Don't Major in the Minor
(Past is present. With a December 6, 2013 date, this post is a little over four years old. The drones haven’t replaced humans yet, but Amazon is still pushing distribution, with its announcement that Amazon is going to enter UPS’ and FedEx’s space. O’Reilly has continued to change things up since this writing, but is still leading the way. More cultivated subscription models, too.)
“Don’t major in the minor.”
In case you haven’t heard, Bezos unveiled a prototype for package-delivering drones at the end of the interview. Without missing a beat, the character-bashing, Jeff-Bezos hating, Amazon-vilifying tribes descended, with articles and comments from one site to the next.
They majored in the minor.
I’m not saying that the drones weren’t newsworthy. They were—and I saw mentions pop up in everything from Outside Magazine’s site to Waterstones’ blog. And I’m not saying that Amazon isn’t above criticism, but . . .
There was much more to that interview than the last few minutes of drones. And if you are going to go down the drone rabbit hole, there’s a much bigger discussion that needs to take place, outside whether Amazon will or won’t ever be able to use them.
Instead of responding to the bigger ideas, they went for the jugular and the jocular, playing guessing games about why 60 Minutes ran the interview, why the secretive Bezos shared the drones.
Why does knowing why Bezos shared the drones matter? Why is anyone surprised that 60 Minutes would feature Amazon in a story about Cyber Monday? What is the point of all the guessing games?
The drones may have made headlines, but the rest of the interview held the story I clung to these past few days.
1) Complaining is not a strategy
When Charlie Rose asked Bezos about worries of small book publishers and traditional retailers, and whether Amazon is ruthless in its pursuit of market share, Bezos replied:
“The internet is disrupting every media industry, Charlie. You know, people can complain about that, but complaining is not a strategy. Amazon is not happening to bookselling. The future is happening to bookselling.” (about the 9:15 mark of the interview)
He’s right. And the future isn’t just happening to booksellers. Look at how the rise of e-mail played into the decline of the U.S. Postal Service’s revenues. After years of struggling, a plan was sent to Congress for approval, to end Saturday delivery. Congress nixed the plan. A few months later, Amazon stepped in with a different plan—to add Sunday service. Via this partnership, the USPS will deliver Amazon’s packages on the one day of the week that no one else delivers them, thus increasing delivery options for Amazon customers and bringing in revenue to the USPS. A win-win.
The examples of industries sideswiped by the future is long, as is the list of industries that have risen, offering much needed innovation and efficiency.
But . . .
It’s easier to bash Bezos and Amazon than it is to look in the mirror and ask, Why didn’t my publishing house lead the charge to sell books online? Why did we focus on the chains as the future when we saw the indy stores struggling to stay afloat? Why didn’t we recognize the potential for the future?
It’s easier to hate Bezos and Amazon than it is to ask, Why didn’t my bookstore stock backlist, long-tail titles, and books from indy publishers in addition to all those big publisher frontlist titles? Why didn’t my bookstore create a model that could be tapped by indy publishers and authors, instead of requiring top co-op dollars that only the big guys could pay for prime placement?
It’s easier to vilify Bezos and Amazon than it is to ask, Why didn’t I keep spending dollars with indy stores instead of spending them at the big chains, which then caused the indys I love to die?
It’s easier to major in the minor.
Here’s the thing: No one in the publishing equation is innocent.
Bezos didn’t kill publishing. The Future didn’t kill publishing. Publishing’s inability to adapt killed publishing…. Same thing with the USPS, the music industry, and businesses in so many other sectors.
2) It’s all about fulfillment
Neither the chains or the publishers or the indy’s of yesterday thought about fulfillment the way Amazon has, which was one of the most fascinating portions of the interview. And when I talk publishers, I’m talking in terms of movies and newspapers and albums, too.
It’s popular to say content is king. I’d give joint reign to content and fulfillment instead.
Content doesn’t matter if you can’t get it out in today’s I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now on-demand climate. Amazon figured out how to do it. I’ve been in a few warehouses and I’ve never seen anything like what was shown during the interview.
The fulfillment part is another reason why the drones didn’t faze me as much. Do I question them? Yes. I immediately saw the kids in my neighborhood tagging them with Nerf bullets. But that was it. Fulfillment is what Amazon does well. It’s where I expect them to continue as innovators. So the drones? Surprised by the how, but not the why.
3) Greenlighting is changing.
For a long time the traditional publishers were the only game in town – whether the big sixish or the mid-sized or indy. Want to get something published or recorded? You went to them or did it on your own or gave up.
Amazon announced its own publishing program a while back, so it shouldn’t have been such a shock when Netflix left studios in its dust, after adding award-winning original programming to its menu. Where they were both sellers, they’re now producers, too, offering alternatives to traditional publishing outlets.
In Amazon’s case . . .
“We’re changing the greenlighting process,” said Bezos of Alpha House, an original series from Gary Trudeau, which Amazon is producing. “Instead of a few studio executives deciding what gets greenlighted . . . we’re using what some people would call crowdsourcing to help figure that out.” Yep. He went to the customers.
So if I was a publisher and/or a bookseller, how would I compete with Amazon?
I’d bring back the indy.
While Amazon offers so much, it doesn’t offer the touch of a specialized store, with employees that breathe books. There’s no one to chat with, to ask for a specific holiday book suggestion for a father who likes the military, medicine and gardening, or a sister who likes to read arts and crafts guides, and legal briefs.
The indy store reboot wouldn’t be the old school bricks and mortar store. It would exist online, cultivating very specific genres, building equally specific communities. And, it would most likely be a collaboration project—perhaps booksellers or authors or even publishers could develop a shared place online to sell those titles and grow a community. Instead of everyone trying to create their own wheel and grow a community around that wheel, thus competing for the community, they’d build one wheel together. Instead of everyone operating all for one, they’d operate one for all.
The closest example? O’Reilly Media is the only one I can think of . . . O’Reilly has been cultivating a very specific community for years, selling very specific genres of books and growing a specific audience, with an unwavering—yes, specific—focus.
When O’Reilly launched Safari Books Online, in July 2000, it offered its audience a new way to tap into books, but with the indy approach you might get in one of the old mom and pop stores. That was over ten years ago, when Amazon was just losing its baby teeth.
While there are some publishers, such as Praeger, which launched PSI a few years back, that have found ways to fulfill books and other content online, they’ve taken the institutional approach, which most book buyers can’t afford. The individual books aren’t for sale and the pricing is based on universities and other organizations making purchases. There isn’t a genre-specific indy that I can think of, other than O’Reilly, that nailed the genre in terms of options and community building – AND – in terms of price point, offering readers a model they can afford.
And, O’Reilly is collaborating with other publishers, too. It built Safari, but you’ll find books from publishers such as Microsoft and Wiley featured within Safari, too.
O’Reilly is indy in style, majoring in everything BUT the minor.
It’s an amazing model and one that Amazon doesn’t have going for it.
Look to the indy. Look to collaboration/partnerships. Look to other options. Look to the future.
And, stop majoring in the minor.
Amazon and Bezos aren’t above criticism, but they aren’t the problem either. Complaining about them will get the publishing industry nowhere.