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Podcast: Will Amazon Lead Us to the Golden Age of Books?

FT-141030-Amazon.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge[1] Amazon has been the subject of much debate in the book industry for at least the past decade, and it will continue to be debated long after the stake is lit. The retailer has been the subject of numerous panels at conferences, and on Wednesday night it received special attention.

Slate and New America held a special panel in New York City two nights ago to answer the question: "Will Amazon Lead Us to the Golden Age of Books?"

Luckily for those of us who were unable to attend, the event was recorded and it’s now available online. The podcast can be found on Soundcloud, and you can listen to it below. It’s 48 minutes long. (You can find more details on the panelists over here.)

I’ve listened to it twice, and I’ve found that it is not as easy to summarize or break down into sound bites as that debate held in July. (That event could be summed up as "Die Amazon, Die".) Slate posted a recap, but I don’t think they captured the nuances of the discussion.

I’m not sure I can either, but I did gain a couple insight. One of my takeaways from this debate, and it’s something I learned not so much from what someone said but the viewpoint he revealed, is that some still see Amazon as – but not Amazon plus all the subsidiaries like Goodreads. (I make this mistake as well.)

That point came to me about two thirds of the way through when one of the panelists remarked that Amazon is really great at selling books but that book stores were still better at discovery, and at book culture. That got me thinking about how online bookselling proving the economic theory about a new sub-optimal competitor disrupting the old by focusing on one area and doing it better. That led me to the understanding that Amazon had bought Goodreads because it knew that alone was great at one thing, selling, and that to really compete with bookstores Amazon needed to also match the discovery and culture aspects as well.

That point is rather off topic for Wednesday night’s debate, I know, and now that I’ve written down I see that it is also obvious. But it was something I learned.

What did you think of the discussion?

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Juli Monroe October 31, 2014 um 11:12 am

While it’s true that the purchase of Goodreads gives Amazon a way into book culture, I don’t think it’s fair to say that bookstores are better at book discovery. I find more book recommendations from Amazon than from bookstores (mostly because I’ve given up on going to bookstores, except for the occasional nostalgia indulgence). I find most of my books from ads on my Kindle and from reading blog posts where I discover new authors. I assure you there’s no shortage of books to read on my wish lists (both at Amazon and the library) or in my Scribd library. No unmet discovery challenge here.

AvidReader October 31, 2014 um 1:49 pm

Does anyone notice that when Amazon makes acquisitions, they are usually complementary to Amazon products and instead of being absorbed into Amazon are often left to operate independently including – Apple and which Amazon outbid Wal-Mart on. How many other large corporations can say the same?

Nate Hoffelder October 31, 2014 um 2:16 pm

Amazon has two acquisition strategies: they buy tech companies which do something Amazon wants (Kiva Systems, Mobipocket, Audible, Ivona) and they buy retailers which are better in a particular niche than Amazon.

Amazon leaves the retailers independent because each one forestalls another startup taking its place. Amazon also picks the brains of all of its acquisitions, and gets better. For example, used Kiva Systems’s warehouse robots to increase efficiency, and eventually Amazon realized the value and bought the supplier.

anotherdigitalreaderfan October 31, 2014 um 1:01 pm

A big population of book lovers will not stop going into bookstores, same reasons vinyl record stores are coming back. Nice post Nate.

Nate Hoffelder October 31, 2014 um 1:06 pm

Aside from the occasional trip to B&N for work related purposes (and the rare occasions where I need to kill time), I haven’t been to a bookstore in years.

In comparison, I used to visit my local used bookstore twice a month. Now, not so much.

Thomas October 31, 2014 um 1:30 pm

For all of the publicity it gets, vinyl is still a tiny market. Total sales in 2013 were 6 million, compared to 193 million CDs and 118 million digital downloads. It’s only 2 percent of total album sales. I don’t think traditional book printing would be feasible if sales dropped that far.

Mike Coville October 31, 2014 um 1:36 pm

I think "big" is not the right descriptive for the amount of people who will forgo progress and still go to bookstores. A small niche of audiophiles still buy vinyls, and I think that is a good example for book stores. I would say a big population of book lovers will continue to buy hard copies, but just not from in-person bookstores. Of course I could be wrong, only time will tell.

anotherdigitalreaderfan October 31, 2014 um 2:10 pm

I guess it depends on how you define golden age. Is it like car enthusiast’s or in terms of sales and industry stats. I think a lot of those Harry potter fans waiting inline with their friends having a blast will look back some day and think that was a golden age.

AvidReader November 1, 2014 um 12:45 pm

Are we talking about a golden age for readers or a golden age for writers? A golden age for ideas and works that inspire us or of availability. Is a golden age a matter of perspective? When we discuss the disappearance of bookstores,, for many older generations a local bookstore did not really exist until malls started to proliferate. Most of my shopping for books was done in supermarkets or a small area of a department store. The remainder came from my local library. Selections were so limited that I read and re-read my favorites. Still, there were a wealth of writers to inspire us including Asimov, Bradbury who opened up the possibilities of space. Old fashioned mystery writers Gardner, Mcbain, John MacDonald, the emergence of female protagonists like Paretsky to encourage others to follow in her wake, romance writers like Holt and Stewart who also broke ground with her Merlin books and adding to the Merlin and Arthur legends T.H. White. Tolkien made writing fantasy legitimate. Now we have the new frontier of self publishing encouraged by Howdy and Konrath and others. Most authors can look to the past to see someone who has inspired them just as future readers and writers will look at today’s works to inspire them. Just as the internet with all its openness is a good thing even with some of the dangers it may bring, openness and availability in writing is welcome as it generates new ideas and conversations.

Nate Hoffelder November 1, 2014 um 2:09 pm

Oh, when it comes to readers, Amazon has given us a Golden Age twice: first with books which would otherwise be hard to find, and then a second one with ebooks which can be downloaded in seconds.

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