"Your margin is my opportunity" ~ Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos
Last week while on a day trip to Seattle, I decided to make a stop at Amazon’s first“Brick and Mortar” store, in the University of Washington neighbourhood of University Village.
I had two goals in mind. I wanted to see if I could get a personal book recommendation from an employee and I wanted to purchase a book without leaving any data. I am not averse to providing personal information, but I like to have the choice.
Now the company was moving into the physical space. How consumer-centric would it be?
As I wandered into Amazon’s first physical book store, I was struck by nostalgia for the small independent bookstores. Amazon has gone full circle. The small independent bookstores were decimated by massive, multi-city block stores such Chapters in Canada and Barnes and Noble in the US. In turn, Amazon’s entry into the online bookselling business in the late 1990s had, by the early 2000s, badly bruised the competition. Books began to take a back seat to lifestyle merchandize, kitschy cards, stationary and stuffies. Amazon grew bigger, squeezed publishers on pricing, and further backed the physical bookstores into a corner. Books were longer realizing a sustainable margin for the big chains. By 2010, Amazon dominated book selling through online sales of print books, and leading the way in eBook sales and its proprietary electronic reader – the Kindle.
The Seattle storefront reminded me of a modest neighbourhood book store in a great community setting. There was a cupcake shop and kids toy store nearby, and kids were playing on an outside playground. People were coming out of Amazon chatting and smiling, heading off to get a coffee and talk books.
An employee greeted us inside the store. She held an electronic gadget in her hand and smiled warmly as she beckoned toward the inside of the 7400 square foot store. In the very centre of the room, sat a huge flat screen TV. I am not sure if it was 4K, but the three kids sitting in front of it sure looked happy. They were playing the iOS-born Crossy Road using Amazon Fire TV.
Next to the TV was a table bedazzled with Kindles of all makes and models. A salesperson was talking to a customer about Amazon’s Digital Assistant Alexa (allegedly named in tribute to the Library of Alexandria). “Alexa” is actually the wake-up word used to activate Amazon’s Echo, a voice command device for the “smart home”, which answers questions, reads audio books, orders pizza, and becomes increasingly better at offering suggestions and choices the more data “she” has to analyse.
The more questions you ask of Alexa and the more you interact with it, the more it can “help make your life easier”, assures the salesperson. The customer is clearly unsure as to how all this works and suggests that it might make too much personal information freely available.
The salesperson quietly tells him that the information collected by Alexa is used to enhance the customer experience; to make shopping easier. Developed for the voice-activated “smart home ecosystem”, Alexa also personalizes search results for pretty much anything: books to vacations and, of course, helps the user order or restock items through Amazon.com.
Not having access to Alexa in Canada, I was completely enthralled, but I was getting data-saturated.
I refocused on books and decided to ask the nice employee who greeted us at the door if she might be able to help me find a book. She whipped out her device and asked me what title I wanted. I said I was looking for a recommendation of some titles. I told her I wanted to buy something for a friend who was interested in sports writing, more specifically, newspaper sports writers’ work outside of their journalism work.
She frowned and said she was sorry. She could only search by title and that she did “not know all the books in the store.” She suggested I try the Sports, Entertainment, Biography and Reference sections. She assured me that all the books in the store were 4 or 4.5 stars. I asked what that referred to and she said all the books in the store were curated according to the reviews at Amazon.com.
I walked to the Sports section and browsed some titles. I found an anthology of sports writing. It looked good. I checked the price on the back – $14.95. Knowing that Amazon would use the online price, I walked back to the employee and asked what the barcode on the cards attached the shelf was for, pretty certain it was a way to get the online price. She told me it was for internal inventory control.
On my way back to the shelf I ran into another employee. I showed him my book and asked if I could find the online price. He led me to a price checker. And there I discovered the book was listed at $11.99. Perfect, I thought. I did not have to give any personal data and I will get a nice discount. As I turned to leave, the employee suggested I also download the Amazon app. All I had to do was click the tiny camera icon on the app I could scan any price by using the bar code on the shelf to get the lowest price.
I said I was told the barcode was for internal inventory control. He looked baffled and told me they use the code to allow customer access to the most up-to-date online discounts. He noted that the online prices were always fluctuating “for various reasons” and that instead of changing the physical cards on the shelf, they just do it electronically. Makes sense.
I download the app and head to the children’s section. Already I knew by even using Amazon’s WiFi on my phone my data footprint was becoming visible, but I was not planning to log in to the app, just use it to check prices.
I scanned one children’s book and I got the prize in Canadian dollars – more than the American cover price. Not good, but not too surprising given the current exchange rate.
I scanned another title. This time, I was instructed to log in. I would just go buy my books. I did not HAVE to log in anyway, I could always use the scanner, but if I did log in would I get a better price based on my own shopping habits? Would I get a “personalized” price? I did not see how they could be that customized (yet) since the sales person was scanning the book itself. And as I did not log in to the app, I have no idea what steps I would have been taken through on my phone.
Ha, I thought. Minimal data breadcrumbs and I have two books, an enjoyable shopping experience (for the most part – still wondering about the internal inventory control comment – and I have US cash so I don’t have to worry about the weak Canadian dollar in the purchase.
“You have saved 35%!” the beautifully-dressed salesperson told me. Great, I think, and hand her my two American twenty-dollar bills. Her brow wrinkles and she says, “I am sorry. We are a cashless store.”
What?? I have no US credit card on me, and using my Canadian Visa is going to wipe out my discount and probably even add to the list price. I ask why in the world Amazon doesn’t take cash.
She smiles and says, “We want to replicate the online experience as much as possible.”
“But, you’re a physical store with physical books and I have physical money.”
She was sorry, she said.
I handed her my credit card. I could almost feel my data downloading into the Amazon vortex as my card slid through the machine. So much for avoiding the data trap…
“Have a wonderful day!” I heard from behind me as I headed out the door and thought about the rumoured expansion of Amazon’s physical stores into everything, not just books…
 The location opened in the fall of 2015, with plans for a second one for San Diego, and according to some industry experts, as part of rollout of hundreds more.
 (Just last week Amazon released two new “siblings” for Alexa: the Echo Dot and Tap).
McKellar & Martin, a small Canadian children’s book publisher, converted their first titles from print to ebook in August 2013. They approached the conversion as a pilot project to develop their own digital publishing strategy. This report analyzes the development of McKellar & Martin’s strategy from the initial goal-setting to the point at which the ebooks were ready to go to market. The report reviews the publisher’s unique context, the audiences they aimed to reach, and the two titles selected for conversion. It provides a detailed account of the conversion process and tactics used, and discusses how McKellar & Martin overcame some unique challenges. The report concludes with recommendations for McKellar & Martin as they begin their ebook distribution and marketing. The aim of the report is to provide small publishers with a blueprint for developing their own digital publishing strategy that will stand the test of time. Read more
A couple of months ago I traded in my old first generation Samsung Galaxy–it had been the fanciest smartphone around for a few weeks in the fall of 2010. I went big: my new phone is a Galaxy Note II, which is close to twice the size of my old phone. Funny to even think of it as a phone; I almost never talk on the phone. Rather, it’s a handheld Internet device. I won’t go into the neologisms, but really, it’s a small tablet–a much better size to carry and hold (and look at) than my first-generation iPad, for instance.
When I got the Note II, Rogers had a promotion on where they’d throw in a Kindle Paperwhite with a new signup. I qualified, so I now have a Kindle as well, which is nice because the last e-ink reading device I had was a first-generation Kobo that was completely useless. So, having spent a little bit of time with these two new toys, I can make some comments. Read more
The methods by which we learn to read not only embody the conventions of our particular society regarding literacy . . . they also determine and limit the ways in which our ability to read is put to use.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance to humanity of reading. Books have toppled tyrannical regimes, enriched countless lives, and spread pleasure and edification across the globe. But they are not inherently liberating or democratic; they do not exist in a vaccuum. Their value in a society depends on its economic, social, and political conditions. These can breathe the life of millennia of accumulated wisdom into the people, uplifting and enlightening them – or confine them to a stunted existence as mere objects. As the proliferation of e-books, e-readers, and e-reading applications for tablet computers seems poised to end the 500 year dominance of printed books, it’s worth considering what effects (aside from the obvious commercial implications) might result from a society reliant on e-books.
Shifting the bulk of our reading to online or digital media fundamentally alters the simple and powerful act of reading. Allowing e-reader manufacturers and e-book retailers to mediate our reading experience makes us increasingly susceptible to censorship and surveillance, and the data-gathering capabilities of these devices adds another dimension to reading that benefits only their manufacturers. These effects are abetted and amplified by the internet’s monopolistic tendencies. Regulatory measures – such as enshrining a “right to read” or clawing back some of the internet’s privatization – would ensure the promise of reading is fulfilled.
Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. … I’m confident that consumers worldwide will reward companies that follow those principles.
In spite of the heady Utopian rhetoric of the early days of the internet, the hyper-modern creation of e-readers that purchase e-books from internet-based retailers has emphasized the ancient problem of censorship. Of course formal censorship existed in brick-and-mortar bookselling days, but the digital nature of e-books and the vast platform of retailers such as Amazon and Apple creates the potential for much more pervasive de facto censorship.
For example, Apple has changed the title of Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: A New Biography, to V*****, and refused to sell two mainstream German magazines containing nudity; most recently they’ve been criticized for refusing to sell Hippie 1 and Hippie 2, Danish e-books and iPad apps containing photographs of naked hippies, even after the publisher resubmitted the titles in censored form. This is part of an emerging trend in large internet-based enterprises, whereby things like search results and auto-complete suggestions are censored using algorithms – this occurs generally unbeknownst to the wider public, but nevertheless subtly imposes and shapes social norms and attitudes.
Uffe Elbaek, the Danish culture minister, said that a danger of the global e-commerce marketplace is that companies such as Apple “will decide how freedom of speech will be arbitrated and who is allowed artistic freedoms. It’s important that we have these discussions at regional and national levels.” The publisher of the books, Jens Lauridsen, raised another critical issue, that of self-censorship: Apple’s guidelines for appropriate content will lead to artists censoring their own work in order to gain access to their stores.With companies like Apple and Amazon granting access to hundreds of millions of customers, many artists will decide they can’t afford not to self-censor – thereby depriving the world of potentially beautiful and valuable work. The decision of one retailer to not stock a title – based on subjective moral claims, ambiguous policies, or private religious views – can negatively affect millions of people.
When you buy a physical book, the transaction usually ends the moment you walk out the door. You have your book, they have your money, everyone’s happy – you’re free to read, lend, or deface your book however you see fit. When buying an e-book, however, the initial transaction is only the beginning of a long and intimate relationship. The salient difference is not the screen, e-ink, or even a digital text’s infinite reproducibility, but the construction of devices like the Kindle, Kobo, or iPad (and their equivalent apps for tablet computers) as “tethered appliances:” they are easy to use, difficult to substantively modify, and useless unless connected to the vendor.
This is problematic for a few reasons. The first is that the e-book retailer has the ability to alter or delete an e-book after it’s sold. In 2009 Amazon did exactly that, deleting from Kindle devices every instance of Orwell’s 1984, because the publisher offering it for sale through Amazon did not own the rights (1984 does not enter the public domain in the United States until 2044). Two affected Kindle owners threatened a class-action lawsuit, and Amazon eventually apologized and vowed never to delete books again unless ordered to do so by a court. But as Anton Chekhov and Cory Doctorow well know, if a gun appears in act one it must be fired in the third: just last October, Amazon deleted the entire library of a Kindle owner in Norway and refused to offer an explanation (at least until the story gained media exposure).
Further reasons to be concerned about the tethering of e-readers stem from their “upstream capabilities:” Kindles automatically upload (to Amazon.com’s servers) data including notes, bookmarks, annotations, highlights, and progress within titles. Marketing material for the Kobo ARC promises that the device “truly gets to know you – the real you and not just your purchase history,” in order to ease that “time-consuming and confusing” process of finding new books to read. In a 2012 survey of 9 popular e-readers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that most of them tracked search data, shared it with law enforcement or “trusted third parties” (in the case of Kobo), provided only limited customer access to and control of personal information (although Kobo provides full access), and shared information outside of the company without a user’s consent.
This upstream data flow amounts to surveillance of what used to be a private, individual activity. E-readers can track not just the books you read but how you read them and what you thought about them. Information that used to exist solely in a person’s mind or the marginalia of a book can now be easily shared within the company, with other companies, and with law enforcement agencies. This is not just a concern in non-democratic nations; according to Ronald Deibert,
Most liberal democratic governments have also pushed for new surveillance powers, downloading responsibilities for collection of data to private sector actors while relaxing judicial oversight of sharing with law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
For example, in the United States, a company’s data is subject to the Patriot Act no matter where in the world it is stored, and because this information exists on a server it is considered “stored communication” and is accessible with a subpoena rather than a warrant.
Of course, companies don’t collect this data with the intent of sharing it with the police. In the case of a company like Amazon, which should be seen not as a retailer but as a technology company, the wider strategy is to collect as much data as possible and convert it to a revenue-producing asset. The private activity of reading generates data, which in the aggregate can reveal patterns of behaviour far more profound than just purchasing habits, and is then used in the broader corporate context to more effectively sell things to you and others. This creates a second kind of reading that exists in parallel to the traditional sense, one whose value is wholly economic and benefits only Amazon. By engaging in leisurely or intellectual pursuits, Kindle readers are working in the sense of creating value for others, but have no sense of having worked, and of course receive no pay. Just by buying an e-book and sitting down to read it on their Kindle, they become human resources in Amazon’s computing system.
By objectifying the act of reading, e-readers constrict a fundamental space of individual autonomy, for the financial gain of private enterprises. Readers might be willing to accept some behind-the-scenes data-gathering in exchange for the convenience of e-reading, but the act of reading as expanded and redefined by a Kindle tethered to Amazon.com nevertheless represents “a challenge to a core set of liberal democratic principles.”
As undesireable as a society consisting only of tethered readers may be, this is not meant to vilify companies like Apple or Amazon. “Locking-in” customers via tethered devices and then exploiting the available data is an extraordinarily effective business strategy, and in the absence of compelling reasons not to—legislation, or irate customers—it’s in their best interests to aggressively collect as much personal information as possible in order to further “corral us into walled gardens.”
Unfortunately, the public’s interests don’t always align with the interests of private companies. The global connectivity of the internet, initially seen as an egalitarian, democratic public good, has proven to be even more susceptible than “real-life” markets to the monopolizing tendency of capitalism. The collaborative potential of the internet has enabled public goods such as Wikipedia and open-source software, but it has also enabled the rise of many monopolistic companies with massive economic power. In heavily networked economies, success begets success: as a company gains market share, the “network effect” means its attractiveness to other customers increases disproportionately, and it quickly runs away from the pack. To illustrate, in the US in 2001 the top 10 websites received 31% of all pageviews; by 2010 their share had increased to 71%. This process has repeated many times, and now instead of competitive industries we have oligopolistic markets commanded by behemoths like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple, who have the power to derail economies and shape the technological landscape, including the nature of the future of reading.
With each deleted Kindle library, each censored book in the iTunes store, and each expansion of an e-readers ability to surveil its owner, it becomes more readily apparent that there are costs to the benefits of the internet and its associated devices, costs that we are paying without fully appreciating. To counteract this process and protect the unadulterated beauty and power of reading, it is worth considering policy interventions. Enshrining a “right to read” as a necessary corollary to the freedom of expression would ensure that an individual is able to read freely, without fear of surveillance or the abuse of data gathered in relation to their reading, and would therefore have something of substance to express. California has taken steps in this direction – they’ve passed a “reader privacy act” that grants more robust legal protection to the records of e-book consumers.
More broadly speaking, if the internet were seen as a public utility, in keeping with the very early days of its (publicly funded) development, some of the privately-enriching, publicly-impoverishing tendencies of market economies that it amplifies, as personified by tethered, data-gathering e-readers and moralizing e-book retailers, might be kept in check. Private companies should not be the only interests shaping the nature of the internet, especially as it comes to dominate more and more aspects of our lives. If we are to retain our freedom to, for example, read freely to our own ends only, then “the system’s overriding logic—and the starting point for all policy discussions—must be as an institution operated on public interest values.” This is highly unlikely (barring the complete collapse and rebuilding of the global economy), but at the very least we should appreciate that a reading experience controlled and mediated by a private company is, for all its convenience and utility, a fundamentally different experience, one that can lead to abuses of our best ideas of a free and open society.
This presentation is an overview of the different electronic publishing options for books, including a breakdown of which devices support which file formats, and the relative investment of time and money needed to create each of the three main file formats (.pdf, .epub, and .azw).
Multi-format Publishing: So Many Formats, So Little Time