The Gigantic Website That Ate Up the World

By James Hayman

Decades ago, one of my favorite Bill Cosby skits was called The Gigantic Chicken-Heart That Ate Up The World. Or maybe it wasn’t the world. Maybe it was just The Gigantic Chicken-Heart That Ate Up the New Jersey Turnpike. From a distance of thirty years I can’t quite remember exactly which it ate up but in either case it was something big and indigestible.

These days Amazon is beginning to feel a little too much like that gigantic chicken-heart to me.

As we all know, Amazon created the modern on-line retail model. In the process, it almost single-handedly changed the way readers buy books (online) and the way readers read books (on Kindles).  I dare say we’d be hard-pressed to find any reader today who hasn’t at some time or other purchased books from Amazon. And that includes even staunch supporters of local independent booksellers like me.

I’ve always thought the power and appeal of Amazon lay in its role as a ubiquitous product delivery system. A way for readers to find and buy virtually any book by any author anywhere in the world pretty much instantly and usually at a discounted price.

Now, however, it seems the Gigantic Amazon Chicken-Heart has just started devouring another  large mouthful of the book world.  According to a fascinating article written by David Streitfeld in last Sunday’s New York Times, today’s Amazon is not just competing with bookstores, it’s also started competing with traditional publishers, agents, publicists and reviewers.

In 2011, the company is publishing 122 books in both traditional and electronic formats. It’s also paying some pretty hefty advances for books by name authors.  Streitfeld’s article mentions an $800,000 advance paid to actress and director Penny Marshall for an upcoming memoir.

Streitfeld quotes an agent and e-book publisher named Richard Curtis who says: “Everyone’s afraid of Amazon. If you’re a bookstore, Amazon has been in competition with you for some time. If you’re a publisher, one day you wake up and Amazon is competing with you too. And if you’re an agent, Amazon may be stealing your lunch because it is offering authors the opportunity to publish directly and cut you out.”

Streitfeld also quotes an Amazon executive named  Russell Grandinetti: “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now,” says Grandinetti, “are the writer and reader…Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”

As a thriller writer, my books (The Cutting, The Chill of Night) have been published by a number of commercial publishers in various countries around the world: St. Martin’s/Minotaur in the US, Penguin in the UK, Random House in Germany among others. In spite of this relative success,  I was interested enough by the new Amazon phenomenon that I went to Amazon Author Central to see what I could learn. What I learned was yes, indeed, Amazon can do it all.

I’m writing this blog because I’m not sure how I feel about this agglomeration of power in the hands of one gigantic company.

On the positive side of the ledger, Amazon does help unknown writers get their works out there and helps them attract the attention of readers through its publicity and review services.  It also offers writers the promise of larger royalty payments on the books they do sell. And, as always, it offers readers a virtually unlimited choice of books, most delivered to their doorsteps overnight or in two days.

On the negative side, it all feels a little too much like Big Brother.  I worry for the survival of independent publishers, independent bookstores and independent agents. I know my agent and editors personally and like and value their opinions. I know my local booksellers and wish them nothing but success.  I’d hate to see any or all of them replaced by a website.

You can read the entire Streitfeld piece, “Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal” at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/17/technology/amazon-rewrites-the-rules-of-book-publishing.html?scp=2&sq=Amazon&st=cse

As writers and readers, I’d like to know how you all feel. I invite your comments.

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3 Responses to The Gigantic Website That Ate Up the World

  1. My feelings about Amazon can be summed up in the phrase, “And then what happens?” They could potentially become not only the dominant retailer of both physical and e-books, they could also come to dominate the acquisition-editorial-publishing process. Then what happens? We’d have, essentially, a monopoly on books. History has shown that very little good comes to consumers once a monopoly is in place.

  2. Barb Ross says:

    Oh my goodness, as a reader, writer, former tech exec, I have so many feelings about this–like everyone else.

    All disruptive technologies cause fear, and as James points out, Amazon has managed to disrupt the supply chain twice–once in online ordering and fulfillment, which is their greatest strength and again in online consumption. (Though I would argue that the Kindle is successful for Amazon because it plays to their core strength, easy access and purchase to a huge variety of content.)

    So when the chain gets disrupted people who are adding value to the chain are in, and people who cease to add value are out. Everyone needs to examine what value they are truly adding.

    I maintain that the publishers are highly confused about what their value is. Clearly it’s not going to be having all the manufacturing capability to put pages between cardboard, inventory it, ship it, etc. It is decreasingly having sales relationships with a diminishing number of book stores and chains. And, in a world of social media, it is decreasingly having marketing dollars and know how.

    What it should be is the ability to spot and develop talent and assure quality. Imprints need to brand themselves like the editors of old and help readers find books that are good.

    As authors, we understand the world of publishers in our genres (though I admit when I get out of genre I’m completely lost), So do bookstore buyers, librarians, and reviewers. But readers barely register the publisher’s brand. Books are branded by the author’s names (romance readers may be the exception).

    However, instead of embracing the assurance of quality (Here’s what you’re looking for, we know and our name on it means it’s good) as the way forward, as times have gotten lean, most publishers have cut out the layers of people who assure this brand distinction-everything from the slushpile readers to the proofreaders. When new authors are told clearly they’ll get no quality or marketing assistance and top-selling authors hire their own editors and research assistants and pay them on their own nickel, it does beg the question–what are you doing for me?

    Anyway, I could go on and on and on about this (like everybody else in the biz), but now I need to write my own blog for tomorrow 😉

  3. I recently blogged about this same issue, and the comments were more interesting than my initial thoughts (here’s a link if you feel like checking them out http://www.jennymilchman.com/blog/?p=1944) I think there is a balance to be had here, which may be hard to find when things are admittedly changing so fast.

    There’s always been a boogie man for independent bookstores. It used to be the chains. In the 70s (I believe) there was a massive lawsuit over this, in fact. Yet the indies survived, and as the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, I have hope they will again. Bookstores offer something Amazon doesn’t–and I think it’s a very human something.

    That said, for the reasons you cite and others, I’m glad Amazon is around. A wise commenter on my blog pointed out that a buyers market doesn’t make for monopolies. I don’t think that Amazon or anything can be all things to all people.

    Someone–it may have been Jeff Bezos himself–said that publishing has always been in love with its own demise, or words to that effect. My hope is that no one’s demise is coming, but that new kid and old can live on the block together.

    Each has their own “value add”.

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