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.”
Mellody Hobson said it, but I’ve thought it these last few days, since watching Jeff Bezos on 60 Minutes this past Sunday.
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.
One place the indy model has been happening for quite a while, in internet years anyway, is the role playing game industry. It is a tiny niche of publishing with not much money but it has been innovating in a lot of ways. The best players have been successfully using kickstarted and other crowd funding models.
The most interesting thing going on is http://www.rpgnow.com It is a website where a game designer whose made something on open source desk top publishing software can upload his work and distribute it for free. Wizards of the Coast (the biggest publisher in the business) is selling its backlist titles from 30 years ago. It also offers POD. You can tie it into your facebook pate or twitter feed too. They also have an interesting thing called “pay what you want”. Some small publishers have offered their work for sale at a minimum price but if you want to pay more because you think it’s worth more, you can do that.
Thanks for this comment, Travis. I wasn’t familiar with RPGNow and I’m not well-versed in the game designer world, so I’ll definitely look in that direction in the future. I’d like to see more infrastructure open source sharing. One organization might have the means to create the structure, but another might be the best with fulfillment or content. Rather than both creating the same thing, being able to pool resources, use the best of open source, would be phenomenal.
That’s a great point. There’s an awesome little comic book shop near me called Comic Book Heaven, and they thrive off the RPG and miniatures market. I’m not a tabletop gamer, but almost every time I go there to pick up a graphic novel or special order, I see them with their big campaign maps spread across the tables, players crowded around as they play Warhammer or Battletech.
Also, independent bookstores still have the market cornered on book tours and signings. There are several book shops in Brooklyn that are regular stops for book tours. I went to a book signing by David Mitchell at Brooklyn’s Greenlight book shop in 2010 — the store was packed elbow-to-elbow, and when Mitchell arrived he was cheered like a rock star. I waited 3+ hours on line, and when I finally got to meet Mitchell he was incredibly gracious and even signed my copy of Cloud Atlas as “Timothy Cavendish,” my favorite character. Rock star! Beat that, Amazon!
And not to get too long-winded, but as a newspaper reporter, I see parallels with the book publishing industry. Fail to adapt and you’re done. Fail to adapt too quickly, and you’re a shadow of your former self — I’m looking at you, Gannett and McClatchy. But there are success stories too, as proven by the Wall Street Journal, NYT and non-traditional media that are thriving on the web.
As for Bezos and his drones, there was also an interesting article in slate earlier this year about Amazon’s game plan to offer same-day delivery via innovative delivery methods and a larger network of warehouses near major urban population centers. As hated as Bezos is, you gotta give it to him for trying bold moves to claim a bigger slice of the pie.
Thanks for this, Nik.
A friend just brought up gaming as a way to outline a book as it requires players to think outside the box, to think through options on different levels and so on. I’m fascinated by it all, and these comments about RPG and so on have me wanting to dig in more.
The indy bookstores in major cities do well with authors, but I’ve seen them shut the doors to others, which pushes them to alternative venues. The press for the film ANCHORMAN has been an exercise in finding alternatives to the traditional PR locations. Good lessons for those in books, music, etc.
Totally agree r.e. parallels to newspapers. Interesting to see the syndicates AP and Reuters pushing forward, with long-time print journalists joining their ranks. These two in particular never relied on printing themselves and were already a model that worked well as changes arrived.
Agree on Bezos, too. Whether you hate or like him, he does deserve credit for creating new, more efficient options.
The other thing the role-playing game industry has done for years is offer PDFs along with their physical books. It’s common to get a *free* PDF of the book you just ordered within minutes of the order. Often, game publishers will send out the PDF after you’ve pre-ordered the book, while the physical book is still going to press.
Aside from a few small publishers like Baen Books, no one else is doing anything like this. Amazon just opened up their “pay a few bucks more, get the PDF too” program but so long as publishers price those add-ons at 3 bucks or more, it’s going to fail.
Thank you for sharing this example.
Do the publishers you’ve seen do this sell the e-books, too? Or just the print, with the PDF bundled for free with it?
For me, the big negative here is FEAR of drones littering the sky and ruining what’s left of nature. I’m happy the Amazon is thinking creatively however this sounds more like a horror film than a convenience.
I agree. Introducing drones opens up a Pandora’s box of issues. This one caught my eye: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/02/what_to_make_of_amazons_drone_plan/
However, for those in the publishing world, much of what I read revolved around making fun of Bezos, personal attacks, and so on. If you’re going to talk about drones, go deep. If you’re going to talk about Bezos and Amazon, come up with a strategy to work with or compete with them.
Thanks again, Nancy.
What an insightful way to take the “don’t major in the minor” to a deeper understanding. If you ARE focused on a small aspect of the bigger topic the focus on what is major about that aspect. Just leave the superficial non – solution based thinking out of it!
I can imagine drones dropping 2kg dirty bombs…
Outstanding analysis, Callie.
Very insightful and practical, complete with links for further review and understanding.
Thanks for taking the time to walk us through this. It’ll be percolating in my head for some time.
If you have any ideas post-percolating… Please share! 😉
I love the phrase “major in the minor” – conjures up so many metaphors, musical, philosophical and emotional.
In periods of large social change – almost always accompanied by large technological innovation – the upheaval leaves the middle particularly bewildered. I remember when the garment industry shifted overseas, for example. (I have a relative who’s been in the business since WWII, still surviving, somehow.) Workers were displaced, but with job retraining and a social support system to get them through the rough times (!) (Food Stamps, etc.), they shifted into new employment. The well-to-do rode it out, with enough wealth not to be severely impacted. But professionals, independent and small businesses – these were (and are) impacted greatly.
What the internet has done has shift that impact upward, to ever larger companies and industries. But the phenomenon is the same: complacency leads to complaint.
The greatest competitors do not shy away from the “why” questions – they embrace them. After losing a game, especially after getting crushed, a great chess player, or a great coach, will take a deep breath, regain equilibrium and then very objectively and very analytically examine why. And from the ‘why’ answer comes the corrections.
Another example: The Beatles remain vibrant and relevant because they always innovated. They challenged themselves and despite their success, never became comfortable.
Interestingly, we tend to ‘major in the minor’ every day, in how we organize our time, where we put our energy and focus, etc. This may also explain the fascination with the drones – it’s an external expression of our fear. It’s easier to project our fear of inadequacy outward, onto something that “prevents” or “threatens” us than it is to face our weaknesses – or our strengths.
Thanks, as always. (And now that I’ve finished revisions on my novel, Assault in Forgotten Alley, I’ll be catching up on about two weeks worth of blogposts here.)
I always look forward to reading your comments, David. The garment industry is a great example of where we’ve seen this in the past. Industry in particular. The mills of the north moved to the south, then abroad in one example. The regions had to adapt. Many didn’t. That shift in job availability and relocation of manufacturing, as well as the innovations that eliminate the need for some jobs, while giving rise to others, isn’t new. It’s an old story, played on a loop by History. Past is prologue.
I had watched the 60 minutes piece and my jaw was hanging down in amazement of the magic of Jeff’s mind. Not so much the whole drone thing, but his approach to business. His out of the box thinking mixed the simple commonsense thinking that Amazon will eventually be replaced by the next great mousetrap. The not beating of his chest over how cutting edge Amazon is, but the acknowledgement that everything changes.
The next day when I watched the news and heard everyone criticizing the man that is the arena, I just had to laugh at them just as I knew Bezos was.
To everyone who is dwelling on why the delivery idea will not work, you missed the point. It wasn’t about the drones.
Thanks for this, Jim.
I should have included that in the article. I’ve never heard another business leader say that he knows his business model won’t be around/on top forever, that something else will come along. Just being aware of that possibility, and thus not becoming comfortable in your current spot is huge. So many businesses became comfortable. They didn’t consider that there’d ever be another option.
I happen to love Amazon. If you’re a history buff like me, the you’ll probably agree being able to find out-of-print books from writers you love at affordable prices is outstanding. Not so before their network of used sellers came about.
As for the mention of drones causes a War-of-the-Worlds panic, I think people need to stop and consider the logistical implementation of such a system would be. I mean really. We can’t have daily drone crashes because every business buys one and flies it out to their customer doorstep. There are going to need to be guidelines and workable models put into place before something like that can “go live.”
Please parden typos. Writing on my smartphone.
I am a history buff, which is why I like Google Books, another target of publishing world complaints, too. It allows me to find books that contain information of interest and then I make my book-buying choices from there. I’ve bought dozens of books because I had the option to scan through some online, just as I might have in a bookstore – except being able to search for certain terms online is more efficient than trying to eye-ball scan in a store. Same practice, different levels of efficiency, and different levels of acceptance…
Agree r.e. War-of-the-Worlds panic, too. It’s not going to happen unless all the kinks are worked out. Until then, there are other things to discuss/innovate/create.
Callie, I love your article. I will keep on the lookout for more of your work in future. Best!
I agree: Focus on the bigger discussion.
There is a TED Talk by Andreas Raptopoulos: No roads? There’s a drone for that – Andreas Raptopoulos (2013) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yEl0-bCA9M which came out just before the Amazon drones hit the radar… when I lived in London, and was out running every other evening we’d be used for target practice by kids, bottles, rocks etc… we were moving targets.
“Yes. I immediately saw the kids in my neighbourhood tagging them with Nerf bullets.” That was my first thought on the drone delivery news.
Hope you don’t mind my sharing a little about my local bookshop – Whyte Books in Schull, West Cork, Ireland only open a year and a half and already short listed, 1 of 4, for the best bookshop in Ireland, the overall winner had been open 15+ years and the others equally as long, Whyte Books – Best Bookshop in Munster – the largest county in Ireland!
This is an indy that is getting it right in it’s infancy, and is tapping the ‘fulfilment’ boxes left right and centre. So if you’re in the neighbourhood call in or else have a look at vignettes: http://www.youtube.com/user/WhyteBooks/videos
Onwards and upwards! (excuse the pun)
WOW! Jason, thank you for your comment and for sharing the TED link. Fascinating. Truly fascinating.
I’m partial to the “meet the horses” clip from Whyte Books – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcSHcZWCmrk. Thanks for sharing it.
Wonderful article on major in the minors…I didn’t watch the whole 60 minute interview but caught the view about large servers, distribution centers, and drones. When I saw the clip about drones I did think of the joys of having pizza delivered this way to my front lawn, and thought that would be cool. I also think that we don’t need to use drones, when we can train birds to work with us. There is an interesting video on using other species in a more cooperative way to help us (please go to TED and search for crows to see the video on what I am talking about with birds).
What scared me for many reasons was that Amazon sells its storage computer capacities to federal government and other large private companies. It was hard to wrap my mind around my personal data being routed to federal agencies via Amazon computers. It will be interesting to see the changes in federal laws and privacy issues relating to these cross-fertilized relationships between private companies and government entities. I don’t know if having Amazon deliver USPS mail is a complete win-win situation. I use Amazon but don’t really trust them in the same way I trust Google or Apple, for example. Jeff Bezos scares me and I am not sure why.
Was there a discussion about what Bezos intends to do with the Washington Post? Was this ever mentioned in the interview?
Thank you for your comment. I’ll check out the link you shared. I have a friend who grew up on a farm and has schooled me in the communication and other practices of crows. Fascinating stuff. Intelligence abounds.
When I heard about the CIA and Amazon working together earlier this year – http://www.informationweek.com/cloud/infrastructure-as-a-service/amazon-again-beats-ibm-for-cia-cloud-contract/d/d-id/1112211? – I had the same reaction you had, but . . . Amazon isn’t the only one doing it. Doesn’t make it ok. But, it does mean as citizens, we have to stay on top of lawmakers to protect out privacy and not be lax ourselves in understanding privacy rules/regulations – even if it just concerns our privacy settings for Facebook. It’s like driving a car. If you don’t know how to drive. Don’t go on the road. If you don’t know how the information you are sharing is being used, don’t share it – OR investigate.
On Amazon the USPS. . . I’ve spent more time with the USPS and researching shipping options than I have with many of my family members. The USPS is in a bad place, hands tied by red tape. They’ve got to innovate. I’m in favor of them contracting out services, such as on Sunday. They could really get creative. That’s another post, though…
On the Washington Post, go to the following link:
http://www.cbsnews.com/news/amazons-jeff-bezos-looks-to-the-future/ To the side, there are clips that didn’t make the televised interview, including Bezos mentioning Don Graham courting him, rather than Bezos approaching the Post first. It’s a short clip, but interesting.
Thanks again, Brian. You’ve got my head going again as I’ve typed this.
Enjoyed the article, however you might want to correct the word “phase” to “faze.”
here is the link to the video I just mentioned, http://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_klein_on_the_intelligence_of_crows.html
A favourite in my world, and revisited it recently for a blog post. Great see another reference / context to it. Thanks
This was a terrific piece Callie! I saw the 60 minutes interview too and have been amused by the outcry over the drones. It may be fashionable to vilify Amazon and Bezos – I’ve been guilty of it myself in the past – but now I’m an Amazon loyalist, and the fulfillment piece is a big part of the attraction for me. Bezos is simply giving the people what they want, and when you get that glimpse of the warehouse, you can’t argue that a whole lot of people want what Amazon has to offer. The idea that online communities could bring back the spirit of the independent bookstore is an interesting one. Bearing witness to the death of the brick-and-mortar bookstore in my lifetime has been painful, but I contributed to it by being an early purchaser of used books on Amazon. First the chains ate up the indies and then most of the chains themselves went down like dinosaurs. When my now 32-year-old son was in college, he worked at Border’s flagship store in Ann Arbor for several years. I remember him telling me that most people came in to hang out in the café and listen to music i.e. for the community piece of the bookstore experience but not to buy books and that it was “just a matter of time” before Borders died. There are two Barnes & Noble stores within ten miles of my home in Phoenix, but I’d rather sit in my pajamas and browse Amazon online.
While I hated seeing the indy shops go – and was never a fan of the chains – the chains did serve a purpose, in showing the options.
The stores became community centers, which is fine. We need those. But, with libraries struggling, too, why not take the cafe/bistro model to the libraries for people who want the bricks and mortar feel of scanning through shelves, and then add a store to that?
Often, when I hear someone complain about missing stores to browse through, I wonder why they don’t just go to the library. If all you’re doing is going for the scanning/browsing… But if you could throw a coffee shop and a store on top of that for those that want to buy… It would be a library where people can rent books, but could also buy, or just hang out.
I wrote about this a bit ago here: http://www.stevenpressfield.com/2012/02/the-blockbuster-superlibrary-2-0/
All goes back to collaborating, rethinking how different businesses/organizations/people can work together.
Thanks again, Mary!
You’re absolutely right about the public library. I patronize my library branch regularly and, despite the cut back in hours during the recession, the staff does an amazing job with limited resources. Several years ago I visited my old public library in Glendale, which is next door to Phoenix, and was surprised to find a coffee shop and small store there.
This is exactly what the downtown branch of the library (Allen County Public Library) in my hometown did. They remodeled several branches, and the downtown one is HUGE, complete with a Dunkin’ Donuts coffeeshop, where you can not only get a coffee, you can browse the extra stock the library has on sale. When I was back in my hometown for a year, that branch was a real oasis.
Thanks for sharing this, Stacy.
Is this the right link to it? http://www.acpl.lib.in.us/ Interested in learning more.
Yep, that’s it, Callie! They also offer ebooks and e-audiobooks, and the checkout works the same as if you’re checking out a print copy–no one else can check out the book while you have it. And because you can take your coffee into the actual library and find a cozy spot, it’s a lot like browsing in a bookstore. Plus, they make it super-easy for patrons in getting and returning print books, DVDs, etc. Pick up/return to any location, regardless of where the item is stored.
I think they’re a pretty good example of how libraries can stay robust if they’re willing to keep up with the times and make their branches welcoming.
I like good bricks and mortar indie bookstores, though. And bricks and mortar libraries. Our lives don’t have to be 100% online, do they?
We must also, as a society, begin grappling with the question, what will we do when humans have been replaced by machines, such as drones? I think that some of the negative reaction isn’t simply people being Luddites. There are legitimate humanistic concerns. (I’m a fan of Wendell Barry.)
As for drones not being the real story, I think the word “drone” causes a deep, visceral reaction in many, so it is no wonder there was a reaction.
The garment manufacturing discussion….many regions had to adapt and didn’t…..the support system of Food Stamps, etc? ????????Look at the tragedy of Detroit and some of our other cities, abandoned and filled with poverty and hopelessness. These shifts in technology, as well as other factors, have caused tremendous dislocation, unemployment and suffering. These regions and people should not be dismissed simply because they failed to adapt. It is more complicated than that. (And I like Bezos, am no fan of traditional publishing….but I am wary of tremendous power and wealth amassed by one person or company that then affects so many lives.)
You’re right. Thank you for everything in your comment.
Our lives don’t have to be entirely online. But the bookstores and the libraries of yesterday have to find a different model to exist today – and that will link to the online world.
On drones. I agree that there are great concerns with the use of drones – as well as great innovative possibilities, too. I took issue with those that made fun of Bezos instead of tackling the real issues related to the pros/cons of using drones. As I wrote in a comment above, if you’re going to talk about drones, go deep and really talk about it. Don’t use it as a way to pile onto a company/person you dislike.
On the garment industry discussion/Detroit. Yes. It is a complicated discussion. None of those people should be left behind. You’re right. But this has happened over and over throughout history – and it doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t know what the answers are – what could have been implemented proactively in places such as Detroit as one example – but I do know that enough people in office saw it on the horizon. This isn’t my area of expertise, but I’ve always assumed it was one for elected officials. This was on their plate well in advance.
On Amazon, yes… I’m wary of one company having such a big slice, too, but… The complaining won’t change that. Takes action.
Thanks again for this, Valorie. All good points. All got me thinking, rethinking, and wondering about the answers. There are so many I wish I had myself.
Thank you for a great article!
This reactive mode of thinking is typical for most companies/industries, even here in the highly competitive Silicon Valley tech world. People react to game changers (e.g. Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Google) by either complaining about issues with their new ideas or by following their methods, but are unable to come up with their own innovations. Some who are quick to adapt latest trends will remain successful, but many will become obsolete like Gateway, Kodak, and Motorola.
What you describe with USPS is a perfect example. USPS had the standard reaction to financial troubles – downsize operations and likely layoffs. Amazon responded with innovation, instead of focusing on the negatives Bezos saw opportunity.
This is the trouble with many companies – they respond to shifting shareholder expectations/ markets with short-term strategies that may result in brief financial gains, but cause havoc later (cutting costs, buying competitors, etc). What these companies lack and what Amazon and Netflix have is vision (i.e. long-term strategy). This is why most mergers and acquisitions fail. We’ll have to see how Penguin Random House fares.
I love Amazon disrupting the stagnated publishing field with its gatekeepers. I’m curious whether you think that will result in lowering overall publishing quality or in promoting better and varied writing? Will great literary voices disappear if they cannot appeal to the masses?
Thank you for your comments.
Your questions reminded me of a Q&A Tim O’Reilly did with WIRED magazine (http://www.wired.com/business/2012/12/mf-tim-oreilly-qa/all/):
He got a lot of crap for saying what he did about not “giving a shit.” His comment was given context via a post by Porter Anderson (Tim O’Reilly’s Context for the Comment):
That’s my answer to your question. We’re going to see new and better, and we’re going to see old styles go away.
For authors, they’re going to have to connect with their readers. It takes a lot of work, but… The beauty is that they do have the ability to get their work into the hands of others unlike any other time in history.
And, talking history… This isn’t a new model. The Star Spangled Banner was self-published and shared via word of mouth before it became the U.S. national anthem. Tom Paine and others were self-publishing and sharing their works by hand hundreds of years ago. The difference today is that that pamphlet can reach far beyond the hand Paine may have placed it in years ago. Self publishing isn’t new. Word of mouth sharing isn’t new. The wavering popularity of different genres isn’t new. It’s how far and how immediate we can share them that’s new. A good thing, no matter where we go next.
Callie, thanks so much for this additional insight!
I haven’t come across this interview with O’Reilly and he certainly makes some interesting points. I do hope that he is wrong about novels going away or that we create new forms for inspiring others and fostering abstract thinking or return to old forms such as epic poems. I would hate for the simply informative (e.g. how-to) books to take over everything. Instructive literature would turn us into robots, good at fixing specific problems but with neither feelings nor ability to think outside the box.
I like your point about word of mouth and The Star Spangled Banner. I haven’t thought about self-publishing in those terms, but that is absolutely true! If something is great it will find a way to reach millions no matter how it is published or shared. I suppose even The Iliad and The Odyssey are self-published works (or post-mortem self-published)…
And, the libraries and the bookstores ARE finding a different model, I think at this stage they don’t need to be called out or reminded for not doing so. They’ve been working very hard at it, and often for very little money. Sadly, some may not survive, but if they don’t it may not necessarily be their fault or for lack of trying to be innovative.
Complaining about Amazon…..some people are expressing opinions and speaking up, they are not complaining. So that is, in my view, taking action, not complaining. “We can have anything we want on this earth any time we want……” …at the cost of having drones invading our space, nature…..lively and much needed debate about Amazon’s vision and business practices is not complaining…..
My feeling about the 60 minutes piece is….let’s not major in the minor….publishing wasn’t the big story in that piece. Most of the viewers could probably care less about that, and may in fact be quite alarmed by the piece….I think Charlie Rose saw that which is why he asked the questions he did.
B&N is dying. There are other stores that are trying. Libraries are struggling. Discussion is a great way to bring differently-minded people together to find other options. If we don’t discuss it, then it gets ignored. I can understand libraries and booksellers being tired of hearing/reading about this topic, but it isn’t out of hate that it’s being discussed – but out of concern and hope to see innovations occur.
Opinions . . . THE MILLIONS published a great piece not long ago, titled “Particular Ways of Being Wrong.” http://www.themillions.com/2013/11/particular-ways-of-being-wrong.html There’s a lot to the article, but one piece is about reviewers who review a work by trashing the author. So it isn’t really a review of the work in the end. It’s more a gossip column. That article came to mind as I read other articles about Bezos/Amazon. Review the work. Making fun of the creator’s laugh, as one example, isn’t an opinion. It’s bullying.
On the interview . . . Much of my world revolves around publishing and sharing books and films and other types of work. That’s the lens through which I viewed the interview. Your comments have made me realize that it isn’t how others have seen it. But for those in publishing… They did go minor.
I think it’s a mix. Amazon has been innovative for customers, but it doesn’t seem to play well with others in the business sphere. I was personally turned off by the taking scripts to customers thing–it strikes me as a dumb idea that will eventually backfire. And their contracts for writers aren’t great–not the least of which because you can’t negotiate.
But Amazon has been around quite a while, and I think publishers and bookstores and libraries have had plenty of time to adapt and try new things. Instead, I still see a lot of handwringing about how horrible Amazon is. I think it has as much power as we give it. That may sound Pollyannish, but ultimately, that’s the bottom line, I think.
Sorry for the grammar errors!
It’s definietly a mix, but to compete, it’s going to require a narrow focus.
I just read about Rolling Stone’s plans to publish a country edition – http://adage.com/article/media/rolling-stone-planning-website-cover-country-music/245551/ – which got me back to the indy approach.
There are tons of magazines and sites covering all genres of music – as there were with bookstores featuring books. But by specializing in a specific topic… Less competition. Same could be said of newspapers. Once they went online, there was so much duplication. Everyone covered the same world news, popular culture events, and so on. The local approach is the one that doesn’t offer as many choices for readers. Why not go that route across the board?
Your spot on with “I think it has as much power as we give it.” Publishers don’t have to provide their goods to Amazon for sale. But… They do. They feed it.
Callie, love this analysis. I think the indie bookstores can thrive if they make their bookstore an experience. Loyalty programs, live events, coffee shops, and great customer service can set you apart from the rest.
I also think selling used books is a very smart move as well–there is a store here in Nashville which is THRIVING by allowing customers to trade in books for store credit.
I love used bookstores.
I love history, too, and there’s one store – Edward McKay – near Ft. Bragg, that is often a great place to find out of print history books. The large active and retired military community, which is a great reader of history, seems to feed the history section for the store. It’s like digging for buried treasure.
I took the announcement about the drones in a completely different way. I believe Jeff Bezos was playing with us. He was throwing us onlookers a bone while his company is busy developing other ideas and ways to innovate. He wanted the media to catch this outlier and run with it. Very clever, really. Of course, drones could be in our future as a means of delivery, but that is not why he let 60 minutes air the video. Bezos was sending us a far deeper message, that nothing we take for granted today in the way of reading, publishing, product promotion and delivery, will be the same in the future. Those of us who dig in our heels will be left in the dust.
Thank you for sharing your takeaway.
No questions about this:
“Those of us who dig in our heels will be left in the dust.”
I loved the Jeff Bezos quote that “Complaining is not a strategy” Having been in publishing a long time, I can say that’s been the only strategy I’ve seen from the Big 6 and even from many Indie bookstores in the past 3 years. Now I’m self publishing all my books, I’m loving the experience and the dollars! But I see all this money sitting on the table — Indie authors wanting to get into print, into bookstores, but very, very few publishers are willing to try new deals like print only. And Indie bookstores sometimes turn up their nose at genre fiction that sells really, really well. Myself and other Indie Authors are selling millions and millions of ebooks but most Industry mags still try to pretend this part of the industry doesn’t exist. I applaud the pubs/agents/bookstores who are starting to think outside of the box and are willing to transition to a new era of book selling. Because it is a new world and you can’t turn back the clock just by complaining louder! Great blog post on the subject! Thanks!
Thanks for your comments, Barbara.
Agree with all. It’s amazing to see the changes taking place.
What’s crazy is that if we could turn back the clock on Amazon, we’d see that where we’re at now isn’t really a new world.
I first heard a publisher critique Amazon’s pricing 16 years ago. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. That Charlie Rose brought up Amazon’s pricing in his interview with Bezos, and that others continue to bring it up, is a sign that they haven’t been paying attention. This isn’t new. It’s almost two decades old. To be making the same critique so many years later… Amazon made that move a long time ago.
I keep thinking of those monks in the scriptorium and what they thought about that newfangled Gutenberg press…”that’ll never catch on Brother Thomas!” As long as there has been recorded history, there has been innovation. It’s as human as breathing and we are the better for it. Lest we forget, innovation brought us antibiotics as well as unmanned spy planes and snooper technology. Would we really want to give up the one, to prevent the other?
You’re right, Tesia.
A good thing those monks didn’t give up on Gutenberg!
Always a mixed bag.
Great work, Callie!
Hi Callie– I’m an Amazon enthusiast– I started buying books from them almost the day they started, I have friends who work for them, and I am a great admirer of their innovations. I’d work for them myself if I were looking for work and they’d have me. Many people don’t realize that Amazon practically invented cloud computing which has changed the face of computing and society in more ways than anyone knows.
Yet my unbridled tendency to look to the future consequences of current acts says that Amazon has sown the seeds of its own destruction.
How soon they will sprout, I don’t know, but on the horizon I see the demise of Amazon as a vast central commercial clearing house and stripped down publisher of independent authors.
Amazon is becoming less relevant every day. As computing developes, Amazon is becoming unnecessary. The logical conclusion of the process that Amazon started is that commerce will become a vast network with no central hub. A central general store website that sells everything is becoming unnecessary. Customers will buy directly from Black Irish instead of going to Amazon first. Customers will buy everything from the direct supplier. Amazon may morph into a vast index that connects buyers and sellers, but their role as as seller will decline and I don’t really see that they have the oinks to make the transition. Google might, but I’m expecting something decentralized and grassroots.
Black Irish-like entities will continue to exist as long as they bring together suppliers of different services to produce a product (e.g. writers, editors, designers, marketers, etc.) but they won’t need Amazon to sell.
Call me crazy– I believe I am, but the magic of the 21st century will be bringing talents together, not the world’s largest anything.
I agree with this article. I’m in a rush, so I just post an excerpt of a comment on Douglas Preston’s speech (Writer’s Guild) about the need of writers teaming up to protect their copyrights. The real task at hand is the creation of an alternative to Amazon:
…The second thing that struck me was a wrong conclusion: Copyright can save the author. Copyright is old school. Don’t get me wrong, the law has its place. It is the last line of defense, not more, and it shouldn’t be the first line of defense.
Let me give you another example. These years, all mobile telecommunication service providers are in a dilemma. They used to enjoy exclusivity from purchasing frequencies and licenses from governments. These were licenses to print money. Until ‘Over the Top’ developers appeared. Nowadays, developers like Skype, WhatsApp, Google, and Facebook offer free content and communication – call and messaging. Operators are reduced to bit pipes. I was in the telecommunication service business and I watched a multi-billion dollar market disappearing in just five years! Consider yourself lucky that people still buy books ;-).
Business is evolving inevitably and the law can’t do anything about it. Neither should it. Authors need to adapt to evolution. “The slowest runner will be bitten by the dogs,” said Gorbachev, the last president of the USSR.
Mobile telcos and authors need to rethink their businesses. Mobile telcos do, authors not. Why? Not because authors aren’t organized because authors don’t think like businessmen. That’s their nemesis 😉 Author organizations like the Author Guild should not take money to the court, but invest it in the creation of new business opportunities.
Authors and publishers have hidden behind the copyright law as telcos relied on their licenses. It was a cozy couch they slumbered on. Copyright can be even detrimental to success. Paolo Coelho has proven that piracy – the violation of copyright – can be a catalyst for revenue.
These days, business is user-driven and who owns the users owns business. That’s what companies like Amazon and Google understand. Instagram was sold for Billions of dollars – a business that did not produce any profit. How was that possible? Facebook did not buy the Instagram app, it could have developed it in a couple of months. Facebook bought Instagram’s users! This is the fundamental idea of tribal marketing that seems to be partially successful, allowing writers to sell directly to their readers. Again: Google and the like collect and keep customers by giving value for free. How do they make profits? Selling premium value. Douglas is probably right, Amazon abuses book discounting for maintaining customer ownership. The inevitable conclusion: authors need to own their readers and an organization like the Author Guild should help with that.
Authors need to fundamentally rethink their business and take matters into their own hands, business matter that is, not legal matter.
The key idea: reader ownership.
A possible vision of the solution: An alternative publishing platform collectively supported by authors. Such a platform would allow authors to create their reader ‘tribes’ and promote their work. Such a platform need to offer traditional publishing services, like editing, marketing, etc. – the authors’ nemesis, remember? And maybe financial support as well. A self-governed, democratic publishing platform with professionals support? It appears that such a platform – if done well – could turn the table, e.g. even (ab)use Google Books as a marketing platform.
The technical barrier for building such a platform is low. One just needs to create a website and an author app the like of Blinklist. The challenge is reader acceptance.
Only such a platform could break Amazon’s monopoly. What about a liaison with Apple and/or Barnes and Noble?
Quite a few attempts at creating such a platform have been made. So far, all failed, at least as far as I can tell. Why? Various reasons. What reasons? Now, we are asking the right question. Who can answer this question? Guys like Noah Kagan or Seth Godin. I suggest investing money in hiring such a guy or two. He may even do it for free. Why? Time to remember our greatest asset: the reader’s love.
Barnes taught Bezos at the River Oaks Elementary School in Houston, Texas. Barnes’ daughter, Jenise Raven, worked for weeks to get Bezos’ attention ahead of her mother’s 80th birthday, according to a report from local Houston news station KHOU 11. Raven was hoping Bezos might send a card. Instead, Bezos said happy birthday via the video embedded above.