Amazon is 20 years old – and far from bad news for publishers

July 16th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I was asked to write about the importance of Amazon for publishers for the company’s 20th anniversary in The Conversation. It was originally published here: theconversation.com/amazon-is-20-years-old-and-far-from-bad-news-for-publishers-43863

It has now been 20 years since Amazon sold its first book: the titillating-sounding Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, by Douglas Hofstadter. Since then publishers have often expressed concern over Amazon. Recent public spates with Hachette and Penguin Random House have heightened the public’s awareness of this fraught relationship.

It has been presented as a David and Goliath battle. This is despite the underdogs’ status as the largest publishing houses in the world. As Amazon has become the primary destination for books online, it has been able to lower book prices through their influence over the book trade. Many have argued that this has reduced the book to “a thing of minimal value”.

Despite this pervasive narrative of the evil overlord milking its underlings for all their worth, Amazon has actually offered some positive changes in the publishing industry over the last 20 years. Most notably, the website has increased the visibility of books as a form of entertainment in a competitive media environment. This is an achievement that should not be diminished in our increasingly digital world.

Democratising data

In Amazon’s early years, Jeff Bezos, the company’s CEO, was keen to avoid stocking books. Instead, he wanted to work as a go-between for customers and wholesalers. Instead of building costly warehouses, Amazon would instead buy books as customers ordered them. This would pass the savings on to the customers. (It wasn’t long, however, until Amazon started building large warehouses to ensure faster delivery times.)

This promise of a large selection of books required a large database of available books for customers to search. Prior to Amazon’s launch, this data was available to those who needed it from Bowker’s Books in Print, an expensive data source run by the people who controlled the International Standardised Book Number (ISBN) standard in the USA.

ISBN was the principle way in which people discovered books, and Bowker controlled this by documenting the availability of published and forthcoming titles. This made them one of the most powerful companies in the publishing industry and also created a division between traditional and self-published books.

Bowker allowed third parties to re-use their information, so Amazon linked this data to their website. Users could now see any book Bowker reported as available. This led to Amazon’s boasts that they had the largest bookstore in the world, despite their lack of inventory in their early years. But many other book retailers had exactly the same potential inventory through access to the same suppliers and Bowker’s Books in Print.

Amazon’s decision to open up the data in Bowker’s Books in Print to customers democratised the ability to discover of books that had previously been locked in to the sales system of physical book stores. And as Amazon’s reputation improved, they soon collected more data than Bowker.

For the first time, users could access data about what publishers had recently released and basic information about forthcoming titles. Even if customers did not buy books from Amazon, they could still access the information. This change benefited publishers as readers who can quickly find information about new books are more likely to buy new books.

World domination?

As Amazon expanded beyond books, ISBN was no longer the most useful form for recalling information about items they sold. So the company came up with a new version: Amazon Standardized Identifier Numbers (ASINs), Amazon’s equivalent of ISBNs. This allowed customers to shop for books, toys and electronics in one place.

The ASIN is central to any Amazon catalogue record and with Amazon’s expansion into selling eBooks and second hand books, it connects various editions of books. ASINs are the glue that connect eBooks on the Kindle to shared highlights, associated reviews, and second hand print copies on sale. Publishers, and their supporters, can use ASINs as a way of directing customers to relevant titles in new ways.

Will Cookson’s Bookindy is an example of this. The mobile app allows readers to find out if a particular book is available for sale cheaper than Amazon in an independent bookstore nearby. So Amazon’s advantage of being the largest source of book-related information is transformed into a way to build the local economy.

ASINs are primarily useful for finding and purchasing books from within the Amazon bookstore, but this is changing. For example, many self-published eBooks don’t have ISBNs, so Amazon’s data structure can be used to discover current trends in the publishing industry. Amazon’s data allows publishers to track the popularity of books in all forms and shape their future catalogues based on their findings.

While ISBNs will remain the standard for print books, ASIN and Amazon’s large amount of data clearly benefits publishers through increasing their visibility. Amazon have forever altered bookselling and the publishing industry, but this does not mean that its large database cannot be an invaluable resource for publishers who wish to direct customers to new books outside of Amazon.

PRESENTATION: The Lost Generation?: A Media Archaeology of the E-Book, 1929–2006

July 8th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: The Kindle’s launch in 2007 is considered pivotal in the transition of the eBook from marginal interest to mainstream phenomenon. This narrative marginalizes the pre-history of the eBook stemming from Bob Brown’s manifesto, The Readies, in 1929 through to Sony’s big push for public eBook acceptance with the Sony Librie in 2006. Traditional accounts of the eBook recall early failures to monetize the eBook through expensive hardware experiments from 1999 to 2006, but this ignores a wider range of precedents apparent from a media archaeological excavation of the eBook before the Kindle.

The current project traces the development of the eBook from the Kindle to its precursors outside of the dedicated hardware that typically characterizes the eBook’s incunabular period. It is clear that dedicated devices did not catch on prior to the Kindle, but this does not mean that a samizdat eBook culture did not exist. eBook reading prior to the launch of the Kindle was facilitated by applications for the portable devices such as PalmPilots and Game Boys. This media archaeological approach reveals the birth of the modern standards for eBook formats and how users were frustrated with the lack of available eBooks and often went to great lengths to create their own eBooks. This reaches its apex in the development of an eBook application for the Game Boy, where readers built a programme to read a range of titles from Robinson Crusoe to Lolita on the games console.

It is possible to see the foundations of the modern eBook from such activity, as the necessity for reflowable text when reading on a Portable Digital Assistant (PDA) led to the formation of the Open eBook Publication Structure (a precursor to the EPUB format) in 1999, and several portable devices such as the Game Boy Advance, PalmPilot and SoftBook had facilities for modems, allowing readers to receive books without using a computer, often seen as one of the core selling points of the original Kindle. Amazon regenerated the eBook marketplace by amalgamating these elements into a single package while leveraging their competitive advantage of their total dominance over online bookselling to transform the commercial eBook marketplace. Through reconstructing this 87 forgotten, and often-unauthorized history, it is possible to find a richer pre-history of the eBook than the generally established historical narrative of public hardware failures.

PUBLICATION: Ebookness

July 1st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: Since the mid-2000s, the ebook has stabilized into an ontologically distinct form, separate from PDFs and other representations of the book on the screen. The current article delineates the ebook from other emerging digital genres with recourse to the methodologies of platform studies and book history. The ebook is modelled as three concentric circles representing its technological, textual and service infrastructure innovations. This analysis reveals two distinct properties of the ebook: a simulation of the services of the book trade and an emphasis on user textual manipulation. The proposed model is tested with reference to comparative studies of several ebooks published since 2007 and defended against common claims of ebookness about other digital textual genres.

Rowberry, Simon Peter. “Ebookness.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies (2015) <http://con.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/06/30/1354856515592509>.