Moderator’s note: Peter Osnos is founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs Books and executive director of the Caravan Project. Caravan, funded by the MacArthur and Carnegie Foundations, aims to help brick-and-mortar bookstores make books available in various digital and paper formats. Newsweek cover shows Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
The launch of Amazon in the mid-1990s was a profound development in the annals of bookselling. The efficiency of the shopping process (one-click ordering, for example), the breadth of the inventory, and a consistent policy of “under-promise and over-deliver” when it comes to service set a new standard in a venerable marketplace. A decade later, Amazon is a colossus. It assures an excellent experience for customers and benefit to authors (except those who obsessively check their sales ratings) by continuing to provide extraordinary numbers of books that are easy to find and buy.
Publishers, especially those who do classic backlist and niche titles, can be more confident than ever that their wares will be readily available. But as its commercial power has increased, so has its toughness with suppliers in setting terms of sale and requiring payment for placement and other allowances. Amazon has also greatly increased pressure on brick-and-mortar stores, particularly the independent booksellers, by providing a level of convenience and price that is nigh impossible for traditional retailers to match. Most booksellers have now adopted elements of the Amazon model, mainly on the Web. As an innovator, Amazon is still the leader. As a business, it has raised the ante sharply for its vendors and competitors.
Reading Halberstam book within minutes
Now comes the Kindle, Amazon’s device for wireless reading that makes it possible to carry an entire library in a machine the size of a paperback. I ordered one on the day it was released at the high price of $399. It arrived two days later, and within minutes I was settled in an easy-chair downloading and reading David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter, which I had bought for $9.99, less than a third of its list price for the printed version. I decided to add an Associated Press service of world news for $1.99 a month and did so from the Kindle store in another minute or so. The device is easy to use and the reading experience is routinely smooth. It will be a while before I decide my own favorite way to read. There will be a great many people who conclude that they only way they really enjoy a book is holding the printed pages in their hand, but for those who choose a machine (like those who have switched over time to MP3s from Hi-Fi, and to DVDs from the big screen), the Kindle is a major breakthrough.
As an editor, I was especially interested in the promise of downloading documents and manuscripts from my computer so I could read them and take notes without hauling wheelbarrows full of paper. My first effort ended in a two-hour session with Kindle customer service that reflected how much supplier and user still needed to learn. But after a bit of practice, I succeeded in a sending myself a PDF of a manuscript. Having read many experts’ judgments on what is good and imperfect about the Kindle, I’ll say that it is off to a very impressive start, and based on the record of Amazon in other areas, it is only going to get better.
How bookstores can compete
So what does Kindle mean for the rest of the book business?
After all, Amazon, never mind its new fangled device, serves a relatively small part of the book buying market, between 10 and 15 percent at last count. Most booksellers still believe that their market is mainly customers in the store and that competing with Amazon and the on-demand delivery of books is and will continue to be beyond their abilities. I don’t agree. There is no doubt that the purchase and delivery of books in digital formats (the Kindle also handles downloadable audio) is another transforming event in books, the same way our other pastimes—music, movies, newspapers, magazines, and radio—are being overhauled by people gradually getting used to new formats and choosing them over the analog ones.
The goal of The Caravan Project, which is starting its third year and third publishing season, is to enable all those in the reading spectrum—from author to publisher to bookseller to consumer—to take advantage of the new technologies. In particular, the publishers, retailers, and libraries need to know how to deliver books in all possible formats or they will lose their readers to the enterprises that control these delivery systems: Amazon, Sony, Google, and Microsoft. What the paragons of the book industry do not learn to do for themselves will be done to them.
Caravan adoption gaining momentum
In order to stay competitive, every publisher should have the capacity to create e-books, audio books, large print on demand, and chapter books if that is what readers want. Every bookseller should be able to accommodate readers’ requests for those formats. Caravan is a partnership of leading non-profit presses, supported by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur and Carnegie Foundations, and based at The Century Foundation, working with suppliers to the libraries and stores to give them experience and understanding of the evolving book marketplace. We’ve now created dozens of books in multiple versions and they are available in selected libraries and (very slowly) through retailers. But the process of adoption is gaining momentum. A year from now, digital delivery of books will almost certainly be an accomplished fact with wholesalers, at least one national chain, and many of the largest commercial publishers, offering customers multi-platform books.
Skeptics will continue to argue that the case for these new reading technologies has not been made. Tell that to the music, movie, magazine, and newspaper businesses. Kindle may not be the iPod of books, but it is certainly another major development in the inexorable process of giving us information and entertainment, where, when and how we want it.
(Reproduced by permission from The Platform.)