Category Archives: amazon.com

The New Ways to Reach Readers

readingKevin Smokler has an excellent op-ed at Publishing Perspectives on how authors and publishers need to think in order to reach readers. I don’t agree with all of it, but the basic message is right on target: “Don’t ask readers to buy a book based on trust. Find a compelling way to preview it for them, and mass produce that.”

What we need is the equivalent of an “MP3 format” for fiction: a modest snack-sized dabble of new books and stories, capable of the same ubiquity that the MP3 has brought to recorded sound. Say what you will about how hard the 21st century has been for the music business, it remains an unparalleled golden age for music fans where exploration, discovery and kaleidoscopic fandom has never been easier nor more culturally encouraged. That record labels have not found a way to stay in business despite this bounty is both their own fault and a mistake book publishers should not repeat.

Now I’m not one to claim that multimedia is the way to go. There are few things that turn me off from a book than a movie-style “book trailer” (heck, I don’t even like trailers for most movies). Likewise, I don’t really care if you’ve documented your book with a behind-the-scenes photo shoot or have written a series of witty limericks that you accompany on your banjo.

Books’ main strength always has been–and continues to be–that they are unique in our entertainment universe because they are almost universally composed of nothing but written words (and other associated typographical symbols). If you look around, that’s a pretty unique asset these days. It’s clearly reason why I like reading so much. In terms of previewing books, marketers need to figure out how to work with this, not against it.

As to how to best do that, this, in my opinion, is great advice:

The hard reality of our time and our business is that there are a lot of books, and they compete with a lot of other attractions (and distractions) for your customer’s time and money. Plus, your best customers — avid readers — are actually less hungry for “shiny new books” than you think and already have more than enough books to fill their reading lives, most likely, until death. Given how many great books most people already own, ”new” and “fresh” by themselves are not alluring, and “new” without “why” is mere ballast.

This is absolutely true. I already own way too many books, but I’ll always buy another book if the book really excites me. If I can be convinced that this book in my hands has the right to jump to the head of my to-be-read pile because I really, really want to read it right now, then at that point the price of buying it new becomes just an afterthought.

But all the time I read marketing pitches that don’t come close to giving me this sensation. It’s true: they just trot out the cliches of the new and the fresh without giving me any sense of why I would want to experience that particular title.

From my own experience, I can say that Google Book has been very effective in serendipitously recommending me book that I not only browse but also end up purchasing. If a marketer could figure out how to harness my search terms to give me previews of upcoming books, I think that would be powerful indeed. By that same token, well-written, trustworthy criticism often is a much more powerful draw to new books than anything I get from marketers. That’s not to wholly discount marketing or to say that there aren’t marketers out there who do excellent work, only that there are other avenues than the standard techniques being used right now.

Though I’m generally on Smokler’s wavelength in this piece, I disagree rather strongly with this contention of his:

Trust: There is now an entire industry of online services, radio shows, MP3 blogs and music festivals, designed to expose like-minded music fans to new artists. We in publishing don’t have this, at least not as formally. Most readers trust book recommendations from friends long before those from publishers, editors, critics or even booksellers. Thankfully, the technology now exists to make those relationships both visible and workable. It would require significant investment from many competing interests, but imagine what a Netflix or iTunes of fiction could do for the reading experience, where books are put in play with other cultural interests — film, music, television — and you can quickly discover that a love of Mad Men might be a strong predictor for a love of Walker Percy.

Publishing quite definitely has an online collection of taste-purveyors that is at least as formally entrenched as the film or music industry’s. One of the biggest compliments I receive on this site is when people tell me they bought a book because I recommended it, or when people tell me that they’ve discovered countless new books through this site. And I know that this blog is far from being the only one that provides this service for readers.

Beyond blogs and other sites that have sprung up from the grass roots, we book-lovers also have more formalized taste-recommendation engines. Smokler is right to say that these engines have helped consumers discover new music, films, etc, but I disagree completely that we don’t also have this for books. The major online booksellers and other interested parties are clearly already doing this. If we don’t have one that is as widely recognizable as NetFlix is for movies or iTunes is for music, that’s because no one single player has managed to dominate the industry, and that’s a good thing. A world where Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, IndieBound, Borders, and Google Book all compete to recommend the best books to me is a much better one than one in which just one of these entities dominates the taste-recommendation market.

Wal-Mart/Amazon Price War

Interesting:

NEW YORK – An online book special offered by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is turning into a full-fledged price war with Amazon.com.

Wal-Mart got things started Thursday, offering $10 prices on such upcoming hardcover releases as Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” and John Grisham’s “Ford County,” a cut of 60 percent or more from the regular cost. Wal-Mart will also offer free shipping.

Amazon.com, the largest online bookseller, matched the $10 price, prompting Wal-Mart to take its offer to $9. By Friday morning, Amazon.com also had priced the books at $9.

The price cuts come at a time when Seattle-based Amazon.com and other sellers have been charging just $9.99 for e-books, a price that publishers worry is unrealistically low . . .

Books Erased from Kindles by Amazon

Yesterday, Amazon remotely erased hundreds of copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from users' Kindles, according to the NY Times. The books in question were deemed unlicensed copies, and Amazon erased them without permission and credited users' accounts.

These actions appear to break Amazon's own terms of use, according to the Times. The terms "grant customers the right to keep a 'permanent copy of the applicable digital content.'" The Times also reports that this is not the first time Amazon has stripped Kindles.

Beyond the obvious concerns here, this dramatizes why readers should not consider ebooks to simply be electronic verisons of printed books. Per my interview with Ted Striphas, ebooks are completely different entities–they offer different users' rights, have modes of distribution, and are evolving very different expectations than printed books.

Amazon Applies for Patent to Advertise in Your Kindle

The patents are here and here.

Speculation thereof here:

Before everyone gets in a huff, let’s consider Amazon’s intentions with these patent applications. Surely they would never allow advertisements to be placed in books which you have purchased legitimately at full price, so let’s put that out of our heads. But what if you could take a few bucks off the cover price at the cost of a few contextual ads relating (if possible) to the book’s content? Personally, I wouldn’t mind — partially because I don’t use a Kindle or intend to any time soon, but more because it’s a no-lose situation. Amazon wouldn’t risk alienating its loyal Kindle base with dirty tricks like this, so it’s safe to assume it’ll be at least somewhat opt-in.

An abundance of free or reduced-price content would widen the appeal of the reader — I imagine many people are put off e-books by the idea that they are not getting their money’s worth. As offensive as the idea of inserting ads into a book is to me (and surely to the average reader), it’s almost certainly part of a value proposition which increases the utility of these expensive little buggers.

Of course, there are a lot of precedents for advertisements in books. That said, I think I’d rather pay full price.

Related Content

Amazon Threatens CA Gov’t For Contemplating Taxes

As I discussed a couple weeks back, it’s only fair that Amazon should be taxed. My cash-strapped state government is considering doing just that, and now Amazon is biting back:

According to a Wall Street Journal report by Geoffrey A. Fowler, Amazon sent a letter to “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and leaders of the state assembly and senate” on Monday about California’s proposed law AB 178, calling it “unconstitutional” and “threatening to end its business with marketing affiliates in the state if legislation passes forcing the Seattle e-commerce company to collect sales tax from California customers.”

Frank Russo, a spokesman for the assemblywoman who proposed the bill, Nancy Skinner, “said the current laws are ‘manifestly unfair’ because they put brick-and-mortar businesses at a competitive disadvantage,” reports the WSJ. Says Russo himself, “The time is running out for tax avoidance schemes where companies purposely follow a business model that makes them scofflaws.”

Newspaper Design and Another Problem With The Kindle

At Three Percent I saw this piece by Farhad Manjoo describing how the Kindle subverts traditional newspaper design elements:

Every newspaper you’ve ever read was put together by someone with an opinion about which of the day’s stories was most important. Newspapers convey these opinions through universal, easy-to-understand design conventions—they put important stories on front pages, with the most important ones going higher on the page and getting more space and bigger headlines. . . .

Getting through these same stories on the Kindle is much harder and more tedious. First, they’re out of order. When I scrolled through Thursday’s national section on my Kindle, the shortest and least newsworthy of these pieces—the Burris story—came first. Worse, because the Kindle gives every story the same headline font, the list item doesn’t clue you in to the story’s slightness. The only way to know if a story merits your attention is to click on it. But clicking is time-consuming—the Kindle takes a half-second or so to switch between a section list and a story, and another half-second to switch back. This sounds nearly instant, but it’s not; the delay is just long enough to change the way you read the news.

Manjoo doesn't go on to make the obvious conclusion to his argument: this is exactly why it's stupid to manufacture an expensive digital device to reproduce the experience of reading a book. We already have books and newspapers, and they'll not be defeated. And it's pointless to try, unless you're part of that 0.001% of the population that has a legitimate need to carry 600-some books around with you at any moment.

The corollary to this is that the Internet (and other possibly digital readers) can improve over print because they democratize information. That is, even though a few years ago every newspaper in the nation put IRAQ WMD WILL KILL YOU ALL!!! on page one and kept the stories that might disrupt the narrative somewhere to page A25, a site like Daily Kos could choose which information was the most meaningful and highlight it.

Obviously books and newspapers are just the opposite. You can argue all day for which is better–a command or democratic approach to information–but the point is that digital and print function differently, and it's dumb to put so much effort into making a digital device that reproduces what we can already do just fine in printed format, albeit with an extraordinarily larger carrying capacity.

That all is to say, if the Kindle and similar really want to be as revolutionary as they're trying to be, they'll get over their print envy and figure out new ways to let people use the information they purchase.

And here's another reason not to read on the Kindle.

Why Be An Amazon Affiliate?

Max runs down some reasons why he uses Amazon for his book links on The Millions. I don't want to rehash all his points, but I agree with all of them, and if this is something you think about, you should see what he says. Basically, this is the heart of the matter:

When it is suggested that we link to an "indie" when we link to books, the implication is that The Millions is a shopping site and that we can by our linking policy direct people where to shop. But the reality is that The Millions,
like many sites that affiliate with Amazon, has an editorial rather
than an "advertorial" mission, and one reason we link to Amazon is
because it offers the most information about the books we write about,
whether we recommend them or deplore them them. As long-time blogger Matthew Cheney put it recently, "I want a link to give you the most information and options with the fewest clicks."

To his list of reasons, I'll also add one more: reporting. Hands down, Amazon gives me the most information about how I'm doing as an affiliate. With Amazon I can get up-to-the-day sales info and also track it historically. I can know which links are working, how many people clicked what, how they got to the page (although everything is kept completely anonymous). This is a great source of info: for one thing, it has absolutely helped me fine-tune how I use links on this site. For another, I've discovered many new books this way. And it also lets me know when I've discussed books that people are excited about and when I've bored them.

By contrast, Powell's only gives me sales info, which in my opinion is the bare minimum that anyone offering an affiliate program should think of giving. Any less than that, however, and we have a problem. If you're leaving your affiliates in the dark as to something so basic as how much they're earning off your program, you're failing.

Unfortunately, by that measure IndieBound is failing. I recently added an IndieBound searchbox to give readers the alternative to buy books through IndieBound and still support this site and The Quarterly Conversation, but I am disappointed to say that I have completely no idea if 1 or 10 or 100,000 of you have bought a book through my searchbox. IndieBound offers no way to tell whatsoever. (If Amazon did this I can only imagine the consipracy theories of affiliate-cheating that would be on the Internet right now.)

I will grant IndieBound the fact that it's a new site and will possibly improve this in the future, but I sincerely hope that this functionality is in the works.

How to Turn a Kindle Into a Brick

A poster named "Ian" in a forum on the website MobileRead (a website for people who read books on mobile devices) has made the following claims about Amazon's Kindle in a posting entitled "Amazon has banned my account – my Kindle is now a (partial) brick":

I have been a loyal Amazon.com customer for many years, but today, I received an email stating that I have been banned from the site and my account has been closed, because I apparently have an extraordinary rate of requesting refunds due to a variety of factors. . . .

I have now discovered that I cannot manage my Kindle2 account (I can't log into Amazon) or purchase any new content.

In effect, I now have a $359 brick, not covered under any warranty, not able to be used the way it was meant to be, not able to be returned (not that I even want to, I just want to keep reading!)

I called customer service several times today; the supervisors there explained that I cannot use the Kindle store but "I can get content onto the machine different ways."

While I can't speak to the fairness of Ian's banning from Amazon's site, his story does bring up some important issues about consumers' rights in the age of electronic texts that we are slowly but surely entering. This is something that I touched on briefly in my interview with Ted Striphas and something that Striphas goes into in considerable detail in his book, The Late Age of Print.

Whether or not Ian is making truthful claims, his story highlights the fact that consumer rights and concepts of copyright are changing as we move more and more into electronic media. One poster to the forum suggests that in banning Ian, Amazon is attempting to protect its rights as a bookseller:

Sorry, Ian. I think you appear to Amazon to fit the profile of someone who buys books and holds them long enough to strip the DRM and then return the book.

Amazon does have every right to protect itself, just as Ian has every right to demand fair treatment. These are boundaries that are currently being negotiated, but make no mistake: when you buy an ebook, you are not buying a book. You are getting a different concept of fair use.

Consumers should be aware that just because a Kindle or a Sony Reader attempts to recreate the experience of reading a book, it doesn't mean that Amazon or Sony consider themselves to be selling you the same rights that you purchase when you buy a book.

I haven't yet bought an e-reader, and I don't plan to anytime soon, but people who embrace this medium should do so knowing that they're getting a different set of consumer rights. If you don't like what you're getting, demand more.

Amazon Fail: The Aftermath

Vroman's echoes a point I made about this earlier in the week:

Do you want that much power in the hands of one company? Even those among you who believe in the benevolent dictator model must be worried about this. Think for a second about what Amazon did here. In the world of ecommerce, the search is king. Almost everybody who shops online visits a site to find a specific product. By intentionally obscuring and manipulating the search results of your site, you are making a clear statement: We don’t want you to read these books.

Indeed, Amazon is fast becoming a very powerful company, and the "glitch" has highlighted that fact.

As Ted Striphas discusses in my interview with him, Amazon has the technology and the capacity to simply overpower most other bookstores:

Many of us forget that the website isn’t just a portal through which we enter the Amazon store. It’s also a conduit through which Amazon quietly enters our everyday lives to engage in intelligence gathering. Amazon knows more about which books we’re interested in and have purchased than just about any bookseller around. This occurs as a result of its sophisticated client tracking capabilities, which transform our browsing around the Amazon website into an opportunity for data mining. The problem here isn’t surveillance per se. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Amazon’s personalized recommendations, which are the result of my own and others’ computer-aggregated browsing and buying habits. The problem lies with the asymmetry of this relationship. There’s little possibility for opting out of any or all of Amazon’s surveillance practices, much less of finding out what the company thinks it knows about us—erroneously or otherwise. Its data gathering and retention is all the more worrisome in a political climate in which, despite whatever thaw we’ve seen under the Obama administration, the USA PATRIOT Act remains the law of the land.

Another downside is the labor practices that Amazon must engage in to supply books and other goods as efficiently as it does. . . .

It's very encouraging that public outcry has achieved what is has so quickly, but the long-term answer to this is more than Twitter or even a boycott. Amazon has reached its dominant place by having the best web portal for selling books and the most efficient system for moving them. Customers can complain and badger Amazon all they want, and the weekend's events demonstrate that this will have an effect, but the real way to ensure against Amazon manipulating data is to give it a competitor that won't.

Obviously no one independent bookstore is going to do that. Barnes & Noble is about the only entity that could pose a plausible threat at this point. IndieBound does represent a possible way forward for non-corporate bookselling, but that website has a lot of development ahead of it before it becomes something that can seriously compete with Amazon.

In other Amazonfail news, MobyLives rounds up some of the latest talk on the Amazon "glitch."

Another former employee, Mike Daisy, says in a blog post at Seattle’s The Stranger alt-weekly that he inside sources tell him it really was a “glitch” — “the story is that a programmer at Amazon France
was editing the site to filter porn out of some search results, and he
mixed up ‘adult,’ which is the term they use for porn, with stuff like
‘erotic’ and ’sexuality.’

Richard Nash makes a good point about what happened, regardless of whether or not is was something Amazon did on purpose:

The onus is on us, as Tim Wise has taught so well on the topic of white privilege. We cannot be given the benefit of the doubt, because it is always us who get the benefit of the doubt in our society, and if we are to take the pink and lavender dollars, and if we are to say, you don’t need A Different Light, or Oscar Wilde Bookstore, we’ll hook you up just fine, then we can never let this happen. I learned this as a straight white male publisher of queer books, it was why I took care to try to find staff who are gay or trans, to catch my complacency, my temptation to think I deserved the benefit of the doubt.

For more see my original post on this subject, as well as my interview with Ted Striphas, which discusses Amazon's sales system and the retailer's increasingly dominant place in the book industry.

Amazon Fail: The Online Giant Censors Content?

Apropos of my interview with Ted Striphas, I want to discuss the weekend's news that Amazon is/was censoring books with "questionable" content–"questionable" in this case being defined as homosexual behavior. It's not completely clear what was happening, but it is arguable that this represented an effort to censor books.

The known facts are that many books that have little to do with each other–besides dealing with gay and lesbian issues–were suddenly "delisted" over the weekend. Many of these books were literary in nature: e.g. Giovanni's Room and Brokeback Mountain. Others were serious nonfiction (e.g. Unfriendly Fire, about banning homosexuals from the military). What happened was that Amazon effectively ostracized them by zapping their sales rank, making them very difficult to find by a browse or a search. The equivalent of sticking these books in a back room with a curtain in front of it.

After this topic burned up Twitter over the weekend (see #amazonfail) Bezos's boys are now claiming that it was all a big misunderstanding:

A groundswell of outrage, concern and confusion sprang up over the weekend, largely via Twitter, in response to what authors and others believed was a decision by Amazon to remove adult titles from its sales ranking. On Sunday evening, however, an Amazon spokesperson said that a glitch had occurred in its sales ranking feature that was in the process of being fixed. The spokesperson added that there was no new adult policy.

Maybe, although it's that's questionable. Amazon's explanation doesn't exactly square with the email author Mark Probst received from Amazon after noticing that his book was delisted:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

This could just be the good old corporate brush-off, or it could be evidence that Amazon considered homosexually themed books worthy of being censored.

Needless to say, the rapidity with which Amazon about-faced on this is encouraging–clearly they'll do what their consumers say. But it does raise questions about giving so much power to just one bookstore, especially when Striphas's analysis indicates that future contenders are going to have a tough time knocking Amazon off its perch.

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