No need for a full aria from me about Jeff Bezos’ brilliant buy of the Washington Post. I’ve given the Writing on the Ether Chorus and Orchestra the day off.
I will just point out to you that here, lo, even in our vale of tears, we’ve had good news. Don’t say we never get it. Washington to Washington.
And even man to man. Did you read Bezos’ letter to the staff? Last lines, in which Bezos is referring to the beleaguered outgoing Post owner Don Graham:
I want to say one last thing that’s really not about the paper or this change in ownership. I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Don very well over the last ten plus years. I do not know a finer man.
Oh, sure, here came the fleas: Jeff Bezos Paid a ‘Friendship Premium’ for The Washington Post (Alexander Abad-Santos, The Atlantic Wire).
And then here came the gnats: Why Jeff Bezos Got a Better Deal on The Washington Post Than You Think (Jordan Weissmann, also The Atlantic Wire).
Not to worry, we’ll be out of here before the locusts arrive.
But we’re going to take the scenic route through Seattle to get to today’s focus on bookstores.
I agree with Mathew Ingram at GigaOm in his roundup, Iceberg buys Titanic: The best insights into Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his acquisition of the Washington Post: the sweetest headline to come out of the whole thing (and boy, did a lot of headlines come out of the whole thing) is Andrew Leonard’s at Salon: The iceberg just rescued the Titanic.
I liked what Leonard wrote to explain the line, too:
For the journalism business, to call this an earthquake is like, well, it’s like calling Amazon just another bookstore. The Washington Post is one of the premier newspapers in the English-speaking world: the most important publication in the capital of the planet’s greatest superpower. The symbolic importance of the Bezos acquisition is impossible to escape…So now Bezos is giving a little bit back, putting some money down to prop up a cultural institution that has provided great value for many decades, and maybe, just maybe, with a little tinkering, a little more innovation, a little steadfastness and a whole lot more capital investment, could keep shining its light for a few decades more. Let’s see other people follow his example!
Leonard even suggests, “Mark Zuckerberg, why not get Random House back from Bertelsmann?”
Don’t hold your breath on that one. But Leonard’s drift is certainly right. It’s heartening to see an intelligence like Bezos use his remarkable wealth and discernment to reach out and catch such an important, staggered institution as this newspaper.
If anything, as the story broke, I was distressed to get a lot of tweets from folks who wanted to tell me that the news industry is nothing but propaganda and such rags as the Post aren’t worth saving.
The Post is a keenly specialized example of American newspapers in general, and of US journalism in extremis. Some of its work has been landmark material in our nation’s development. The best elements of journalistic inquiry, for that matter, are worth saving. As Leonard puts it: “I’ve bought a lot of books from Amazon. I approve this purchase.”
I bet the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is sitting on the couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, watching The Notebook, crying. #washingtonpost
— David Kazzie (@DavidKazzie) August 5, 2013
And lest you assume that Leonard is lapdogging here, his next-day piece, New reporting guidelines for Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post, pretty much frog-marches our favorite tycoon and his new newspaper empire out on deck and lashes them to their own masthead:
If, as Bezos promised, the responsibility of a newspaper is to its readers, and not to its owners, then he will have to understand that the Washington Post must be above suspicion. Critical coverage of Amazon must intensify. Here are five stories that the Washington Post should put on Page One, ASAP, and keep there, indefinitely.
Each of those five stories is listed with Leonard’s explanation. Quickly, for our purposes:
- Amazon vs. Apple
- Big Data and privacy
- Net neutrality
Waiting for the inevitable piece on how Bezos buying the Post will be bad for publishing and independent bookstores.
— Meredith Hindley (@CapitolClio) August 5, 2013
The kind of “critical coverage” Leonard is talking about is actual journalism. I think Bezos will push his people even harder than the rest of us to achieve it, too. I don’t think Jeff Bezos likes failure. And I think he likes authentic success. That’s why he’s such an inspiration.
And we can thank our friend and colleague Brian O’Leary for reminding us that where once-journalistic media have turned into “propaganda”—usually of the commercial kind—it’s not the “fault” of the Damned Digital Disruption, which we so frequently clothe in Bezos’ jeans. In “Not Our Fault”: We deserve more than a collective absolution, O’Leary writes:
Many newspapers could have survived if the people who ran them saw an over-reliance on advertising as a risk. Instead of pushing lower-value content to satisfy advertisers’ expectations, they might have invested more in serving their communities.
O’Leary isn’t addressing the Bezosian bombshell in his piece; he’s debunking a much wider assertion that newspapers’ “decline was unavoidable.” And he’s right. I have seen precisely that anything-for-an-ad mentality he describes in play at news outlets, first-hand. It was avoidable.
What I’d like to point out is a parallel between cries of “the Internet killed newspapers!” and “Amazon killed bookstores!” Both are too simplistic. Both are too easy. Both are the scare-mongering excuses of folks whose situations, far more complex than such yelps imply, have left them staggered by mistakes, sometimes of their own making. Both are the “collective absolutions” that O’Leary warns against. About newspapers, he writes with the understanding that many of us can bring to the situation:
It’s not surprising to learn that the people who oversaw the dismantling of the newspaper industry in the United States feel that it’s not their fault. Better yet, they have a bogeyman in companies like Google and Apple, who (by extension) didn’t care about content the way that newspaper people did.
Let’s take a little of that compassion along as we turn to look at bookstore fans who may see Amazon—even Bezos, himself—as their bogeyman. We start in London with a saddening account of change from a self-publishing author. Back to Table of Contents
Ten years ago, I walked into a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road, with a rucksack full of Smoke: A London Peculiar, the magazine that I’d made with my friend, Matt Haynes. I went up to the front counter, found a nice man called Mike Atherton, and explained to him what it was: a magazine of words and images inspired by London.
This is author Jude Rogers in a write-up, Tough deal, carried by my colleagues at The Bookseller in London. (Just by way of explanation: The Bookseller’s blog carries the views of many folks, not only those of staffers. Rogers is an example. She’s writing as an author and publisher here and is not a member of The Bookseller’s team.) On that day 10 years ago, Rogers tells us, she had good luck.
Mike took 20 of them for Foyles. They sold out in a week. We took along some more. We did similar elsewhere. By issue 3 of Smoke: A London Peculiar, our two-person distribution network was selling 5,000 copies per issue in over 80 London shops, thanks to the relationships we had built with individual booksellers.
Foyles is the major bookseller, you’ll remember, working to redesign its presence in the marketplace with the development of its new store. I was glad to be invited to its extraordinary research sessions during the winter and wrote about them for my colleagues at Publishing Perspectives. Under Miriam Robinson’s direction and in association with The Bookseller, the store is doing as good a job as any at trying to face a digital future head-on and reel in strong community resources to help recreate itself for success, not failure. What Rogers has to report—not about Foyles, per se, but about the bookselling scene in London—makes Foyles’ efforts at recapturing what’s important all the more urgent:
Ten years later, Matt and I are launching our first Smoke book, From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea, into a very different marketplace. Now, centralised distribution and buying are king, and the personal approach has little power. In many cases, it’s not even allowed—and this position fails booksellers as well as independent publishers.
Rogers’ account, while anecdotal, is telling. While the bookstore community can cry “Amazon!” all it wants, there are points at which it has, all by itself, made working with content providers all but impossible. Rogers looks back:
We would hand-deliver 340 copies of every issue of Smoke to Malcolm Hopkins, the wonderful magazine buyer at Borders Oxford Street. He shelved them well, and every one would sell—a good return for both parties. But then we received a letter from Borders’ head office saying that, in future, branches would not accept deliveries direct from publishers; we would need to use a “recognised distributor” instead.
Noting the “grim irony” of Borders’ collapse, Rogers writes, “We were forced to pay a distributor to do something that we did perfectly well ourselves for next-to-nothing, given all of our outlets were in London.” But hang on. There’s another wrinkle to this story. I messaged Rogers on Twitter when I discovered that her forthcoming book isn’t available through US Amazon. The site does have a listing for the book. It says the book is “out of print—limited availability.” When I mentioned this and sent Rogers the link, she tweeted back to me, “I think they’ve just got the details from our ISBN number #cheeky.”
Perhaps I was a bit forward here, but I noted to her that being spotted and listed by Amazon might be an advantage, not a disadvantage. I was reminded of reporting here just last month that UK author and writing-community leader Joanna Penn tells me she makes 95 percent of her fiction sales and 70 percent of her non-fiction sales in the US. Here’s part of my exchange with Rogers after she referred to it as “cheeky” that her book had been picked up on the Amazon site:
So even as many authors, especially entrepreneurial authors who are self-publishing, may find themselves all but shut out of bookstore opportunities—and even as they pen astute accounts of the loss of many sales opportunities, as Rogers surely does in her good piece at The Bookseller—they may also turn around and say things to you about “ridiculous sales terms” at Amazon. Sales terms they “hear” about. This is the voodoo of fear-mongering, the kind of gravevine-rattling chatter that can unfairly leave some members of the creative community in the digital dust.
How close we are again here to what O’Leary is talking about: “Collective absolution?” —the comfortable bogey-phrases with which colleagues can unwittingly hold each other back. Someone has said “ridiculous sales terms” to someone else. For the record, Rogers encourages us to check her online shop to order the book, and I’m happy to give you that URL for Smoke: A London Peculiar (love the name), an attractive site, indeed. I wish her and her co-author Matt Haynes all the best with it. Over to the States. Back to Table of Contents
Barnes and Ignoble
Could the book world one day wax nostalgic for the Amazon era? It’s one of the few things in the book business you can count on.
Could the book world one day wax nostalgic for the Amazon era? It’s one of the few things in the book business you can count on.
Boris Kachka may be right. His new book has a title almost as long as the Ether: Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux One of the more eagerly awaited releases of the summer, it’s drawing the predictable great job, but… responses that this sort of book is bound to stir up from major figures long invested in a now-fabled publishing past. Robert Gottlieb, for example, wades right in with a particularly rich effort at The New Yorker, in Anatomy of a Publisher. His is a good read, the kind of “on the other hand”‘ scrub-up of memories and memes that leaves you on your own to decide whether to read Kachka. So many times does Gottlieb thumbs-down and then thumbs-up the younger man’s book that by the time he’s finished—as with all good criticism—the reader is left having to do his or her own thinking. A bit less so, Kachka’s doing of Barnes and Noble, but no less a worthwhile read.
Nineteen years ago, Barnes & Noble gave me my first over-the-table paycheck. The ensuing decades saw the rise and decline of a juggernaut—and a close lesson in the ironies of capitalism.
Kachka’s early experience at B&N gives him some credibility for his new observations.
That summer job, in 1994, gave me an oddly quaint sense of a company that already ran more than 200 superstores. I worked in the old flagship Fifth Avenue branch, established in 1932. Across the street from a grungy soggy-bagel diner long since replaced by a Gap, the old store evoked both the chain’s prehistory and that of its CEO Leonard Riggio.
He would end up caught in the contract-renewal disputes between B&N and Simon & Schuster, his Hothouse publisher:
The initial order on my book was bleak—less than 100 books for more than 600 stores—but improved, ironically, after the ABA [American Booksellers Association] touted the title. In the nail-biting interim, I came to appreciate what a sour marriage we’ve all come to have: Barnes & Noble muscled into the market by courting consumer love, wielding cheap books, lattes, and acres of space. Then, one day, we (writers, publishers, and readers) woke up to find we had no other options.
The “collective absolution” of “Amazon is bad” or “Barnes & Noble is bad” isn’t panning out well, is it? After all, as Kachka notes:
That cooing sound you hear from publishers isn’t love for Barnes & Noble; it’s fear of its disappearance. Last year, one executive compared a B&N-free landscape to The Road: “The postapocalyptic world of publishing, with publishers pushing shopping carts down Broadway.”
As much as one might relish the image of those shopping carts jerking along the curb, what’s interesting here is how hard it is for many of our colleagues to live in the gray areas of publishing’s new, shifting realities.
Ok, sure, Jeff Bezos. Sure. — Ginger Clark (@Ginger_Clark) August 6, 2013
Maybe the man who created the disruption-dealing Amazon has many, many, many more dimensions to him than the naysayers thought. (And will the gallery world scream “bloody Seattle!” now that Amazon Art has gone live this week?)
Maybe the great, big, green bookstore chain that finally got Starbucks into the correct proximity to the printed word is perfectly willing to turn around and under-sell its own former employee, Kachka, because it’s trying to wrest more co-op concessions from publishers. Kachka’s New York Magazine write includes a warning: “B&N remains a monster, if a flailing one.”
Be careful who you dub “friend” and “enemy.” They may switch roles tomorrow.
Is it just possible that the fracturing of the industry seen in the entrepreneurial-author movement could be what finally exposes the fallacy of “collective absolution” in publishing?—of simplistic, childish epithets and unwitting “ridculous sales terms” lore?
It’s National Buy a Debut Novel Day today (Not really, but it was National Orgasm Day last week, so why not?).
— Jonny Geller (@JonnyGeller) August 5, 2013
Authors may be in the best position of all to say quietly, over and over to the industry! the industry! that there’s actually no Evil Force at work here at all.
Just a lot of confused, tired people, frustrated by wrenching change, looking for easy scapegoats and the collective absolution of “Seattle made me do it” or “B&N’s bookstores are the last hope we’ve got.”
What do you think? Is there a way for entrepreneurial authors to back down the blame-game beloved of a crisis-addicted business and open up a new way of talking about things? It might start with, “Actually, it’s not ______’s fault. And it’s up to us to figure out how to do better.” What’s your take?
I think Bezos looked at the Grahams and saw his own future. “Citizen Bezos: Amazon’s founder is looking for a legacy” http://t.co/foUTpnBws9
— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) August 7, 2013
Main image: iStockphoto – KyKyPy3HuK