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At the risk of being repetitious (BIG sic.), Steven Pressfield just posted an item by Callie Oettinger on Amazon and Big Publishing that so succinctly summarizes much of what I was driving at in my previous posts, that I can’t do better than refer to it and quote from it at length. Oettinger essentially outlines where publishing, and especially Big Publishing, has gone wrong in facing off against the Amazon challenge, and what it could do right, drawing on examples of business models that are actually doing just fine in Amazon’s shadow. As well as on comments from the Big Bezos himself. So here goes: Yawn your way through this if you prefer – though maybe the “the character-bashing, Jeff-Bezos hating, Amazon-vilifying tribes,”  as Oettinger calls them, won’t.

As it happens, I do agree to an extent with the accusation by Charlie Rose in his 60 Minutes interview with Bezos that Amazon is ruthless in its pursuit of market share. Ruthlessly single-minded. I also think that Bezos was being a tad evasive when he replied that “Amazon is not happening to bookselling. The future is happening to bookselling.” Yes, the future is happening, but there is never only one future and only one way. People can often evoke the pressure of events to justify their choices, but Amazon can easily opt to do otherwise than it does.

Whether it has any moral obligation to do so is a different story. Because for Amazon to stop dominating, all that has to happen is for the rest of the book trade to stop failing. Amazon succeeds only because, and as far as, they fail. And, as Bezos says, “complaining is not a strategy.” And, as Oettinger says, “It’s easier to bash Bezos and Amazon than it is to look in the mirror.”

Because, as Oettinger adds, “No one in the publishing equation is innocent.” [Which certainly fits very well with the Big Publishing I know.] “Bezos didn’t kill publishing. The Future didn’t kill publishing. Publishing’s inability to adapt killed publishing.”

Oettinger ties this thesis very much to “majoring in the minor,” and especially, in fulfilment. “Neither the chains or the publishers or the indy’s of yesterday thought about fulfillment the way Amazon has,” she notes – hence all the excitement over drones, Amazon’s own cloud, and all the other means it has explored to ramp up its fulfilment capabilities.

But more importantly, in my opinion, Oettinger emphasizes Amazon’s own publishing program. “For a long time the traditional publishers were the only game in town – whether the big sixish or the mid-sized or indy,” she remarks. “Want to get something published or recorded? You went to them or did it on your own or gave up.” 

Bezos may claim that Amazon has changed the greenlighting process for what gets published. I don’t agree. For one thing, as I and others have already noted, there are quite enough alternative platforms offering different self-publishing possibilities already, even without Kindle Direct Publishing. And DIY digital self-publishing – leaving out the marketing, distribution and fulfilment side – has been quite doable enough for a while now. But Bezos’s approach to how to do this indicates the thrust of Amazon’s whole approach that has enabled it to take on Big Publishing and win: “He went to the customers.”

Amoral and self-interested as Amazon may be, it long ago grasped that as a marketing and fulfilment machine, its success depended on keeping its clients happy. And it just so happened that those clients were both producers and consumers. It has done what it does by empowering both groups – while yes, setting up a system that enables it to profit from their success. But only by putting powers in their hands. Big Publishing has lacked the vision to do that, and that has been its real failing. It couldn’t let go of the power and the assets it sequestered, in the end, and held on to the top-down model until it fell with it.

And for those who need a genuine alternative to Amazon, Oettinger outlines it in detail – the O’Reilly business model, which it seems functions just fine in the post-Amazon world. It also gives indies and smaller publishing operations new validation and purpose: “O’Reilly is indy in style, majoring in everything BUT the minor,” Oettinger says. “It’s an amazing model and one that Amazon doesn’t have going for it.”

So there are ways to thrive in an Amazon future without becoming an Amazon drone. Just be sure to start by looking in the mirror.

 
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