Here are a few of the stories that caught my eye in the publishing space this week.
Amazon’s Price Check ignites passions, but perhaps cooler heads will prevail
Amazon’s Price Check promotion caused quite the kerfuffle last week, and the publishing industry arguably made the most noise — which is interesting, as books were not included in the promotion. Author Richard Russo fanned the flames again on Monday with his op-ed piece in the New York Times, in which he noted responses from his fellow writers: “I wondered what my writer friends made of all this, so I dashed off an e-mail to Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, and cc’ed Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Andre Dubus III, Anita Shreve, Tom Perrotta and Ann Patchett.” The response?
These writers all derive considerable income from Amazon’s book sales. But when the responses to my query started coming in it was clear Amazon’s program would find no defenders in our ranks … ‘Scorched-earth capitalism’ is how Dennis described it … Andre was outraged by Amazon’s attempt to turn its customers into ‘Droid-packing’ spies … [Stephen King] saw the new strategy as both ‘invasive and unfair’ … it was ‘a bridge too far.’
Russo went on to praise the indie bookstore experience and indicate Amazon is killing the reading culture: “Armed with such experiences, my writer pals and I took personally Amazon’s assault on the kinds of stores that hand-sold our books before anybody knew who we were, back before Amazon or the Internet itself existed. As Anita [Shreve] put it, losing independent bookstores would be ‘akin to editing … a critical part of our culture out of American life’.”
Chad W. Post over at Three Percent chimed in with a piece, in part a response to Russo, that is well worth the read (hat tip to Peter Brantley and @calliemiller). Post argued that Amazon is a corporate business acting like a corporate business — just like the Big Six publishers:
… it’s worth wondering if the Big Six are in this publishing game for the benefit of book culture as a whole, or to make as much money as possible for their shareholders. The correct answer is the latter, and that’s reflected in nearly every decision they make. As a result, people like Richard Russo and Stephen King publish their books with Random House and Simon & Schuster so that they can reap the benefits of these corporate practices … And that’s totally well within their rights. And by ‘their,’ I mean Russo & Co., the Big Six, and Amazon.
Post goes on to suggest more productive ways to approach the situation with Amazon that are worth a look.
Ed Cain over at Forbes had another pragmatic approach to the situation:
This is the future of online retail. Expect price checking apps from lots of other companies in the near future. Brick-and-mortar retailers and booksellers will have to respond by offering something that online stores simply can’t offer: an experience.
At the end of the day, Don Linn had perhaps the most succinct response to the Amazon as Evil Empire situation:
This kerfuffle isn’t likely to die anytime soon, however. Slate fired things up in the opposite direction from Russo et al., Tuesday with its post “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller: Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.”
Consumer Reports hits digital publishing’s sweet spot
The New York Times reported this week that Consumer Reports “has more than six times as many digital subscribers as The Wall Street Journal, the leader among newspapers … And in August, Consumer Reports started generating more revenue from digital subscriptions than from print.” And on top of that, Consumer Reports isn’t losing its print subscriber base.
Granted, as Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and formerly managing editor of WSJ.com pointed out for the post, news organizations can’t just rip a page out of the Consumer Reports playbook:
It isn’t much of a leap for people to pay $5.95 a month for access to a database that will help them make a wise purchase of a $500 dishwasher or a $25,000 car. It is much harder to get consumers — particularly those trained for the past 15 years to expect content for free — to pay for coverage of metro news, football games or politics.
But news organizations certainly can glean some helpful tips. For example, Grueskin noted that Consumer Reports has been consistent with its paywall — it didn’t go up, then come down, then go up again.
In addition to several other takeaways for news organizations — including discussions about crowdsourcing, injecting youthful creativity into business culture and supplying authoritative information — Consumer Reports’ policy of not allowing advertising in order to “protect a reputation for clearsighted recommendations” should inspire insight. Obviously, news organizations can’t eliminate advertising, but perhaps they can look at the quality of their ad inventories and make adjustments and decisions accordingly.
The verdict: Kindle Fire goes back in the box
David Streitfeld at the New York Times followed up this week on a piece he recently wrote on consumer dissatisfaction with the Kindle Fire. Streitfeld said he received a “torrential response” that ranged from Fire devotion to Apple conspiracy theories. “The uproar,” he said, “underlined yet again how people have deep-seated but contradictory feelings about their devices. In one sense, they demand a lot; in another, they are very forgiving.”
Streitfeld turned to digital book consultant and author Peter Meyers for his professional evaluation of Amazon’s tablet device. Meyers, who wrote O’Reilly’s upcoming “Kindle Fire: The Missing Manual,” was decidedly unbiased in his opinion of the Fire:
Apple would have never shipped a device like the Fire. It’s got way too many rough edges (sluggish touchscreen, magazine apps that don’t really fit the smaller screen, an easy-to-hit power button) … But the Fire’s not made for Apple’s customers … It’s for the millions of people who: a) don’t have $500-plus to spend on an iPad and b) really want to be part of the touchscreen revolution that’s changing how we control devices.
Which device will win Meyers over in the end? He’s very clear about what he’ll do with his Kindle Fire: “Mine’s going back in the box as soon as I’m done [with the manual],” he wrote in an email to Streitfeld. “The iPad 2 is years ahead of it and lets me consume and create with no friction.”