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:

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.


July 1st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Rowberry, Simon Peter (2017). “Ebookness.” Convergence. 23:3,  289-305

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.

PRESENTATION: Mapping Amazon’s Digital Infrastructure

June 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: It is difficult to talk about the digitalization of the book trade without mentioning Amazon, but the constituency and scale of the retailer have not undergone large-scale critical scrutiny. Amazon’s infrastructure, including the integration of ISBNs into Amazon Standard Identification Numbers (ASINs), has shaped the book trade over last two decades, and in places, has replaced traditional sources of information such as Bowker’s Books in Print and Nielsen BookScan. Amazon thus presents a large cache of data for publishing studies, although Amazon is notoriously secretive.

The current project maps Amazon UK’s online bookselling infrastructure and offers an initial foray into how this data can be analysed to present a survey of the contemporary publishing landscape. While Amazon’s websites are a living resource that are difficult to map, there is an impetus to archive and analyse data immediately, as Amazon is not an archival resource, aptly demonstrated by their purge of pre-Kindle ebook data in 2007 and their recent closure of the public popular highlights function. To this end, the current project will provide an overview of Amazon’s digital infrastructure, followed by two practical applications: (1) tracking the used book marketplace with a focus on Vladimir Nabokov; and (2) analysing Amazon’s use a cataloguing tool for books not on sale through Amazon or third-party seller. Through these case studies, the paper aims to open conversations of how to use Amazon as a research tool as well as a research object.

PRESENTATION: Reading Automata

June 12th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: Mass digitization of text has resulted in the development of textual generators that are much more capable of writing through reading pre-existing chunks of text. While they do not understand the semantics of the text, many of these machines are capable of creating reasonably intelligible discourse through their reading and reassembly of pre-existing texts. Through targeting specific corpora (including Moby Dick and live data from a remote buoy; instructions from WikiHow; and a database of time zones), text generators and Twitterbots are creating engaging literary works. In this paper, I will theorise and historicise the development of reading automata within the wider context of the recent textual return in digital media facilitated by the development of ebooks and Twitter.

PUBLICATION: Indexes as Hypertext

June 1st, 2015 § Comments Off on PUBLICATION: Indexes as Hypertext § permalink

Abstract: Digital media presents several challenges to the index, but this ignores the fact that the index has played an important role in the development of the computer. Hypertext, or links between chunks of text, is a vital concept in computation, and one which can be traced back to the index. The author explores the link between indexes and hypertext through three case studies of novels with indexes: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale fire, Mark Z. Danielewski’sHouse of leaves and Steven Hall’s The raw shark texts. This analysis reveals how indexes can be used as a subversive part of experimental fiction that authors employ to encourage the reader to move beyond superficial forms of reading.

Simon Rowberry, “‘Indexes as Hypertext.” The Indexer. June 2015, pp. 50-56

PRESENTATION: 1984 Redux: The long term materiality of the Kindle infrastructure

May 22nd, 2015 § Comments Off on PRESENTATION: 1984 Redux: The long term materiality of the Kindle infrastructure § permalink

Abstract: The launch of the Kindle in 2007 marked the arrival of the eBook as a marketable phenomenon and in the following years, the eBook marketplace has gone from strength to strength. Amazon has consolidated its position as the market leader through created a complex proprietary infrastructure that has locked users into the Kindle system. This spans the ubiquitous hardware, software, large store and range of services which constitute the Kindle brand.

This has a caveat, as it means that all the data and infrastructure is reliant on Amazon’s continual investment in the Kindle brand. Due to the cloud-based storage of the Kindle’s data and the limited lifespan of the hardware, users are reliant on Amazon’s continual support. This transition is from book-as-object to book-as-service, which has some exciting opportunities but leaves consumers, and book historians, vulnerable to losing important historical data. The removal of data is not without precedent, as a copy of George Orwell was removed from users’ Kindles directly once it was discovered the publisher did not own the rights to the novel. More recently, Amazon discontinued their Kindle Popular Highlights website which offered an annotation corpus of over one million individual highlights, which is now no longer available.

In order to understand the complex materiality of the Kindle’s infrastructure, it is important to understand how it creates a situation in which we have landed into the precarious reliance on Amazon to preserve the infrastructure. The current project explores the precarious materiality of the Kindle infrastructure and the difficulties it presents for contemporary and future book historians who wish to delineate a comprehensive account of digital book culture in the early twenty-first century. As a corollary, the paper will suggest some solutions to the problem that can be undertaken currently including the urgent need to preserve the evidence that is proliferating on the Kindle infrastructure.

The strange orthography of ebooks

February 9th, 2015 § Comments Off on The strange orthography of ebooks § permalink

While the ebook has become a familiar concept since 2007 and the launch of the Kindle, there appears to be little consensus over how exactly to spell it. There appear to be three main contenders: e-book, ebook, and eBook.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to trace usage of small orthographic differences to see the popularity of each over time, but there are clear comparisons with the term ’email,’ which started off with the hyphen (e-mail) but is now normally simply spelled email as it has become the standard form of communication over the postal system. In early discussions around ebooks, a hyphen similarly marked the emergent form as alien and distinct from its printed counterpart. Perhaps over time we will drop the hyphen and this ellipsis will demonstrate how the ebook has become embedded within contemporary culture, as it is possible to trace with email.

But this leaves the question of the third orthographic variation, ‘eBook.’ While this may look like a riff on Apple’s branding for the iPod and associated devices, it’s history goes back much further to the first generation of commercial ebook device, and the Rocket eBook in particular. A couple of other devices borrowed the orthography, and it appears to have caught on beyond the brand. Interesting, since the ebook revival in 2006, this orthographic convention has not been widely copied, perhaps due to the dominance of Apple with that kind of orthography. Given its awkwardness, particularly when using the word at the beginning of a sentence, perhaps it should be used only with reference to these historic devices.

PRESENTATION: Twitter as a Site of Worship

September 22nd, 2014 § Comments Off on PRESENTATION: Twitter as a Site of Worship § permalink

Abstract: Robert Darnton’s communication model of the book trade closes with a feedback loop from the reading public back to the author. Traditionally, this would have happened through private correspondence or small-scale public events. The development of large social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter has scaled up these interactions, as well as made them visible to a wider audience, as readers can directly and publicly show their affection and support for their favourite authors.

In recent years, the rise of Twitter has been linked to its successes as a marketing and news network since it functions as a one-way broadcast medium, with many authors using Twitter to engage with an audience. In Twitter parlance, the audience of a twitter count is referred to a “followers,” a quasi-religious term that demonstrates the relationship between the authors and their readers in many interactions. The Twitter platform has also opened up the possibilities for systematic research of reception, as users can mine the large dataset of tweets for mentions of a particular book or author.

While many authors only use their Twitter account for publicity reasons, if indeed, the work is not outsourced, some authors have embraced the medium as a form of communication. Margaret Atwood (@MargaretAtwood, c.450,000 followers), William Gibson (@greatdismal, c.150,000 followers), Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself, c.2,000,000 followers) and E. L. James (@E_L_James, c.450,000 followers) represent four high profile examples of authors using Twitter as both a personal and professional tool. The current project examines the messages sent publicly to the authors as evidence of contemporary readership and the ways in which these interactions demonstrate the reception of twenty-first century authors. The writers’ mixture of tweets about contemporary issues, as well as the creative process and broadcasting some fans’ requests, reveals a new and interesting way for authors to engage with their audience. The data reveals that these authors choose to engage with some elements of their contemporary readership, but other comments go as unanswered “prayers” since the overwhelming volume of requests and messages are unmanageable for an author on their own.

EN3061: Text(ure)

September 17th, 2014 § Comments Off on EN3061: Text(ure) § permalink

I had a little tinker after last year to focus more on digital culture and less on traditional bibliographical methods. Readings are also updated in places, since, as ever, innovations in digital culture wait for no one.

Learning Outcomes

(a)        Demonstrate proficiency in skills necessary to analyse traces of the production and reception of texts in a variety of formats, both print and digital.

(b)       Have a sophisticated understanding of how a single text may exist in many different formats and how this may fundamentally alter the reception of the text.

(c)        Show an advanced awareness of contemporary techniques for analysing texts using digital tools.

(d) Critically evaluate interdisciplinary data available digitally.

Module Structure

Week 1:          Introduction

Week 2:          Literate, Oral and Tactile
Key terms: oral, literate, modality, tactile
Rubery, M. “Canned Literature: The Book after Edison.” Book History 16.1 (2013): 215-245.

Week 3:          Signs & Symbols
Key terms: writing systems, Unicode, typography, punctuation, emojis
Selections from Houston, K. 2013. Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols and Other Typographical Marks. New York: W & W Norton
Coulmas, F., 1989. The writing systems of the world, Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Chapter 2

Week 4:          Cryptography (and poster workshop)
Key terms: code, cracking, information theory, cipher
Excerpts from Kahn, D., 1996. The codebreakers: the story of secret writing. New York: Scribner.

Week 5:          Book History
Key terms: publishing, reception, materiality
Darnton, R., 2007. “What is the History of Books?” Revisited. Modern Intellectual History, 4(03), pp.495–508.
Anderson, B., 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism Revised., London: Verso. Chapter 3.

Week 6:          Born digital
Key terms: hypertext, code, platform, software
Barnet, B., 2012. Machine Enhanced (Re)minding: the Development of Storyspace. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 6(2).

Week 7:          POSTER SESSION

Week 8:          Digitization workshop
Key terms: Facsimile, scanning, OCR
Mak, B. 2014. Archaeology of a digitization. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 65: 1515–1526.
Spend at least 30 minutes acquainting yourself with one or more of these resources: HaithiTrust, NYPL Menus, Project Gutenberg or EEBO

Week 9:          eBook History
Key terms: eBook, formats, updatability
Maxwell, J. 2013. E-Book Logic: We Can Do Better. Papers Of The Bibliographical Society Of Canada, 51(1).

Week 10:        Social Texts
Key terms: annotation, marginalia, reception
Find one or two annotated books in the library/your own collection or the Harvard Views of Readers, Readership and Reading History collection
Sherman, W.H., 2008. Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Introduction & Excerpts (LN)
Jackson, H.J., 2002. Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Chapter 3

Week 11:        Artists’ Books (case study workshop)
Key terms: book-as-object, form vs. content, artists’ book
Excerpts from Drucker, J., 1995. The Century of Artists’ Books, New York: Granary Books.

Week 12:        Automated reading & writing
Key terms: searching, automation, bot
Rosenberg, D., 2014. “Stop, Words.” Representations, 127(1), pp. 83-92.

Semester 2, Week 1: Case Studies Due