Porter Anderson over at Publishing Perspectives kindly summarized all the recent reporting and tweeting on the departure of Laurence J. Kirshbaum from Amazon Publishing that tried to spin this into a major strategic retreat for the company, the beginning of the end for Amazon’s attempt to challenge the Great and the Good of New York, etc, etc. And indeed, the volume and shrillness of that Greek chorus was at times deafening, and almost uniformly irritating. But all the metaphors of retreat and strategic setback put me in mind of a different military parallel that could be far truer to the actual situation, and far less flattering to the publishing establishment: The fall of France in 1940 before Hitler’s blitzkrieg.
Just in case anyone’s military history is not up to scratch, the French sank billions of francs and thousands of troops into the Maginot Line of forts along the German frontier prior to World War II. Fortifications had proven highly successful in World War I, and French generals, faced with a new, unpredictable, and fast-growing enemy to the east, fell back on the winning strategy of the last war, building static concrete citadels that in fact were just not worth defending. Come 1940, the Germans just went around them.
Does all that remind you of somebody? Today’s publishers are still fighting the last war’s battles, defending worthless territory when the battlefield has long since evolved away from them. As the HarperCollins ebook platform launched in partnership with Accenture that I reported on elsewhere shows, their technology and strategy are as last-generation as Iraq’s Republican Guard in Desert Storm. They will finish squatting in isolated redoubts, surrounded by territory they no longer control, until they finally surrender and their assets are broken up for scrap value.
After all, the news of Kirshbaum’s departure hardly seems to have made a blip in Amazon’s share performance. The markets, rightly, don’t give a shit. They continue to reward Amazon’s relentless drive for growth, and the major caveats raised by analysts against that story, such as distribution costs that scale as the business scales, are only likely to push Amazon even further into new territory.
Ignore self-important vanity turns like Andrew Wylie, angry that the world isn’t paying them the same attention and deference it used to. The more effort and resources you plough into fighting the last war’s battles, the worse you will lose this one.
Ah, but never forget that two decades ago much the same was being said about Microsoft and the inability of other software companies to effectively engage it. Rumors of World Domination were being batted about. I know. I was one of their critics. Now I hardly criticism them. Mostly I feel pity.
Using your Maginot Line illustration, in not too many years the very principles that are currently driving Amazon’s success (static fortifications), will play a role in its downfall (blitzkrieg warfare). Only Roman Catholicism seems to have found a way to endure for centuries.
That’s why I keep trying to warn Amazon to stop bullying and trying to control everything it touches. If they don’t, when they’re headed down, they’ll find they have few friends, particularly in the publishing world.