Posts Tagged ‘Amazon’

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

I recently started using the ebook lending section of my local libraries, and in doing so made an interesting discovery. Having downloaded a book file, I quickly realised that I couldn’t read it, because it was the wrong file format. I read ebooks on a Kindle Fire, which uses Amazon’s exclusive .mobi format, whereas the library books were in the .epub format used by all other e-readers.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that the library would use epub files. After all, a publicly funded service wasn’t going to use a proprietary file format that only works with one brand of e-readers, even a brand that has two-thirds of the market share. In Britain at least, public services are still meant to be about accessibility and providing an even playing field for different suppliers. And in keeping with that ethos, there was a way around my file format problem, through a browser-based reader that works on my Kindle Fire.

To me, this is also a sign of the future of e-books. Using an exclusive file format has helped Amazon fence its readers in, keeping them using its e-readers with its e-books through its online store. But through this slightly grasping, territorial approach to its market, Amazon has excluded itself from a big public service chunk of the market. As library e-book collections grow, and people get used to using them, this is likely to become a more important part of the market, given that it’s as easy to borrow an e-book as to buy one, and often significantly less costly.

By using epub, libraries may provide a larger service than making ebooks more accessible – they may help to prevent Amazon building a monopoly.

Lies - High ResolutionI mentioned yesterday that, for now at least, my latest book is only available on Kindle. I know I have some readers who use other devices, and that this has to be annoying for them, so I thought I should explain why, as well as talking about my views on how Amazon approach this.

For those who don’t know, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing includes an option called KDP Select. If an author enrolls one of their books in KDP Select then they gain certain advantages – primarily that they can give it away for free via Amazon for a few days, which most authors can’t otherwise do, and it is included in the Kindle Unlimited reading package, increasing the likelihood of people reading it and giving the author a taste of that sweet, sweet Unlimited money. The catch is, each time you enroll the e-book in Select you do so for 90 days, and during that time you can’t publish it in other e-reader formats.

Normally, this is something I don’t do. I have no objection to Amazon offering benefits to those who work solely with them, but I’d rather not be reliant on one platform and am uncomfortable with the potential monopoly it supports.

That said, having something in Select is a potentially huge way for an author to find new readers and draw them to their work. On that basis, I’d been planning on putting something on Select at some point, though I hadn’t yet worked out what.

Then this November hit and I took on more than I could do at once. Formatting a book for Amazon is relatively easy using Scrivener, but formatting for Smashwords takes a lot more work. So rather than stretch myself further by preparing Lies We Will Tell Ourselves for Smashwords, I decided to make this my experiment in trying out Select.

Of course the same workload also meant that I dropped the ball in getting the book up on Select, not sorting my free days out in time for the book to go live on Monday, and then finding on Tuesday that I couldn’t start the free days on the day I was in. But I’m there now. Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is free on Amazon from now until Sunday, please go grab a copy and enjoy.

Sorry to my non-Kindle-using readers – I’ll make it up to you at some point, I promise!

I had a guest post earlier this week on Wayne Halm’s Golfing on Kauai blog. That might seem an odd choice, given that my one encounter with golf involved ripping my back open on barbed wire at the age of twelve (it’s a funnier story than it sounds – well, less hideous anyway). But Wayne also discusses writing on his blog, and my post is about that – about where we’re at right now as writers and readers. So please pop on over to Wayne’s blog and enjoy The Freedom of the Modern Writer. And while you’re there why not read up on your golf? Just beware the barbed wire.

* * *

On an unrelated note, thank you to those of you who took the time to respond to my post yesterday about depression, whether with a comment, a like, or talking with me about it elsewhere. That was a tough post for me to write and put out into the world, but it was important to me to say it, and your supportive feedback meant a lot.

Tomorrow there’ll be a link to another guest post I’ve written, this time for Josh Stanton. So the second half of my discussion from Monday will finally appear on Friday. Maybe. Assuming nothing else comes up in the meantime.

Wow, when did this place suddenly get so busy?

Amazon have recently launched a subscription service allowing what they refer to as ‘unlimited access to over 600,000 titles’ for $9.99 per month. Given other recent fusses around Amazon this has inevitably led to both praise and attacks from writers and publishers. But what interests me is how this sort of services affects us as readers and consumers of culture. Is this really a bold step forward?

(Spoiler alert: librarians can relax, I’m going to remember you this time)

Look, it’s the Netflix of potatoes!

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited isn’t the first subscription service to crop up in the past few years. The extraordinary success of TV streaming service Netflix means that these usually get dubbed ‘the Netflix of x’, whether x is books, maps, comics, llamas, potatoes, whatever.

I recently did a little freelance work for subscription comics service ComicsFix, and it highlighted the obvious advantage of these services for customers. This is a company charging $9.95 per month for access to products that normally cost more than that each, and that take less than two hours to read. Sure, they don’t have the big popular titles, but for voracious comics readers that might not matter next to the cost saving.

Wait, are you comparing comics with drugs? Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits - alright, that's fair.

Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits – comparing comics with drugs seems entirely fair.

So this isn’t exactly a high risk move for Amazon, and it’s one that we as customers have already proved that we like.

If it’s not bold is it at least fairly new?

Exhibit A: libraries

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Libraries have been providing unlimited access to books for many times longer than Amazon has existed. And they don’t charge us (directly) for the privilege. And these days many of them provide access to e-books – in fact this one in Texas is all about the digital (thanks to Felipe for the link).

So no, not new, but headline grabbing.

So what’s in it for us?

For all that I’ve poked holes in the innovation side, I do think that subscription services have huge advantages for us as readers, viewers, listeners, and general cultural audiences.

They give us huge choice and variety.

They let us instantly access that variety without it taking up space around our houses.

By doing this, they may free us from an attachment to possessing things as a key part of the cultural process. This moves our focus more towards enjoying the experience of those things. I think that this is, by and large, a liberating change.

By removing cost-per-unit for the consumer this could also encourage us to try new things, supporting independent and obscure creators. I’d be wary of laying down a tenner to buy something like Tony Keaton and Andrew Herbst’s Wolves of Summer, an indie comic about werewolves and the Hitler Youth. But if there’s no extra cost we’re far more likely to dip in, try something new and find out if we like it – and having tried it on ComicsFix I loved Wolves of Summer.

Yes, but…

Of course it’s not all roses and sunshine. So later in the week I’ll be looking at the adjustments, the psychological shifts, and to an extent the limitations of this move towards paying for access rather than ownership.

In the meantime let me know what you think. Do you use any of these services? Have they affected your reading/viewing/listening habits? Would your attitude be different for books?

I’ve written several posts here about how wonderful current changes in publishing and modern technology are. But not everyone sees those changes like I do, and if we’re to discuss them with any intelligence then it’s important to think about why.

The devastating loss (of coffee)

My favourite local coffee shop closed down this weekend. As a working writer this is a terrible blow. Nowhere else that close combines wifi, plug sockets and friendly service. I’m going to have to walk at least ten minutes now if I want to work out of the house. Laura’s also sad about it – the staff were friendly, they knew what we liked to drink, the cakes were top notch, it was a lovely place to relax.

I loved Barbican coffee shop, but I suspected it was doomed from the start. It was an up-market coffee house on a street of discount stores and the cheap, cheerful cafés favoured by the working (and unemployed) English. It was an independent business following a model dominated by big chains. It was bold and beautiful and I hoped rather than expected that it would last.

Alas, poor coffee, I knew you well...

Alas, poor coffee, I knew you well…

If such an expected inconvenience can put me in a grump, even though it costs me nothing directly, imagine how it must feel to have your whole working life threatened. Not just the income, or the stability, or your corner cubicle that’s handy for the coffee machine. The very credibility and value of the model you’ve invested your work in for years. That’s what the rise of indie publishing and disputes like the one with Amazon represent to the employees at big publishers like Hachette. Their working lives and personal identities are built around believing that what they do creates value for readers and writers, that their service is a good thing. And now innovators are coming in and stomping all over that.

It doesn’t matter how good the evidence is. It doesn’t matter how much they normally like innovation. They are going to be predisposed to believe and defend the viewpoint that says ‘you are right and Amazon is ruining everything’.

The frustration of facing denial

I used to work in business improvement, trying to help employees save themselves time and effort, trying to help clients get a better experience. I was constantly faced with people who would prevaricate or refuse to act on evidence clearly showing that changes would benefit everyone. They didn’t want to take the risk of changing, and it drove me insane.

That’s how it must look from the other side of the indie/traditional dispute – that of innovators like Amazon or hybrid author Hugh Howey. Their lives and identities are built around the value of moving forwards, trying new things. They find this incredibly exciting. They can see the benefits it will bring. They have the evidence. They have the logic. And yet still people dig in their heels against them.

Like some kid trying to win an argument in a YouTube comments thread, they aren’t thinking about how their argument makes people feel, just whether it’s right. But just being right won’t change people’s perspective unless you take into account their emotional response too.

So what?

So what does this mean in the end? Right now it means that no-one’s going to ‘win’ this debate. Publishing will change, and in the long run I believe the innovators will win out, not through better arguments but by providing better access to books in the way that readers want. The Amazon/Hachette dispute – which despite all this rhetoric is really just a contract negotiation – will be decided by power and profits, not who’s right about the future of publishing.

People will move on, but you can’t force them. And if you want to have an intelligent discussion about these changes then you need to think about how they make people feel.

Our reading habits are hugely influenced by gatekeepers, people and institutions who make broad judgements on what is and isn’t worth reading. It might not feel like it on an individual level, when you’re picking up the book that your friend recommended, but if you look at the big picture you can see these guardians of our reading experience looming over our selections.

They’re the big publishers, deciding what to put into print.

They’re the bookstores big and small, deciding what to order, what to show prominently on the shelves.

They’re the reviewers and editors who decide what gets attention.

They’re the writers of school and college curricula, making decisions on what counts as ‘important’.

Out with the old gatekeepers

Of course the overt power of any given gatekeeper is crumbling. Western culture developed a healthy and outspoken strain of cynicism about authority in the 1960s. The rise of the internet in the 1990s created a space in which we could easily seek out voices like our own, and so live the fractured and pluralistic culture promised by that previous generation. Now the growth of self-publishing is along many more writers to see their words in print.

The power of traditional gatekeepers is in decline. Bookstores are closing down, or at least being transformed. Ministers receive as much ridicule as praise when they try to tell us what’s worth reading.

And yet the wide range of choices causes us problems. We need a way to filter the millions of books, to decide what to read. We cannot make decisions without the help of some kind of gatekeepers. So what will those gatekeepers look like in ten or twenty years’ time? And will they empower us to make the choices that best suit our tastes, as we want them to, or will they try to make us fit their tastes, as is traditional?

Algorithms as gatekeepers

One of the biggest gatekeepers at the moment is Amazon. Its algorithms are designed to help you find books that you will like through its recommendations on what to read next. Amazon foregoes the opportunity to deliberately point you towards books which provide the company with a larger per-sale profit, instead betting on the long game. If they keep recommending the best choices for you then you will keep coming back and buying through them. It’s part of how they so thoroughly dominate the book selling market right now. If you want to know more, go read the informative books and blog posts of David Gaughran.

If the Amazon story has taught us anything it’s that nothing lasts forever. Damien Walter has predicted that, with the rise of more sophisticated software, Google may eventually take over from Amazon as our best source of book recommendations. This would, as Damien points out, liberate writers from being dependent on Amazon. However, Google’s paying customers are advertisers not readers or writers, and that could have a detrimental impact on how it works.

Algorithms have proved the sort of gatekeepers that empower us and help us to find books we want. The owners might change, but those programs aren’t going away. What will be interesting to see will be who provides the programs and who they help.

Awards as gatekeepers

Awards ceremonies provide a very different sort of gatekeeper, essentially creating a recommendation that the judges or collective community believe everyone should read. Whether it’s the impending Booker Prize directing the entire British reading public towards a single piece of literary fiction, or the fandom-voted awards that accompany the summer’s big science fiction and fantasy conventions, these are hegemonic gatekeepers, trying to hold a group together through shared tastes and identity.

The Knighton prize for getting my lazy arse out of bed in the morning

The Knighton prize for getting my lazy arse out of bed in the morning

In some ways awards are among the most old-style of gatekeepers. The idea that any single book can be held up as objectively the best in its field feels absurd to me. But these prizes aren’t going anywhere, and they do fill a useful function. They bring us together, scattered as we are by our diverse tastes, help to create bonding conversations before we scatter back to our algorithmically identified reading piles.

What other gatekeepers?

I’m sure there are other gatekeepers still of relevance. Can you think of some I’ve missed? And what difference do these ones make to your reading? Do you find Amazon helpful? Do you single out award-winning books to read?

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments.

The word ‘customer’ has a certain grubby, commercial ring to many people working in the arts and the public sector. I say this having striven all my life to work in those sectors, and as someone wary of the ‘people as sources of money’ thinking that can attach to the word.

Not what the word 'customer' is all about

Not all the word ‘customer’ is about

The problem is that ‘customer’ actually has two different and related uses. Sure, it can mean someone with whom you’re entering into a commercial transaction, providing something for money (lets call this an A-customer). But in the absence of any other word to fill its place, many organisations and systems thinkers also use ‘customer’ to refer to anyone to whom you’re providing a good or service (lets call this a B-customer).

Amazon and Hachette and customers

If you pay any attention to books as an industry then you know that there’s currently a dispute between online bookseller Amazon and publisher Hachette. If you follow any authors or book bloggers you may also be aware that it’s become incredibly divisive within the industry, with fierce words put forth on all sides.

For me, the deciding factor in this is customers. Putting the customer first isn’t just empty rhetoric – in the long run it’s what leads organisations to success. Publishing is going to keep changing, evolving towards systems that serve B-customers better because that’s how they’ll get the money out of A-customers. Any argument about publishing that doesn’t begin and end with the reader experience, taking authors into account along the way, is flawed. Publishing exists to provide readers with books, and if you don’t remember that then you’re doing it wrong.

I’m seeing a lot of arguments, especially on the Hachette side, that are doing it wrong.

TV streaming and who’s the customer

This ‘customers first’ thinking is also why I think streaming services are going to win out over traditional TV channels.

Traditional channels have viewers as their B-customers, the viewers of their shows. But their A-customers, the people paying for it, are the advertisers. As someone recently pointed out to me, if you’re not paying for something then you’re not the customer, you’re the product. As a result, those A-customer advertisers have pulled TV in directions that are less satisfying for the B-customer viewers, the shows drowned out by the volume of adverts. Given other cheap options, viewers will go for a more satisfying experience, and the service will die.

But I don’t want to be a customer!

There’s no point burying our heads in the sand. If you want to sell books, if you want to read better books, if you want to make smarter decisions about your work whatever that work is, then you need to be thinking about A-customers and B-customers. Even great art works by serving people’s needs and desires. And no-one but customers is going to pay your bills.

 

Picture by Images of Money via Flickr creative commons