Recently, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been appearing in feature articles that inevitably place him beside Apple’s Steve Jobs for introducing game-changing technologies and for visionary tenacity. It is a fair comparison. But should we also be comparing Amazon.com’s hunger to the market-domination strategies of Microsoft?
Most self-publishing authors and small presses are not yet aware of the full breadth of Amazon’s reach into the content-publishing world. Let me offer a quick tour:
Amazon.com (but you have it bookmarked, no doubt)
Books, music, and anything else for sale online
The site went live in July 1995. “They’re the dominant online retailer. Publishers really aren’t in the position to argue. Or to fight back,” says Jim Milliot, business and new director at Publishers Weekly (Time, June 22, 2009)
The Kindle has been on the market only eighteen months, but 275,000 titles are available. The Kindle brought us to a tipping point of e-reader acceptance in the market.
Print-on-Demand (POD) service
“BookSurge offers complete publishing, inventory-free fulfillment and online distribution services for independent publishing.” Naturally, they emphasize that titles published through BookSurge are offered with in-stock availability on Amazon.com. Because of its direct pipeline to online retail, all other POD services have to jockey for market share against the prime position BookSurge holds on the field. Booksurge was acquired by Amazon in April 2005.
Self publishing multimedia service
CreateSpace is a shopping-cart service that offers an avenue to keep books, CDs, and DVDs available on demand to Amazon.com and other sales channels. It would be easy for me, the owner of a custom book production service, to scoff at the “free Cover Creator” and question whether a shiny label allows an amateur to produce and market a “retail-ready” DVD. However, CreatSpace knows that the customer base believes it is important for the homebrew CDs to come in “high-grade jewel cases.” After all, to make it possible for anyone to publish works in multiple media formats, a simple process and quick makeovers are not to be mocked or shunned. It’s a brilliantly layered system. These services are essential to the new ecosystem of publishing, which also generates tens of thousands of worthless YouTube videos but a good percentage of artful ones.
With more than 60,000 titles available, Audible.com is a leader among audiobook companies. From iPod to Blackberry to a long list of audio listening devices you’ve never heard of, they make sure files can be streamed from whatever toy you have. The AudibleAir allows content downloads to a mobile phone. Amazon acquired Audible Inc. in Jan 2008.
Used books retailer
Like a massive clearinghouse, the site offers avenues to fined rare books and collector’s editions, or any title, with international reach. A section is devoted to moving textbooks. They claim, “More than 110 million new, used, rare, and out-of-print books are offered for sale through the AbeBooks websites from thousands of booksellers around the world.” Always dreamed of running your own bookstore but knew a brick-and-mortar store would not survive? Launch your own online store through this system. Amazon.com acquired Abebooks in August 2008.
A social network for book lovers
Using the popular community-building tools familiar to Facebook users, Shelfari offers group discussions, book ratings, subject searches and a blog. This is a reader group on social-media steroids. Shelfari was launched in October 2006 and was acquired by Amazon.com in August 2008.
Stanza for iPhone
Stanza is a free application for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Developed by Lexcycle, it does indeed put an entire library in your pocket. In December 2008, the company announced more than one million users had downloaded Stanza in six months. Tracking this technology gets really interesting when you see the iPhone competing with the Kindle as an e-reader. What’s next? Amazon.com acquired Lexcycle in April 2009.
Print publishing service
Amazon will use its unparalleled market data from customer reviews to select overlooked titles then re-introduce the books through marketing support and distribution into multiple channels and formats through the services listed above. Authors take note: those customer reviews may be even more important than you thought. Encore was introduced in May 2009.
In the cover story for the July/August issue of Fast Company magazine, Adam L. Penenberg describes how Amazon is dominating this publishing ecosystem and speculates on the future morphology of books. He points out the growing threat to traditional publishers, noting, “Amazon could phase them out completely, treating them as the ultimate middlemen orphaned by a new technology.”
Joe Wikert at O’Reilly Media reviewed the article and replies, “Forget about Amazon. Any publisher that isn’t already worried about this in general is asleep at the wheel. With all the great self-publishing services out there and the ever-growing importance of social media and author platforms it’s crucial for all publishers to determine the value they add to the ecosystem.”
Obviously, I’m not the only one watching the industry from the perspective of social ecology and evolution. Survival has always been about defining and defending a niche. Adapt, or go extinct. Traditional publishing models look so Carboniferous now.
“What’s very dangerous,” said Bezos, “is not to evolve.”