Bezos Tries the Washington Post, Ctd.

A long article in the July 10 issue of the New York Review of Books focuses on Jeff Bezos and a new bio of Amazon/him by Brad Stone. In it Steve Coll describes Bezos’ successes and failures at Amazon and, in the process, raises some of the same concerns I did two days ago. Money quote:

Bezos seems to believe that he can disrupt book publishers while still advancing the cultural medium he claims to love. Yet if that is his belief, there is little evidence to support it. Amazon has introduced a kind of self-publishing enterprise, the Kindle Single, which offers to writers publisher-displacing royalty rates of up to 70 percent. The trouble is that 70 percent of nothing is nothing and most Kindle Singles don’t sell enough for an author to feed a cat.

Amazon’s success has arisen from excellence in data science, distribution, and business execution, not creativity with content. The company’s attempts to publish its own trade books and to develop original television have so far failed.

The point here is, for all the good Bezos has done distributing books to the masses, he’s threatened the big publishers with his enormous market share and jeopardized the best system authors have (meagre though it may be) to sustain themselves financially. He’s done this without yet offering any credible alternative to producing high quality books and rewarding those who produce them (the very use of the word “produce” here instantly makes books and their authors into commodities, which is very unfortunate). The problems in the publishing industry are manifest, but we should tread carefully. Burning the house down is not always the best response to serious structural problems. Perhaps this is capitalism at work in its best ways and soon the blighted old will be replaced with the gleaming new. It’s reasonable to assume that great authors will always find an audience, since writing is such a natural form of human expression. But I think it’s a mistake to just assume that everything will work out in its own way.

And at the Post we can continue to be curious and optimistic, but vigilant. Coll’s descriptions of Bezos’ failures at producing books bode ill for the content of the newspaper.

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Bezos Tries the Washington Post

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been in charge of the Washington Post for almost 10 months now and some of the first reports on his leadership have come in. The longest and most comprehensive is from the Columbia Journalism Review (their editor-in-chief was a Post executive editor for some time, no doubt ensuring their access for this piece). The acquisition was huge news in the media industry, for good reason. The Post had experienced dramatic declines in revenue and circulation for decades. It also seemed like its cultural presence had diminished in the face of the New York Times – the U.S. national paper of record.

Bezos brings with him enormous expertise at navigating the digital world. Amazon.com is a ubiquitous thing and has taken on the biggest conglomerates, from Wal-Mart to the big five book publishers. It was also one of the first non-porn websites to make a lot of money and not just generate hype. It’s hard to know what the future is for large news organizations, but it’s harder to imagine a strong digital operation not being a key component of whatever model proves successful. But creating this model is a tremendous challenge for Bezos. It’s not as if large, powerful organizations haven’t tried to adapt to changing news norms. Advertising is so much less potent in the digital world than in print. Someone who clicks on a story on washingtonpost.com is far less likely to spend the time on it or browse as many other stories as someone reading that same story in print. This is coupled with the initial (and current) reluctance of many news agencies to charge for online content. The bottom line is that web traffic doesn’t generate enough money to maintain the same kind of news-gathering operations these companies had gotten used to.

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