In the past week, we have seen the Louis C.K. rant against smart phones, the Jonathan Franzen deep intellectual swipe at what Amazon is doing to the world of publishing, and I had an exchange with a very dear old friend who does email (his wife doesn’t), but can’t handle texting or Facebook. Or thinks he can’t.
I remember about four years ago telling a family member of mine that it had gotten to the point that not having a cell phone was anti-social. I am quite sure that people who don’t have cell phones or Facebook accounts miss out on communication they’d have been glad to get. And by being outside communication streams that are increasingly ubiquitous, they actually place an unintended burden on people around them to keep them informed.
Futurist David Houle has pointed out that eighty years ago some people would refuse to get a telephone because a) people could just call you on it and intrude into your private space and b) people would know where you lived by looking you up in the phone book. These things were true (although eventually we got to “unlisted numbers”), but so were a lot of other things that were benefits. I was thinking about my friend who won’t do texting or Facebook. Hey, they’re just means of communication! Do you want me to mail you a letter to find out if you want to have dinner next Saturday night?
When the first means of electronic communication arrived, telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse had the prescience to make the first message he sent be “what hath God wrought?” Indeed, progress in electronic communication changes the world in ways that prior generations would have expected were possible only from God.
Yes, we have entered a world where all of us are connected to the entire planet all the time, except at the moments we specifically choose not to be (leaving the cell phone in a drawer or turning off all audible signals from it). This is as good a thing for each of us as we make it. But we are also increasingly depending on everybody else to be connected this way too.
Many of us announce our most important life events (and some insignificant ones too) on Facebook. That keeps our friends and family apprised of marriages, illnesses, births, and political opinions without us having to send out cards and make sure we have all the up-to-date addresses. Many of us (me not yet among them…) can use Twitter effectively to get the most up-to-date information about a breaking news event. (No self-respecting journalist could be without this capability today, I suspect. Certainly any journalist who knows how to use Twitter has an advantage over any who doesn’t.)
About 15 years ago the CEO of a major publishing house, a person with a reputation for digital forward-thinking, told me he was questioning whether everybody in his shop ought to have email! (After all, people with email are tempted to have communication that isn’t necessarily about their job. He was okay with internal electronic communication on a closed system.) It seems like every technological change faces skepticism because every technological change brings along a set of possibilities for behavior that needs to be controlled.
But, this being a blog about publishing, I’m most interested in rebutting Franzen’s suggestion that Amazon is somehow bad for reading, or bad for reading good books. (I agree with him that Amazon makes things harder for publishers, but that’s not the same thing.)
First of all, let’s not blame Amazon for two things: being really good at what they do and the natural impact of network effects. The “network effect” is that the more people are on a network, the more valuable it is to each person on it. In the first two decades or so of the 20th century, phone companies could only reach their own subscribers. A person who wanted to reach all their friends in an area might have to have several phones with different companies. Most wouldn’t, so even with a phone, communication was minimized. Gradually, the “roads got paved” and the phone systems were knit together.
You know one of the things that resulted from that? Reform politicians who were outside the central city finally became competitive with the urban machines, who could communicate easily without phones because they were in close geographical proximity in the center of town. (Thanks for this fact to my late friend, Professor Richard C. Wade, who invented the field of urban history.) It is also true that over time many kids wasted countless hours talking to each other on the phone. I know because I was one of them in the 1950s and 1960s during my adolescence when all my friends were available through them. I would have been outside getting fresh air 40 or 50 years earlier. Oh, those terrible telephones!
Amazon and Facebook and Twitter have more value than any possible competitors because they have more people actively engaged with them every single day. B&N can’t compete with Amazon around reader reviews because it has far fewer of them. Amazon tells you that X people out of Y found this review helpful. You need numbers to do that. Only one person in many writes a review. Only one person in many reads any posted review. And only one person in many bothers to post that they found a review helpful. That’s one in many cubed. The denominator is one enormous number. Amazon’s book customer traffic is probably 10 times or more what BN.com’s is. So it is possible for Amazon, and for nobody else, to tell you that X out of Y found this review helpful with meaningful numbers. (Even if Jonathan Franzen and others aren’t impressed with the provenance of the reviews. And even if some of the reviews have been deliberately gamed.)
Meanwhile, New York Times book reviews are available to far more people than they were before Amazon came into being and through the same computers that bring in Amazon. And when Jonathan Franzen writes his piece for The Guardian, far more people (including me and anybody who clicks the link I provided above) will read it than would have when there was only print. And anybody interested in the new book of his that he is promoting can just click a bit more, probably to Amazon, and buy it.
This is bad?
It is true that Amazon is the pointed spear of change in the world of communication (although they are not alone). From the moment they made a massive database of books available online, they challenged the core proposition of bookstores and the biggest ones with the biggest selections were the most challenged. It isn’t really Amazon’s fault that buying books online is so attractive to so many people, it is the nature of the beasts: the book choice beast and the Internet database beast.
But Amazon takes advantage of this opportunity better than anybody else. This is where their superior execution comes in. I am very close to somebody who vastly prefers to buy her books from Barnes & Noble for reasons that would probably appeal to Jonathan Franzen. But, over many years, she has found that their search engine just doesn’t work effectively. So she finds what she wants at Amazon and then goes over to BN.com to purchase it! Most people won’t do that; they’ll just buy where it is easiest to shop. Is it Amazon’s fault that they’re cleaning BN’s online clock through a better service?
I spoke this past week with the communications director at a think tank who has their publishing arm reporting to him. He’s new to the world of books. He reports that his team keeps portraying Amazon as the enemy; from his perspective, they are “the answer”. Yes, he’s worried about whether their increasing hegemony over the book-buying public could ultimately result in some nasty cuts to his margins. In fact, probably they will. Amazon is likely the most profitable account for almost every publisher because their sales are massive and their returns are minimal. Some publishers report that even their demands for co-op spending are less onerous than Barnes & Noble’s. Of course, they will probably push the envelope over time and claw back more of that margin from publishers. Most retailers would.
In fact, Amazon can sometimes use network effects and its capability to execute (all of which could be summed up as “scale”) to improve its margins by creating new business that nobody else can. They may have done that with their new Matchbook program, which offers a print-and-ebook bundle. Perhaps Barnes & Noble could have done this (and perhaps at some point they will), but only publishers with a very large direct-to-consumer business could execute this themselves.
Amazon is probably smart enough not to want a world in which, as Franzen fears, they publish everything that isn’t self-published by an author. They know they benefit from the investments publishers make and they’re probably even detached enough to know they benefit from books being in the marketplace because they’re supported by sales Amazon doesn’t have the breadth to make. And let’s remember that book sales are probably down to a low double-digit percentage of Amazon’s business. They have bigger fish to fry than building their market share or their margin at the expense of publishers.
Here’s another historical perspective to ponder which I believe is analogous. In the first half of the 19th century, many of the bestselling writers in the US were poets. One big reason why was a low level of literacy. Books were read aloud by the person who could read to the others who couldn’t. That was an environment that favored poetry over prose.
But then came the crusade for universal public education and improvements in transportation that boosted it along. By the latter part of the 19th century, poets had yielded to novelists and, in fact, poetry has declined in commercial popularity pretty much ever since.
So we can say that universal public education was a dagger to the heart of poetry’s commercial advantage. In some people’s minds, that might be a good reason to reconsider it. The arguments against the natural effects of digital communication, selectively finding perhaps-true negatives and dwelling on them, strike me the same way.
We have two great shows running this coming Thursday, September 26, being staged by Michael Cader’s and my Publishers Launch Conference in conjunction with the team at Digital Book World. The Marketing Conference is a collaborative effort with Peter McCarthy, who is rapidly gaining recognition as the industry’s leading thinker about books and digital marketing. The Services Expo is three mini-conferences that will help publishers find the service providers they need to help with tech on editorial/production, digital asset distribution, and rights and royalties. The Services show is priced low so that you can attend just one of the three mini-conferences if you want and still get a very fair deal. I’m co-moderating the Marketing Conference with Pete and I can assure you that it will be amazing. If you have any time left on your calendar on Thursday and you’re near NYC, you’ll be glad if you spend some of it with us.