Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Does Amazon love books?

I don't listen to many podcasts, because I find them boring, the way I do most TV shows, which is probably because I don't stick with them long enough.  (I wish children's books podcasts were more like PTI.  I enjoy arguing.)  However, I do like the NYT Book Review podcast, and I particularly like last week's episode, because it touches on two issues near and dear to my heart: Amazon and children's book reviews.

In the section on Amazon, Sam Tannenhaus asks something I've been wondering: why do all the major innovations in reading and publishing seem to be driven by Amazon?  For a while, I have perceived Amazon as the big bad, so I was surprised when Nancy Pearl, whose action figure I often receive as a gift, signed a deal with them.  I thought it was the position of librarians to dislike Amazon--especially now that they are encroaching on our territory.  However, my boyfriend often declares, "Nobody loves books more than Amazon."  I think he has a point.

But before we consider the good, let's review the bad:
  • Amazon's pricing is killing the publishing industry and bookstores.  Exhibit A: Borders.  Exhibit B: Everybody else in the book world.  Not only does Amazon sell every book at a discount, but Amazon has diversified such that they can buy ebooks from publishers and sell them (or share them, as with their Amazon Prime library program) at a loss.  Publishers believe this devalues ebooks in the mind of consumers, making it impossible for publishers to continue to pay writers and everybody else a decent wage. 

  • Amazon's ebooks can only be read on Kindles.  I hate proprietary formats.  I wish they offered their books in epubs so you could read them on any device.  Sure you can download the kindle app on most devices that are not dedicated ereaders.  But I remain suspicious of any company that won't duke it out in the free market with their products and instead jealously forces consumers to choose once and for all between them and their competition.  Especially since, if they go out of business or upgrade to a new format, that theoretically leaves consumers with worthless copies of whatever they bought.

  • Amazon personalizes everything to the point of stupidity.  Instead of letting people browse, Amazon suggests titles other people have bought, titles you have looked at previously, titles on your wishlist, etc. etc. etc.  Besides being annoying and intensifying your own prejudices, this tends to privilege authors and titles that already have a lot of exposure.  The more people buy it, the more it is recommended to other people, and the more likely those people are to buy it, while first-time authors and under-the-radar books lose what little attention they might have received before we were bombarded with books that are almost exactly like the last book we read.

  • Amazon just has too much power.  Remember AmazonFail?  When books with gay and lesbian characters were excluded from sales rankings along with erotica?  What if they went all 1984 on us?  What would we do then, if all the other bookstores were dead?

So that's the bad.  But there's good stuff, too:

  • Amazon has increased choice.  It's made it easier to access self-published titles and to buy out-of-print books, not to mention the instant access to just about everything that's currently in print, in a variety of formats. If you're someone who likes to seek out, say, street lit or yaoi or obscure academic texts, then you're better off searching Amazon than your local bookstore or public library.

  • Amazon has democratized book reviewing.  This was recently and wisely discussed on TechCrunch, so I'll just point you there.

  • Amazon's programming suggests other titles you might like, allows you to make lists, and lets you access other people's lists. This is basically a positive way to say "personalizes everything to the point of stupidity."  And while I tried very hard to sound convincing when I put a negative spin on this, I actually think it's brilliant and I wonder why more libraries aren't doing similar things with their catalogs.  As for those arguments about people putting themselves into some kind of reading ghetto, I think that's really elitist.  As a librarian, I want all people to find the book they want--not the one they "should" read, and I think Amazon makes that easier, not harder.

  • Amazon has made books more affordable.  Although I've resisted buying a Kindle and have often criticized Amazon on this blog and in other places, I have started buying most of the fiction for my school library from Amazon.  It's simple, really: I have a small budget and they have the best prices.  I still buy nonfiction directly from publishers, but I have little interest in the added value Follett and and Mackin provide if it increases costs and therefore decreases the number of books in my library.  I care about increasing access, not saving myself time and effort.  So I buy from Amazon.  

At the end of the NYT podcast discussion about Amazon, reporter Julie Bosman said that the real thing worrying publishers about Amazon is that they don't know what the company's intentions are.  While publishers were conflicted about big box bookstores like Borders (the big bad of the 1990s, according to You've Got Mail), they knew that the bookstores' goal was to promote books and reading.  Is that Amazon's goal?

It seems to me that Amazon's goal is to make money, and I think that for all their talk about the future of the book, publishers and writers are worried about money, too.  However, I think it's an interesting question: Does Amazon love books?  Does Jeff Bezos love books?  If he moves on to other things will publishers, writers, and readers be better or worse off than they are now?  I have real concerns about Amazon, but I also think they have driven a lot of positive change.  It's up to us to evolve and keep up.  And stop kidding ourselves about the fact that we all totally shop at Amazon, right?

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