Why The Lack Of A Jeff Bezos Dooms Mainstream Publishing

This piece originally appeared on the Dear Author blog on 4/8/09.

Alternatively, I suppose you could title this piece How Jeff Bezos Pawned Publishing. 

A few weeks ago, a number of mainstream publishers attended SXSW, a festival of music and media culture.  SXSW is peopled with macbooks and iphones and music fans.  SXSW started out as a musical festival and has grown to include seminars on new media.  SXSW held a publishing panel called New Think for Old Publishers.  The publishing panel did not go well as the panelists were idea-bereft and turned the seminar into a mini focus group.

What struck me most out of the controversy that erupted wasn’t the lack of new think for old publishers but that the publishers were seeking new ideas outside [their] corporate structure. In other words, it doesn’t seem that there are forward thinking individuals at the helm of mainstream publishing.  Jeff Bezos, on the other hand, is a long range, innovative planner. Say what you want about Amazon being an evil empire (and they are and can be) but Bezos is a visionary and he has created an internet retail empire in just over 15 years. 

The following is the Bezos timeline (edited to exclude some acquisitions). 

  • 1994: Amazon opens its doors.
  • May 15, 1997: Amazon goes public.
  • 1997: Amazon submits patent application entitled “A Method and System for Placing a Purchase Order Via a Communications Network.”
  • April 1998: Bookpages.com. Largest online bookseller in Great Britain.  Telebooks.com. Largest online bookseller in Germany.  Internet Movie Database. Largest online resource for movies.
  • August 4, 1998: Planet All: a web-based address book, calendar and reminder service and Junglee Corp, a web-based database technology that assists shoppers to find products for sale on the internet.
  • April 1999: Bibliofind.com, Online servicing for finding used, rare and out of print books.
  • September 28, 1999: Amazon granted “1-Click” patent, which “describes an online system allowing customers to enter their credit card number and address information just once so that on follow up visits to the website all it takes is a single mouse-click to make a purchase from their website.”
  • Fourth quarter 2001: Amazon shows first net profit.
  • August 19, 2004: joyo.com.At the time of its acquisition, Joyo.com was the largest online retailer of books, music and videos in China. It became known as amazon.cn.
  • Feb 2005: 43 Things. A website funded by Amazon that gathers information about consumers. Secretly (well, not so secretly as it is all over the Internet that Amazon funds this site).
  • April 4, 2005: BookSurge LLC. Amazon buys a print on demand fulfillment company. Later, Amazon would prevent other POD books [from being] sold through Amazon’s online retail store. Booklocker has sued.

Publetariat editor’s note: Amazon didn’t actually prevent other POD books from being sold through its retail store. Amazon took away the ‘buy’ buttons on POD books not produced by its own publishing interests, BookSurge and CreateSpace, but those ‘outsider’ books could still be sold on Amazon via an Amazon Store. Amazon Store is a service Amazon provides to allow small businesses to sell their wares through Amazon’s website; Amazon lists the items for sale and processes the payments, while the small businesses handle their own order fulfillment.

It’s worth mentioning that there are seller fees associated with running an Amazon Store, and books listed in an Amazon Store are not eligible for all the same promotional perks as those with ‘regular’ Amazon listings (i.e., Amazon discounts, free shipping on orders over $25, Amazon Prime, etc.), so those books are at a sales disadvantage compared to books with ‘regular’ Amazon listings. 

Alternatively, authors and publishers could elect to re-publish their books through BookSurge or CreateSpace (at their own expense) to get their regular Amazon listings back. Also, some POD providers made special arrangements with Amazon to retain their authors’ ‘buy’ buttons and keep their ‘regular’ Amazon listings, typically in exchange for a fee to be paid by the author. 

  • April 16, 2005: Mobipocket. Mobipocket was (and might still be) one of the leading ebook formats out there. Amazon would later use the Mobipocket format as the platform for its own Kindle format, to be used with its Kindle eink reading device.
  • July 6, 2005: CustomFlix. Customflix is a DVD on demand production company.

Publetariat editor’s note: CustomFlix is also a CD on demand and print on demand service provider; its name has since changed to CreateSpace.

  • Fall 2006: Unbox. Amazon unveils its own movie/tv download center.  Later partners with TIVO so TIVO users can download Amazon purchases using TIVO recorders.
  • May 14, 2007:  DPReview. The largest and most trusted review site for digital cameras.
  • August 6, 2007: Amie Street:  Amazon invests in small independent social music retailer.
  • September 2007: Amazon MP3. Amazon opens its digital music store.
  • October 16, 2007: TextPayMe. TextPayMe becomes Amazon payments. It was originally designed to allow payments to be sent and received through your mobile phone.
  • December 7, 2007: Wikia. A wiki service for individuals, Wikia was created by wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales. (Probably designed, like 43 Things, to obtain consumer information).
  • January 17, 2008: Withoutabox: Indie film site for Amazon-owned IMBD.com.
  • February 4, 2008: LoveiFilm. Amazon becomes major shareholder in one of Europe’s largest online rental service for DVDs.
  • June 24, 2008: Twitter. Bezos personally invests in Twitter.
  • June 9, 2008: Fabric.com. (Crafty getting bigger? Amazon becomes one stop shopping for fabric, yarn, and other textiles)
  • July 2008: A Social Gaming Network. Bezos invests in a company that produces casual games for social networking platforms like Facebook. (He has also invested in Atomic Moguls, another startup company designed to bring casual gaming programs to social networks).
  • October 21, 2008: Reflexive Entertainment. Reflexive is a “casusal games developer”
  • January 31, 2008: Audible.com. Largest online retailer of digital audio books.
  • August 24, 2008: Shelfari.com. Social networking for book readers.
  • October 24, 2008: Oprah endorses the Kindle.
  • December 2, 2008: AbeBooks.com. Largest online bookseller of used books. Also a 40% stakeholder in LibraryThing.com.
  • Fiscal Year 2008:  Amazon outsells all other major retailers in the books, music, DVDs area, doing $5.35 billion for North America and $5.73 billion internationally.

In the 10 years since Amazon has gone public, it has become a retailing powerhouse in the publishing industry. Piece by piece, it has bought into or bought up companies that will advance its position primarily by buying people. It seems clear that Amazon believes in buying platforms where the people are.

Mainstream publishing is focused more on creating the market through one hit wonders. Mainstream publishing spends millions on trying to find the next Brown, Rowling, Meyer, or Roberts where as Amazon spends millions on getting the consumers to its webstore. This isn’t to say that I think that publishers should have acquired Fabric.com but it does make sense for them to have acquired companies and technologies for more vertical integration. To have invested in a company like Goodreads.com or a Librarything.com; to have invested in a the secondary book market; to have bought an ereading platform.

Read the rest of this article at Dear Author.