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Jeff Bezos Makes the Trains Run on Time

This week brought a post by Matt Yglesias at Vox in which he says, more or less, it’s a good thing that Amazon is bringing the publishing industry to its knees. I’ve made my position on Amazon clear, but even beyond my baseline antipathy toward the online shopping giant, Yglesias’s post disturbed me. It exemplified the most troubling attitudes of the Silicon Valley Thinkfluencers who are supposedly leading us to a glorious digital utopia.

The thrust of Yglesias’s pro-Amazon argument is that the publishing industry is full of inefficient corporate dinosaurs. By this reasoning, Amazon’s dominance of the bookselling market has done nothing more than expose that industry’s soft underbelly. Now that any person can make an ebook and sell it on Amazon themselves, he says, publishers are “superfluous” and “don’t contribute anything of value.”

Yglesias’s main objections to the publishing industry seem to be over questions of efficiency. He believes publishers should put their money into software/hardware development and marketing, and not into author’s advances. They should stop publishing print books, which cost way too much to produce and ship. They should charge rock-bottom prices for their ebooks because these cost very little to produce.

The culture of digital innovators lies somewhere between Ayn Rand and Logan’s Run. For them, the Invisible Hand Of The Market dictates the path on the evolutionary cladogram of business. Follow it or die. The implication of Yglesias’s post is that publishers’ failure to take any of the steps he prescribes is proof enough of their obsolescence, a sign their extinction is not only inevitable but deserved.

The problem is, publishing can’t follow Amazon’s example, even if it wanted to. The industry was founded around a far different core than the company that aims to bury it.

It is true enough that most publishing houses now are owned by conglomerate behemoths indistinguishable in their size and structure from the GE’s and Viacoms of the world. It is true that publishing houses, like any branch of the culture industry, produce as much malnourished dreck as any fast food chain. But this bloated exterior is wrapped around a nucleus that actually wants to produce quality.

At their core, publishing houses are charged with the long, laborious process of enabling  the creation of art. This process is almost like developing prospects in baseball: It resists being rushed, is rife with the potential for failure, and doesn’t always prove lucrative even when good “product” is produced. An editor could spend years working on just one book with an author, believe with all his/her heart and soul that it is The Great American Novel, and release it into the wild, only to watch it go over like a lead balloon. Publishing is the opposite of efficient.

It is telling that nowhere in Yglesias’s piece do considerations of literature or art come up. The word editor is mentioned once, and then only for Yglesias to suggest a big-time author like George R.R. Martin could hire a freelance one if he wished to self-publish. In other words, editors should join his vision of the 21st century and be set adrift on the rocky seas of The Gig Economy.

Efficiency is Amazon’s religion. Amazon’s enormous success rose from its ability to bring you the things you want when you want them. Amazon has zero stakes in the content of your package, except to see that it gets to you as scheduled. This credo drives all on-demand internet businesses. Netflix, Seamless, Uber, Airbnb, and all their imitators operate on the same idea. None of them “make” the service they provide (except possibly Netflix and its “original shows,” at best a gray area). These businesses simply ensure that the service is provided.

What Amazon and its kin also have in common is that their efficiency comes from relying on all the dirty work and high costs to be carried out by traditional businesses. Amazon has never tried to create books any more than it’s tried to make t-shirts or dumbbells or coffee tables or any of the other billion things they sell. The considerable costs involved in creation—R&D, editing, advertising—are borne by others. Once someone else pays those costs to produce something, Amazon steps in to offer it at wholesale prices.

Amazon is praised for its logistical wizardry, but even this “efficiency” comes at the expense of others. It farms out fulfillment to third-party contractors (and washes its hands when said contractors abuse workers).  The burden of its deliveries, in man-hours and stress, is placed on other organizations both private (UPS) and public (US Postal Service).

Think back to when Netflix was new and still primarily a DVD-rental service. The problem and cost of processing all these oddly-shaped red envelopes fell on the Post Office, while Netflix shrugged and said Good luck with that. The old, inefficient Postal Service gets constant threats of bankruptcy. Netflix gets Emmy nominations. That is the world created by our glorious digital innovators, in a nutshell.

Maybe if it publishing were run in a more efficient manner, as Yglesias prescribes, it would produce more and better art. Perhaps it wouldn’t. In either case, Amazon wouldn’t care. If a book is crappy, it means no more to Amazon than if a chair or a HDMI cable or anything else it sells is crappy. The bad review will reflect on the product, not Amazon. If the industry collapses and all we’re left with is a hellscape of self-published One Direction fanfic and Benghazi conspiracy screeds, Amazon would roll merrily along.

I don’t expect a retailer to be overly concerned with quality, whether that retailer is Amazon or Sears. But I would like someone to be concerned with it. What Yglesias seems to advocate is a universe in which Amazon is not simply a seller of books, but the model for making them. Why? Because their model works. And in the mindset of the innovator worshipers, anything that works is inherently good. Why it works, how it works, and who it works for is irrelevant.

It’s this rallying behind a corporation like Amazon for the sheer fact that it “works” that troubles me the most. In the universe where efficiency trumps all, anyone that stands between you and the thing you want is evil. Anyone that gets that thing to you slightly faster is good. Anything that takes time to produce is to be consigned to the scrapheap of history. Anything instantly deliverable is to be celebrated, no matter how rotten it is, because it’s here now.

The prevailing thought Ygelsias is espousing is the one that drives digital business in the 21st century: Stop being so sentimental. Someone was gonna come along and do this. Why not get behind the guy who did it the best?

Thinking like this was once condemned as fascist. Now it’s celebrated as Thought Leading. But at least our latest thought leaders make the drones run on  time. And with free shipping, too.

7 thoughts on “Jeff Bezos Makes the Trains Run on Time”

  1. The title comparison to Mussolini ignores the basic issue: Government can over-extend its (potentially positive) authority. Businesses are limited by the choices of their customers. Don’t like Amazon? Start the movement. To my knowledge. Jeff Bezos does not command a standing army.

  2. So I have been “lucky” to work in the publishing industry for a few years in glorious New York City. Maybe the publishing industry is concerned with quality but it doesn’t seem that way. In fact the way the industry produces books is what is probably the absolute worst way possible. The way literary agents work, the way that ivy leaguers control whats gets made and who gets paid. The the lack of investment in advertising and proselytizing anything besides a trash novel that on a spreadsheet looks good and of course the shrinking payments to authors that started WAY before Amazon. Don’t get me started on the educational publishing industry that has systematically run roughshod over all their former partners in the United States.

    Why is it that in order to become a best selling novel in America you only have to sell a few thousand copies where as everything else in media is measured in the millions? It is because no one reads. My industry has failed to promote it. Instead of owning a tower on Sixth Avenue maybe they should be a part of fixing the school system and a partner to generate a future market instead of looking at them only as a target to buy midlist YA books they exploit the authors to write with the pathetic payments then look at libraries as guaranteed sales. Is this the concern with quality you are talking about?

    There is obviously a role for publishers to play but the current players are incapable of providing the service of the future. Look I hate cowboy capitalism that our across-the-nation friends in Silicon Valley worship like the golden calf but companies like these are not your friends. There are so many things that can be done differently and better by the publishers but that is another much longer post. The fact is once Hachette closes and all the other basically same exact companies with revolving doors of pretentious, rich, white people running them there will still be book companies. There is money and profit and good will to be made here.

    Who cares what the actual seller sells if it is HDMI or Books.The price is too high and the quality is too low. Fact.

  3. To say that Amazon doesn’t care about the quality of things it sells is not true. While they may not care if a particular manufacturer fails because it produces crap, Amazon does have a concern on the actual products. Poor quality means increased returns and customer service costs, as well as inventory that ends of sitting around because no one buys it. If Amazon was purely a consignment shipper, and they were fully reimbursed by the manufacturer for all return costs (including shipping), and their customer service payroll and overhead costs, THEN I would agree that Amazon doesn’t care a hoot about product quality.

  4. “The considerable costs involved in creation—R&D, editing, advertising—are borne by others. Once someone else pays those costs to produce something, Amazon steps in to offer it at wholesale prices.”

    You purport that Amazon and similar behemoths put the “burden” of their success on other small businesses, however one would think that UPS would indeed be happy about the millions of extra dollars in revenue it makes with Amazon as a customer. The same, I expect, is true of product makers who have significantly increased their sales without incurring the burden of worldwide distribution.

    Since when has ANY distributor EVER been concerned with the quality of their products? Even my local bookstore (or library, for that matter) only carries what they hope people will buy, regardless of its artistic merit. Amazon is a marketplace, not yet a significant content creator, so I don’t see the point in attacking them for failing to create content/products. It would be like raising an angry mob against your supermarket for selling a frozen pizza you don’t like and having put the burden of making that pizza on Digiorno.

    The important point is that, yes, somebody will still need to create quality content (and products), and though it’s possible Amazon will find a way to do this better with books in the future as they are beginning to do with television (Transparent is an absolute triumph), and basic products (batteries, cords, speakers, cases, etc) the fact is that it will currently, mostly, still fall to publishing houses. Unfortunately, as you mention, even these are mostly “indistinguishable conglomerates” producing largely “malnourished dreck.” So why do you defend them so virulently? Because they happen to produce a pearl now and then? Because you want them to be the antithesis to Amazon, a company you’ve decided you hate so much that it couldn’t possibly have any value? Clearly both sides of this system need some reevaluation and some revamping. I’ll be shopping a book around soon, and I’m certainly hoping for an environment as welcoming and supportive on the publishing side as I see on the distribution side.

    A final note on the Hachette issue:
    Amazon acted in bad faith by placing severe wait times on delivery, disallowing pre-orders, and messing with search results. I hate this kind of practice and don’t support it in the least. But the only reason this matters to Hachette (and us in turn) is that Amazon has significantly helped prop up the literary industry when book sales were declining, so much so that they now account for nearly half of all books sold! Do you think they took ALL of this business from local stores? Or is it likely that they reached millions of people who never would have purchased those books in the first place? I suspect the latter. The company with the power to reach the most customers and help with advertising (in this case through front page promotion, “readers also liked” messages, and search control) always has some power in determining price point. All we have here is a contract dispute which turned kind of nasty, but also proves how ineffective publishing houses currently are at actually advertising and selling books on their own these days.

    In the end, I wouldn’t suggest that you stop being sentimental, per se. Nostalgia is always comforting. However it may be helpful to realize that many things about the current literary world – customer base, creation, distribution – are changing, and keeping up or making a difference in a changing environment is rarely achieved by digging in your heels.

  5. I’d point out a couple of things here. 1) Using the post office and Netflix as an example of “someone else doing all the work” is a little out there given that Netflix was **paying** the postal service to deliver it’s DVDs (over $500 Million a year) and was considered one of their biggest single customers. For an organization as financially troubled as the USPS, its a little hard to demonize Netflix for being a major contributor to their bottom line. The same goes for Amazon and UPS. You can bet the farm that FedEx would be pretty eager to take that horrible “burden” off of UPS’ hands. 2) I’m far from one of the crazy free market guys, but I think Amazon’s business model as it applies to books is a pretty good example of customers having the ultimate say in what books do well versus not. The internet (social media in particular) is an effective equalizer when it comes to promoting the good and calling out the bad. So while the effect of one editor’s opinion of quality may be lessened under certain circumstances (referring to: “someone should care), a robust customer review system, social recommendations and sales data have a much more profound way of pushing the best, more innovative works of art.

  6. Matthew Callan, your opinion is simply wrong.

    Amazon absolutely cares if an item is crappy or rotten. The product reviews are extremely valuable. Well reviewed products sell in far greater quantities than crappy or rotten products. Amazon knows this and recent changes to how reviews are viewed and managed reflects this.

    Hell I won’t even buy a product anymore without checking Amazon for reviews.

    UPS and USPS are both businesses too. They wouldn’t deliver Amazon’s packages for a loss. In my country, Canada, our national postal service is losing money on letter mail, while racking in profits on parcel delivery… many of those parcels being handed off to Canada Post from USPS.

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