Publishing Business: Challenging 'Amazon's Imperial Ambition'

As Monday morning's opening speaker for the 2013 Publishing Business Conference, Yale University Press executive editor-at-large Steve Wasserman revisited "The Amazon Effect," an article he wrote about the online retailing giant for the Nation. Since that article was published last year, he told the early morning audience, "we're a little bit older, and Amazon's a lot bigger."

Steve Wasserman

While acknowledging the $100-billion company's presence as a "ubiquitous if largely remote institution in American life," Wasserman remains critical of Amazon's "imperial ambition," as well as "the near-utopian optimism" with which the American media tends to treat it. He peppered his argument with personal reminiscences of his effort to convince Jeff Bezos to buy ads in the Los Angeles Times Book Review in the 1990s and his friend Jason Epstein's backing of the Espresso Book Machine print-on-demand service. "He put his money on, essentially, a large Xerox machine," Wasserman recalled, not anticipating that Amazon's all-in approach to the e-book market would sway consumers away from the idea of waiting in a bricks-and-mortar store for their books to be assembled.

During a subsequent q&a with fellow keynote speakers Jason Merkoski (who recounts his role in the development of the Kindle in Burning the Page) and Jeffrey Cole (director of USC's Center for the Digital Future), Wasserman narrowed the focus of his complaint to the literary impact of Amazon's approach to marketing books. Citing Franz Kafka's assertion that "a book should be an axe to break up the frozen sea within us," he argued that such writing would never come out of a business model relentlessly focused on audience segmentation and on giving readers exactly what they want. "No poll, no data mining," he continued, would ever be capable of replicating the skilled eye of an editor capable of recognizing the writer capable of producing such a book. Yet even as he expressed his desire for the development of a "slow reading" movement, Cole pointed out that people are, in fact reading more than ever before, and have never been more enthusiastic about reading. Even Merkoski, who complained during his speech that the smell of one hardcover volume he passed around as a prop reminded him of "fish vomit," admitted that he'd been reading more print books lately. "I've kind of gone retro," he said sheepishly.

Over the next two days, a number of presentations offered potential means of dealing with "the Amazon effect," including a panel discussion of the "showrooming" problem, where consumers find books they like in local bookstores, then order them from an online retailer. Carl Kulo, the director of research for Nielsen Book (which recently acquired Bowker's publishing services), cited a survey in which 46% of the consumers polled--and more than half of those between the ages of 18 and 29--said they had browsed a bookstore, found a book they liked, and then bought it someplace else. (Other retail sectors have it even worse off, he noted; the chains hit heaviest included Bed Bath & Beyond, Toys 'R' Us and Best Buy.) Local bookstores do have some advantages--they are stronger at generating impulse purchases than online retailers, and do a much better job of selling children's and YA titles and religion books.

Consumers also like local bookstores for their convenience and, in the case of independents, for their broad selection and knowledgeable, helpful staff. As Dan Cullen, the content officer of the American Booksellers Association, put it in his subsequent remarks, selection and display combined with handselling lead to discovery--and nearly 20% of the consumers in the ABA's survey reported that, wherever they may have bought their last book, they discovered it in a local bookstore. (Library Journal group publisher Ian Singer also called attention to the power of displays, which accounted for 21% of library patrons' book selections.) Cullen noted two ABA programs that were designed to capitalize on these strengths: the Thanks for Shopping Indie campaign and the Indies Introduce Debut Authors reading list.

Publishers, meanwhile, were concerned about getting their books noticed--although, as Council of Literary Magazines and Presses executive director Jeffrey Lependorf observed in a session on "fostering engagement and audience discovery," sometimes you can reach more people by narrowing your focus. If book sales is a target, he advised, "begin with the bullseye." When it came to online promotion, Kate Rados, director of community development for the Crown Publishing Group, cited what she called the "value vortex." For every unit of an online campaign, she said, ask yourself: Is the information you're sharing going to provoke a response? And what will people get out of sharing that information with others?

Tumblr may be the social media platform where the importance of those two questions can be most starkly seen; the most effective Tumblr posts, after all, are those that earn the most "likes" and "reblogs." The company's publishing outreach director, Rachel Fershleiser, said that the Tumblr platform was designed for "empowering the people who care about your project to amplify it themselves" and to share it with their friends. All those voices can be collated and curated in interesting ways, like the recently launched Reblog Book Club," which kicked off with Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. Fershleiser also discussed a guideline for audience development she began using as the events director at Housing Works Used Bookstore & Café, the search for "half-step" people--people who might not identify as avid book lovers but whose cultural and social interests are a half-step away from books. What kinds of programming can you create, she asked, that will put your store in their orbit? (And once they're in the store, one might add, what sort of displays will you create to hold their interests?)

One marketing strategy that some publishers are showing less enthusiasm for is the book trailer, the splashy online video released with the hope of becoming the next viral sensation. "It's something authors love and publishers love and marketers love," said Random House/Spiegel & Grau marketing director Leigh Marchant, "but it's just so hard to make it work.... When you look at the number of views on YouTube, which I don't anymore because it's just too depressing, it's just not worthwhile." Ironically, the most powerful video promotion might be one that's beyond publishers' control. As Rebecca Levey, who co-created, a site where children too young for YouTube accounts can upload and share videos, said, "There is nothing better than a kid who says, 'You have to read this book!' " It might not even matter if such a video looks a bit amateurish; this is an area where technical polish can be trumped by a sincere, enthusiastic endorsement from one reader to another. --Ron Hogan

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