An Amazon Problem The Book Is Dead, Long Live the Book
Part 2: Is Amazon Single-Handedly Destroying Book Culture?
In the soap opera that pits making money against the love of books, and tradition against calculation, Amazon is the perfect adversary of the literary aristocracy. However, Amazon engages globally in the game with which someone like Hans Barlach merely torments the Suhrkamp establishment. The Seattle-based company is a troublemaker of global proportions.
Ralf Kleber, the online retailer's head of German operations, meets with visitors at something that looks like a store counter in his Munich office. Amazon isn't an enemy of the book, but the company wants to have the business to itself, if at all possible, and preferably on its own terms.
Amazon customers discovered this when they closed their accounts and realized that they had suddenly lost the e-books they had purchased from Amazon. Publishing houses discover this when they sell through Amazon. They are forced to give the company large discounts. At the same time, they have to accept the fact that, as publisher Christopher Schroer says, "new, freshly delivered titles turn up as defective copies" on Amazon Marketplace, the company's fixed-price online marketplace.
But the conclusions about Amazon are paradoxical. Many like to argue that the company is in the process of destroying book culture, but the success of its own Kindle reading device is itself an argument that the book is unique and will never disappear.
Millions of Kindles have already been sold, especially in the United States. The e-reader has been available in Germany since 2009.
"With the Kindle, we have tried to achieve the same effect as with a book," says Kleber. "There is nothing to distract you from the text -- no music and no emails. The book disappears during reading. You no longer perceive its existence. It's exactly the same thing with the Kindle."
This is the one good message Amazon has for the industry: The book is indeed unique. It's the only medium that apparently needs a separate device to replace it in the digital world. And it is sufficiently valuable to millions of people that they actually buy the device so that they can continue to read in the future in their electronic books -- quietly and without distractions.
Driving Publishers from their Ivory Towers
The paradoxical conclusion -- the book is dead, but long live the book -- is confirmed by the numbers in the marketplace. It isn't just that people read a lot. They are also untiringly writing books, and they are publishing more than ever before.
There are many literary forums with subsections for all kinds of specialized subjects and genres, visited by countless people searching for communities of readers. And it's never been this easy to publish a text as a book, at least in electronic form. All it takes is a few clicks, and it's as easy as buying a book.
This is finally driving literature and publishing houses out of their ivory tower. Literature, almost even more so than journalism, has become a mass pastime.
Amazon already has a strong position with the printed book in its online business, and it is becoming a dominant force in the e-book market, a sector in which the company already holds a market share of more than 41 percent. And Amazon's power in the marketplace continues to grow, a situation that is unlikely to change with the advent of the new Tolino Shine e-reader, a joint venture of German booksellers and Deutsche Telekom that became available last week.
"It's essentially becoming a monopoly," says publisher Helge Malchow. "In the future, all the world's book publishers could very well be dealing with the same company."
A Digital Age Challenge for Publishers
Every economic sector that is affected by the digital revolution, from news journalism to mail-order companies, travel agencies, the music industry and television, is in a similar position. The experts whose job, until now, has been to find the best books, furniture, beach hotels, TV shows, hits or news articles for their customers, are all realizing that much of their work is actually replaceable.
Customers are now ranking and evaluating these things entirely on their own, as part of a larger crowd, and they're doing it for free -- at least for whomever they're giving information about their purchases and opinions. In this case, it's Amazon.
Publishers are only gradually realizing that they cannot leave the processing of this data entirely up to the Internet giant. And they are slowly realizing that it's a game in which they have to participate to succeed.
That may explain why those in the industry have suddenly become conversant in trendy Internet slang terminology, fluently rattling off terms like "big data," "targeting," "re-targeting" and "discoverability."
Companies like Cologne-based publisher Kiepenheuer & Witsch have all of the sudden started using Twitter to allow readers to vote on book cover designs. The Piper publishing house in Munich is proud of its blogging authors and is using social media in an attempt to establish contact between authors and readers at all levels. And the global book conglomerate Random House is now hiring mostly statisticians and mathematicians in the United States, because CEO Markus Dohle has dubbed Random House a "data driven company."
Your E-Book Reader Is Reading You, Too
There's a reason for it, too. People who read e-books aren't actually reading alone. Software uses millions of pieces of anonymous data to monitor how readers actually behave. Almost everything can be documented: how fast people read, which text they highlight and which pages they stop reading. The reader has become transparent.
It is difficult to predict the consequences for the future of the publishing business. Could software be influencing the work of the editor soon? Is it conceivable that books will be rewritten based on readers' reactions, so as to achieve a higher read-through rate?
Or, as Constanze Kurz of the famous German hacker group Chaos Computer Club recently wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper: "Will there soon be versions of books that are optimized to maximize sales, advertised with a sentence like this: 'Now in the second, revised edition: easier to understand, based on data from readers' experiences'?"
Publishers are hoping to learn from the mistakes of the music industry, in particular. It was the first victim of cultural digitization. Its customers ignored copyrights to music en masse, swapping albums and songs for free.
"We're lucky," says Frank Sambeth, the head of Random House's German operations, in Munich. "We had a little time to prepare for the new world and avoid old mistakes."
When the first e-book readers suitable for mass use came on the market, a reasonable number of legal e-books already existed. In other words, customers were not essentially forced into illegality, as was the case in the music industry around the turn of the millennium, when it was possible to buy the first MP3 players but there was no decent legal platform to download music.
"Our clientele is also financially strong and willing to pay," says Sambeth. "It accepts that an intellectual product is worth something, and it's willing to pay for it."
Amazon Enters Into Publishing
But while publishing houses are currently trying to take Amazon's success casually and make the best of the triumph of the e-book, the company is clamping down on the industry by not only seeking to establish a monopoly in the sale of books, but also with its goal of producing bestsellers itself.
Larry Kirshbaum, the head of Amazon Publishing since 2011, used to be senior publishing executive at Time Warner. In addition to concluding joint venture agreements with established publishers for Amazon, he also went ahead and bought a few publishing houses and signed exclusive contracts with several popular American authors.
The competition is outraged, and they accuse Amazon of distorting prices. The company pays its authors such high fees and offers such favorable terms that the old-school publishers are also forced to pay their authors more, just to keep up.
The role of authors has also changed, although it's difficult to say in what direction. Of course, there are many more paths to success today, but it's questionable whether authors ultimately benefit when every book and every author has to become its own profit center. How will that affect Werner Fritsch, for example?
Fritsch is a Suhrkamp author, and because the world is an unfair place, he is still a starving author today. He has won many awards and fellowships. Suhrkamp has been publishing his books reliably for more than two decades, to reliable praise by the critics. Fritsch is highly respected and well reviewed, but he has a relatively small readership.
"Almost all artists I know, people who make an important contribution in terms of intellectual enrichment and bring color into the gray of everyday life, barely make enough money to survive," says Fritsch. He's also referring to himself. "I haven't written any prose yet that didn't take three years to develop, and yet it isn't even enough to live on for a month."
- Part 1: The Book Is Dead, Long Live the Book
- Part 2: Is Amazon Single-Handedly Destroying Book Culture?
- Part 3: With E-Books or Print, Publishing Remains Game of Chance