Living in an Amazon world


If nothing changes the trajectory, we book people are going to be living in an Amazon world. That means the future of the book hinges heavily on leveraging the tools, distribution muscle, and audience for Amazon.

In the short-term, great benefits. Amazon’s publishing platforms are inexpensive, easy to use, and guarantee wide coverage both within the U.S. and around the world. Whether print-on-demand (Amazon’s Createspace unit, chiefly) or pure e-book (Kindle), Amazon offers the full spectrum of services for both fledgling and mature publishers.

Does that mean we are condemned to learn to love the dark side of Janus-faced Amazon—its penchant for loss-leader pricing designed to reinforce technological “lock-in” (having a library of e-books, for instance, that operate only on the Kindle hardware family)? Or the infant Amazon enterprise of allowing owners of e-books to “share” them across computer networks, thus effectively depriving authors and content owners of payment?

To be sure, the position of Amazon in the world of book publishing is not yet hegemonic. Print publishers of seriousness, size, and scope, notably Oxford and Simon & Schuster (CBS) and MacMillan (Holtzbrinck), remain counterweights against any emergent Amazon monopoly. And in e-books, where Amazon reigns supreme, the traditional analog-to-digital transfer model, where the goal for the e-book is to replicate the print reading experience, opens Amazon to attacks from technological innovators who wish to leapfrog by revolutionizing the book, both as artifact and experience. Even today, so many platforms for book publishing are effectively free and “consumer friendly” that you not only can publish books easily in digital form, you can publish them in wide variety of ways, incorporating all media types in ways that both enhance the reading experience and deliver audio, video, and still photography. So as a practical matter, Amazon is not the sole option, not at all.

Yet the rising tide of Kindle means that readers, at least for the moment, are wedded to a platform that not only can’t be ignored but must be embraced. For the standpoint of the liquid present, then, the future of books is now and readers and authors alike are reading, writing and publishing…in an Amazon world.


The Best of All Possible Worlds?


The traditions of serious publishing are imperiled by the emergence of new technologies that more easily, inexpensively—and at global scale—produce books of all kinds.

Academic and scholarly writers inside and outside of the academy face the vexing problem of abandoning traditional platforms for book publishing that have served their interests and embracing new forms of publishing that undermine the unity of the book.

The central question is: how will traditional books co-evolve with the new forms of books—purely digital or print-digital hybrids—in which text is unstable, merged with other media types, and increasingly ephemeral?

The traditional book is unlikely to vanish—never mind the forces of creative destruction at play in the publishing world—because copyright and intellectual property law privilege the book over other kinds of published artifacts (most dramatically, the “newspaper” article). Path dependence is a powerful ally to book traditionalists. Retro-book advocates benefit from a powerful nexus of institutions—universities, foundations, libraries and even book sellers—that will continue to support and enhance the traditional book.

The role of Kindle, the leading e-book seller, chiefly serves to reinforce the hegemony of the traditional book. The entire thrust of Amazon’s “innovation” around the Kindle is to improve and enhance the direct analog-to-digital transfer. The Kindle strives to replicate, not undermine or revolutionize, the traditional experience of book reading. Amazon’s reward for assuming the retro posture is market dominance. The market leader in e-books is curiously reinforcing the hegemonic position of the traditional bounded, print-on-paper book.

Scholars and serious thinkers face, perhaps improbably, the paradoxical situation that creative destruction and technological change are opening multiple pathways for publishing their work, in a real sense providing them with the best of both worlds: lower barriers to reaching readers through traditional book publishing and new hybrid forms of (multimedia) books that expand and redefine the notion of what a book is and can be.

We book authors of all stripes now exist in the best of all possible worlds—on the production side. The reader, for whom we care deeply, is more estranged from us than ever before. Therein lies the riddle of the author’s existence—and the reason why, bluntly, we authors are profoundly anxious, destabilized, and in fear of our inevitable doom.