. So instead of six big players, we now have five. One less bell to answer.

Who ultimately pays the price for that huge balagan? Writers, of course. Big fines squeeze advance coffers. Fewer dollars in the acquisition larder lead to fewer books acquired at smaller levels of advance.

And so here we are…when so many incredible books are rejected by big publishing because they don’t have the potential to be New York Times bestsellers within eight weeks of publication. I’ll remind you that fourteen years ago, The War of Art was rejected by every major publisher. That’s not to say they weren’t right. It did take twelve years and 300,000 copies sold before The War of Art hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Do you think the big five may be passing on other books like The War of Art today?

Just about every single person in the book publishing industry—from the heads of the big five to independent bookstore owners to the third assistants of powerhouse literary agents, not to mention writers—chooses to keep on keeping on the same way they always have. By doing absolutely nothing about it.

How about coming up with an alternative experience to Amazon’s ubermachine? How about some humanity? Some good old-fashioned nose to the grindstone innovation?

How do you do that? Simple really. Give people something to care about, something to believe in, something that makes them feel good about buying a book from you and not a vacuous corporation.

The fact is that Amazon is a great manipulator. It combines two age old sales tactics, the “we won’t be undersold” come on and “the customer is always right” guarantee. And through a mind-bendingly brilliant use of technology and cheap labor, it has scaled its systems in just about every product category you could think of.

But what Amazon doesn’t do so well is inspire. I don’t know about you, but I feel no wind beneath my wings when I buy shampoo at amazon because I’m too lazy to go to the drugstore.

Now I respect Jeff Bezos and I’ll bet he’s a nice guy in a social situation and I would love to meet him, but I don’t “get him.” I don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing. Or how or why he’s programming his in-house Jeff Bots to stay on message for him. I can find no compelling human value associated with Amazon, beyond instant or near-instant gratification. And as values go on the soul-affirming scale, it’s pretty lame.

That whole down with the Gatekeeper thing is really just another come on to dissatisfied writers to use Amazon’s self-publishing services. They’re awesome and I use them too, but the reason why is a feint. It’s not inspiring.

And as his company is so secretive, chances are I’ll never really know the there, there.

On the other hand, I think Steve Jobs was probably not so great in a social setting. But I always got what he was trying to do. And it had nothing to do with instant gratification.

Jobs valued precision and passion in the service of building material possessions that could enfranchise individual human beings. Not “customers.” Say what you wish about his personal choices when dealing with his fellow man, but the guy stood for something. Engineering insanely great things above all else.

Steven Pressfield, What's This Guy's Angle? Image credit: Callie Oettinger.

Similarly, you may not agree with everything that Steven Pressfield writes or go crazy for everything that our company Black Irish Books publishes, but I doubt you think that Steve’s doing it to gratify people. He does it to inspire.

He’s certainly not showing up every Wednesday with a fresh piece of writing that benevolently kicks us in the ass for the money. That stuff’s free. And he’s not actively hunting down people he thinks have a very important message to share and helping them communicate their philosophy in book form for fame. Callie and I had to full court press him to do the Oprah interview. He pumps proceeds from one project into the development of the next one and refuses to be anyone’s “guru.”

I think he does it because we all have something to contribute to the collective unconscious and we also need someone to nudge us to sit down and do it, to fight the inner war and get it done. The last thing Steve would do is to tell anyone else how to live their life, so instead he writes and publishes books to help them find their way…their way. He has a Take what you need and leave the rest philosophy. And if you need none of it, that’s cool.

The fact is that Steve Pressfield has no idea how all of the money works. And doesn’t care to know. He just wants his books (the ones he writes, edits and publishes) to be as near perfect as he can make them. It’s not that he’s incapable of following the money trail or making a cold hard business decision, it’s that it doesn’t interest him. He’d rather have a root canal than talk about return on investment or unique visitors or page views.

As long as Black Irish pays its bills and works with people who share his love of the game, Steve’s in hog heaven. Some months he’ll even get a profit sharing check and he can’t believe his good fortune!

If Amazon isn’t really in business to dismantle the Gatekeeper apparatus that they themselves profit from, or to actually inspire customers rather than manipulate them, why does Amazon do what they do?

It’s gotta be about more than money…right? I’m positive it is, and the answer definitely resides inside Jeff Bezos. Why doesn’t he tell us? Does he even know it himself?

So back to the original question. How do you compete with Amazon?

Do what they don’t do and be clear about why you’re doing it.

Inspire people to embrace their better selves…not just the one demanding instant gratification…and you’ll be satisfied. Not necessarily rich, but satisfied.

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  1. Gwen Abitz on February 14, 2014 at 6:40 am

    It is always so weird what the SP Team writes. I, not being an author,in the publishing business or attempting to write a book (but GUILTY did approach Steve to write it) can apply it to what I am doing. It’s a question I ask myself everyday. How do I compete with the norm of network marketing? I do what they don’t do and am very clear why I am doing it. I attempt to inspire people to embrace their better selves. Yes, I am satisfied with how I am doing the work. BUT, as yet, has not caught on to make any money. Let alone be rich. Never looked at Amazon in this vein; I guess because not my interest. But understand completely what is being written as “it all” relates to what I experience within my niche market.

  2. Jeff on February 14, 2014 at 7:11 am

    “Give people something to care about, something to believe in, something that makes them feel good about buying a book from you and not a vacuous corporation.”

    I love that, Shawn.

    But here’s the dynamic it feels like your post doesn’t quite address: when people shop at Amazon, the humanity they are connecting with — that they really came for — is that of the other shoppers’, not Amazon’s. They come for the reviews.

    And I believe (just an opinion/could be convinced otherwise) that a lot of that has to do with the despicably crappy job that most publishers do to promote and merchandise their own books. Where are you going to learn more about a book you’re considering reading/buying: the publisher’s website, the book’s website (if the book even has one), or Amazon through the reviews?

    So why should the publisher who ostensibly believed in the book enough to publish it do such a shitty job merchandising and promoting the book? Why is the prospective reader better off learning about a book through any other source than the publisher? That’s kind of crazy.

    And it leaves the promotion of the book almost entirely up to the author.

    When did sales of The War of Art really start to accelerate from year to year? When Steve got into content marketing (and other promotional efforts) with both feet. And that’s truly awesome. Now someone who’s interested in The War of Art or any other of Steve’s books can find out more about Steve and his message and mission, if you will, from this blog than from pretty much any other source. Then they can go buy the book through Black Irish Books.

    But can Publisher’s really expect that from most authors? Is it realistic to expect an author to become an expert in content marketing in order to promote their own book? And how much help do the publishers provide authors in doing that? Sure they can’t blog for the author, but do they even bother setting them up with the infrastructure necessary to do it?

    Again, I could be wrong on this, but from what I’ve seen with other authors, the answer is no. They don’t do crap other than distribution.

    So what the hell does big publishing expect? Yes, Mr. Publisher, you actually have to *market* your books. If you leave that up to Amazon (via reviews), Amazon will walk away with all the sales. And it will have almost nothing to do with the $2 the buyer saved on a trade paperback.

  3. Kathryn Loch on February 14, 2014 at 7:16 am

    And the uproar continues. Some new numbers were discovered and blog posters are going wild. I’m an indie, I publish exclusively on Amazon, and I’m doing very well.

    Steven has been a wonderful source of inspiration and the War of Art helped propel me into indy publishing. Now people mistrust Amazon because they’re huge. Success with their business models, goals, innovation. What has Amazon done, they created a marketplace that already had tons of readers there. I simply had to put books on it.

    BUT I’ve been in the publishing industry for almost 20 years now, I worked hard to learn my craft and the ins and outs of the biz. And I work even harder now than I used to at the old office manager job.

    Writing is my day job and it pays the bills. Amazon has changed the market through technology. And the 19th century business model of traditional publishing got caught flat footed. If you need information on how the Amazon system works, David Gaughran wrote a great book called Let’s Get Visible – it covers the algorithms, and best seller lists for various genres, etc. He also communicates with Amazon a lot. is a great blog that has current news on the industry, who is crying foul about what now, but solid information. J.A Konrath’s The Newbie Guide to Publishing also has a ton of information on the indie market.

    There are different sources out there. You need to examine them with care. There’s opinions without facts, outright lies, and smear campaigns. So many claim indies are hacks, well if you don’t learn your craft from wonderful people such as Steven, you’re not going to do very well.

    One thing I see is the free market in action on Amazon. I work to produce a highly professional product. I can bring it in at a lower price and still have good income.

    Business model 101 – it’s been proven time and time again. Check out the information on Amazon. And the great debate over the new numbers. But Amazon isn’t the big ole scary monster folks seem to think. They’re out to make money, but if you browse books and watch your history, Amazon offers you the books it believes YOU are most likely to buy – even if that book happens to be something Amazon might lose money on. In the long run, giving the customers what they want keeps them coming back.

  4. Joy on February 14, 2014 at 7:21 am

    Comparing Jeff Bezos to Steve Jobs is almost an ‘apples to oranges’ comparison; Jobs was “engineering” products/things, while Bezos is engineering a way for people to get them, fast and economical while being profitable.

    I worked for Amazon customer service for a little over a year, I received phone calls nearly daily from people who were homebound in some fashion and they would buy everything from, yes, toilet paper to olive oil to furniture. I had one kind lady I will never forget who had a husband with a chronic illness and she bought some of his medical supplies from us. She was very grateful she could purchase them, not only at a reasonable price, but that they were delivered to her door. To me, and I would think others, that has some serious “human value”.

    Although I no longer work for Amazon, I am still a Prime Member and have been since 2004 — I simply like Amazon, and appreciate the fact that they exist for me at a customer level. I am also a writer, and hopefully soon-to-be author — Amazon gives me an opportunity that I may not receive at the “big 5” and honestly, I just don’t even want to try with the New York houses, to me that, the heartwrenching quest for acceptance by the publishing elite is what is “lame” and non-soul affirming.

  5. Jeff on February 14, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Of course, that opinion is coming from an advertising professional, so… yeah, I’m more than a little bit biased in my perspective.

    And I’m also more than a little bit ignorant about the inner workings of publishing.

    So what I was really wondering was what your take is on all of that, Shawn.

    • Shawn Coyne on February 14, 2014 at 8:43 am

      You are absolutely right about big publishing. That’s why I left it fourteen years ago.

      The questions I ‘m interested in these days have less to do with business strategies and tactics and more with the INTERNAL MORAL AND ETHICAL DEBATES WE ALL FACE AND OUR ULTIMATE CHOICES.

      I certainly admire and emulate people like Jeff Bezos, people who dive head first into a problem and work their tails off to solve it the best way they can imagine, than those who sit on their hands and just bitch and moan. If you have a problem go solve it. There are a million ways to “success.” Define your terms and do it.

      But I also think it’s important to constantly ask yourself these questions.

      Why do I do the work that I do? And what does “winning” mean to me?

      These are the two questions Steve and I constantly throw at each other when one of us sees the potential for a big pile of money at the end of a particular rainbow.

      Is this work consistent with our core mission to just inspire people to find and release their inner mojo into the world? Will this be fun? Or will we spend most of our time on spreadsheets?

      I think Jeff Bezos has far more fun than most of us and I think he has a mission that is compelling. I’m just curious what is beyond “solving problems and building the best mousetrap” for him.

      Jeff Bezos and Amazon are not Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Far from it! God knows we have benefited enormously from his vision. But now’s the time to demand more from him, not less. He’s got the chops and to let him off the hook by listing his past achievements as “enough” insults him. He can do more beyond low prices/great customer service. WAY MORE!

      There is an expression that’s probably reached the level of cheesy now, but it’s applicable. It’s called “opening up the Kimono.” The ones who change people’s lives and inspire them to be better human beings do it.

      Do you think Steve Pressfield was excited about telling people about his thirty years of struggle just to sell his first piece of writing? Or that he lived in a concrete shack with no running water after blowing up his life again and again? I suspect he wasn’t, but he did it for a reason. And it had nothing to do with business.

      All the best,

  6. Mary Doyle on February 14, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Walmart must be happy right now to be able to step aside and give the Greedy Bogeyman crown over to Amazon. Some of your points are certainly salient, but I can’t help but believe that if MacMillan or Random House could come up with a strategy to prevent readers from buying their competitor’s books they would do it in a nanosecond. I get that it’s all about the money and I concede that I am being manipulated as a consumer, but no more by Amazon than by walking through Target, Walgreen’s, my local grocery store or – in the past – the now-defunct Border’s.

    Amazon isn’t about instant gratification as much as it is about convenience for this consumer. That might not qualify as a “compelling human value” but saving me time so that I can stay at my writing table instead of driving to buy shampoo strikes me as efficient rather than lazy. I don’t expect to feel wind beneath my wings when I buy shampoo anyway. More importantly, as a writer, Amazon offers the most viable current option for me to get my work out to the market when it’s finished so that I can find my readership and ultimately embrace my better self as an artist.

  7. Erik Dolson on February 14, 2014 at 7:35 am

    The New Yorker piece portrayed ruthlessness that was shocking.

    As an author with a book on Amazon (until they read this), it made me wonder: Hard copies are (possibly) easier to track, but how do writers know that every time their book is downloaded, the sale is passed through? Is there a third-party verification process?

    “Trust me,” just seems inadequate. Readers are the focus because they are the revenue source. Writers, to Amazon, are simple commodity producers. Cattle.

    Maniacal secrecy begs the question: What is it they are trying to hide? That is more relevant, not less, when secrecy is their culture.

  8. Tom Worth on February 14, 2014 at 7:37 am

    I think what motivates Bezos is the technological challenge of logistics. Offering anything and everything for the lowest possible price and the most efficient fulfillment and delivery. Hardball negotiation is a requirement for winning in that arena. Is it his fault if people choose to operate at a loss because they can’t compete? Perhaps. But he has chosen his own game and made his own rules and is, consequently, winning.
    The reason it seems soulless or uninspiring is because unless you, too, are one who is motivated by overcoming the challenges of logistics, or competing at whatever game he is, then you have no hope of getting it.
    Maybe Bezos isn’t inspired by things that many of us are: football (he’s probably a huge Seahawks fan, but humor me), music, traveling, you name it, I don’t know. He very likely is, but maybe he isn’t. Does he concern himself with people he doesn’t get, a travel mogul or an NFL Commissioner or the NCAA gatekeepers that collude to keep all the money for themselves instead of the ones who actually play the sports (imagine the uproar if there was a rule that made it illegal to pay “non-pro” authors a dime for their efforts until they were signed by one of the big 5 publishers, with all proceeds from the “amateur” years of work going to some shady governing body), people who are inspired by those other things that he himself is not? Or does he just commit 100% of his being to the things that DO inspire him (like offering the lowest price and most efficient, hassle-free service to his customers)? I’d bet the latter.

  9. Rob McCleary on February 14, 2014 at 11:19 am

    Great article. Has anyone read “In Cold Type” by Leonard Shatzkin? It outlines all the problems publishers face…and continue to ignore…and the book was published in 1982! It stretches the limits of compassion for a business model that had 30 plus years to change and basically did nothing except piss and moan.

    Shawn hit some real valid points: Amazon, like EVERY company is in the business of helping itself and has no altruistic interest is “art” or “creativity” per se. If you can achieve some value by using them, than more power to you (I have a kindle single up there myself). But just dealing with “best sellers” is, if nothing else, just seems like a TERRIBLE business model in the long run. Looking at people like Shawn and Steven seems to me like proof that you can find an audience. But the big publishers have always had the luxury of cherry picking writers who find readership on their own come begging to them for respectability. They’ve used self and e-publishing as a free “first look” system. Now it seems like those days are gone, and writers (and small publishers) aren’t really that fired up about dealing with multi-national corporations who’s input would only water down a work and DECREASE its chances of success.
    Keep up the good work, guys!

  10. Ursula on February 14, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    Amazon wasn’t created to inspire so why are you bemoaning the fact that they don’t? They are and have always been about providing stuff: you want stuff, they’ve got stuff, money changes hands, that’s it.

    And the whole WHA WHA from the publishing behemoth has-beens — suck it up. They could all have been Amazon but they were too in love with their Goliath status to notice the big changing world. Now that the shoe is on someone else’s foot, they’re all like “Aw, not fair.” Give me a break.

    The more opportunities writers have to choose themselves and get their work out there the better. Doesn’t really matter what the vehicle that gets them there looks like.

  11. Cheryl on February 14, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    I’ve heard the same tune about other Big Baddies ever since I started working at B. Dalton in college. I also spent a few years at Barnes & Noble, and we were always called the Bully — by owners of big, independent bookstores (like the Tattered Cover in Denver) that had put plenty of smaller independents out of business in their time. Attending the Denver Publishing Institute eventually killed any desire to work in the world of publishing. The pomposity of academia is bad enough on its own, but combine it with the self-righteousness of book publishers, and it becomes unbearable. I am more than happy to continue supporting Amazon.

  12. Shannon on February 14, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    I’ve learned about more good books and music that inspire me daily on Amazon in the last few years than from any other group of sources combined. Steve Jobs’ iTunes sucks; my local independent bookseller (The Tattered Cover mentioned above) features what it thinks I should read, not what I want to read; and Barnes & Noble features what some Average Joe who is not me wants to read, not what I want to read. What else am I to do? I’ve only got so many hours in a day between working full time, writing ALL the time, and taking care of a family. Amazon provides me a great many services — and yes, inspiring me is in fact one of them, however inadvertently it may be.

  13. Dave S. on February 14, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    Very simply… Yep… Right on target.

  14. Julie Tallard Johnson on February 15, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    I just want to express appreciation for the conversation –.

    I find that I choose what inspires me, sometimes it can be found on Amazon. Most times, it’s something closer-in, like what I see out my window in the morning.

    I’m in this writing for the long haul and enjoying being an author. I am convinced at this point in my life that success is part of the Great Mystery and defined in ways that a relative to each of us. I love to write, and will continue to do so no matter the publishing environment.

    Thanks all.

  15. Jim Woods on February 16, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    Shawn, thanks for this. You, Callie, and Steve are a part of something that inspires me and many others.

  16. Kabamba on February 18, 2014 at 2:16 am

    I didn’t know the “War of Art” had been in the battle field for that long; it’s a fitting tribute to the great book that it is.
    Thanks for Turning Pro.

  17. George Tsalamandris on February 19, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    I really needed to read this today.
    …back to it.

  18. Humberto Gonzalez on February 26, 2014 at 4:18 am

    Simply brilliant. Now, what do we do about it? Ideas? Please, count me in! Feel free to contact me…

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