17 April 2014

The New Yorker: “Cheap Words”

Jane Friedman, the former Random House and HarperCollins executive, who now runs a digital publisher called Open Road Integrated Media, told me, If there wasn’t an Amazon today, there probably wouldn’t be a book business. The senior editor who met Grandinetti said, They’re our biggest customer, we want them to succeed. As I recover from being punched in the face by Amazon, I also worry: What if they are a bubble? What if the stock market suddenly says, ‘We want a profit’? You don’t want your father who abuses you physically to lose his job.

George Packer

The article paints a detailed picture – if somewhat unfavorable to Amazon – of the uneasy relationship, even dependency, between book publishers and the largest US online retailer. While they don’t like to admit it, their competencies are actually complementary – editors and publishers have the experience to discover the best books and authors, Amazon to sell them to the widest audience – and it would serve both parties (and readers) it they would cooperate better.

His ambition sometimes had an idealistic cast: he wanted Amazon to warehouse two copies of every book ever printed, an unrealized dream grandly called the Alexandria Project.

Reading about some of the questionable tactics employed by Amazon, somehow I can’t believe a man with such passion for books would want to turn them into cheap merchandise. I, like many others living outside the US, wouldn’t have been able to read many of the books I’ve read without Amazon making them digitally available to the world.

I think the conflicts between publishers and Amazon come from different views on the concept and value of books. Publishers see books as premium products, with good quality finishing and a matching price – and I’m sure many readers feel the same. On the other hand, Jeff Bezos thinks books should be available to the largest possible number of readers, and to do that you need a large distribution platform with small marginal costs and wide reach, hence the digital channel. Personally I tend to favor the latter view; books are valuable for the ideas, stories and feelings they pass on from the writer to the reader, not for their cover or number of pages.

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