the bookstore wars are over. Independents are battered, borders is dead, barnes noble weakened but still standing and Amazon triumphant. Yet still there is no peace; a new war rages for the future of publishing. The recent Justice department lawsuit accusing five of the countrys biggest publishers of illegally colluding with Apple to fix the price of e-books is, arguably, publishings Alamo. What angered the government wasnt the price, but the way the publishers seemed to have secretly arranged to raise. Many publishers and authors were flabbergasted, accusing the Obama administration of having gone after the wrong culprit. Scott Turow, president of the authors guild, denounced the suit, as did david Carr, the media critic of the.
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The feel of a book taken from the shelf and held in the hand is a magical experience, linking writer to reader. That sentiment is likely to strike todays younger readers as nostalgia bordering on fetish. Consider the millions who are buying those modern Aladdins lamps called e-readers. These magical devices, ever more beautiful and nimble in design, have only to be lightly rubbed for the genie of literature to be summoned. Appetite for these idols, especially among the young, is insatiable. For these readers, what counts is whether and how books will be made available to the greatest number of people at the cheapest possible price. Whether readers find books in bookstores or a digital device matters not at all; what matters is cost and ease of access. Walk into any Apple store (temples of the latest fad) and youll be engulfed by the near frenzy of folks from all walks of life who seemingly cant wait to surrender their hard-earned dollars for the latest ipad, Apples tablet reader, no matter the constraints. Then try to find a bookstore. If you yard do, youll notice that fewer books are on offer, bluebird the aisles wider, customers scarce. Bookstores have lost their mojo.
Persistent rumors that b ns owners wish to sell regularly sweep the corridors of publishing. But the very idea of owning a bookstore strikes most savvy investors as forlorn. In recent weeks, microsoft Corp. Decided to challenge Amazon by investing 605 million in b ns digital-book business, an arrangement that calls for sharing revenue from e-book sales plan and other content. For many of us, the notion that bricks-and-mortar bookstores might one day disappear was unthinkable. Jason Epstein put it best. Book business, his incisive 2001 book on publishings past, present and future, when he offered what now looks to be, given his characteristic unsentimental sobriety, an atypical dollop of unwarranted optimism: A civilization without retail bookstores is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature.
The independents were alarmed by these and other aggressive strategies. The chain stores could give customers deeply discounted offerings on a depth of stock made possible by favorable publishers terms not extended to independents. Clerks at the chains might not intimately know the tastes and predilections of the surrounding neighborhood, but the price was right: lower was better, lowest was best. The death toll tells the tale. Two decades ago, there were about 4,000 independent bookstores in the United States; only about 1,900 remain. And now, even the victors are imperiled. The fate of the two largest us chain bookstores—themselves partly responsible for putting smaller stores to the sword—is instructive: Borders declared bankruptcy in 2011 and closed its several hundred stores across the country, its demise benefiting over the short term its rival Barnes noble, which. It is removing thousands of physical books from stores in order to create nifty digital zones to persuade customers to embrace the nook e-book readers, the companys alternative to Amazons Kindle.
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A well-meaning, nice martian. Bill Gates, another Martian, would welcome bezos arrival to making seattle, saying, i buy books from m because time is short and they have a big inventory and theyre very reliable. Millions of book-buyers would soon agree. As the editor of the, los Angeles Times book review, i had watched bezos early rise with admiration, believing that whatever complications he was bringing to the world of bookselling were more than compensated for by the many ways he was extending reader access. After all, even the larger 60,000-square-foot emporiums of Barnes noble and Borders could carry no more than 175,000 titles.
Amazon, by contrast, was virtually limitless in its offerings. Bezos was then, as he has been ever since, at pains to assure independent bookstores that his new business was no threat to them. He claimed that Amazon simply provided a different service and wasnt trying to snuff bricks-and-mortar stores. Independent booksellers werent so sure. in the mid- to late 1990s, when online bookselling was in its infancy, barnes noble and Borders were busy expanding their empires, often opening stores adjacent to long-established community bookstores.
Instead, he dreamed of machines that would print on demand, drawing upon a virtual library of digitized books and delivering physical copies in, say, kinkos all across the country. The bookstores that might survive in this scenario would be essentially stocking examination copies of a representative selection of titles, which could be individually printed while customers lingered at coffee bars awaiting the arrival of their order. Ultimately, epstein would devote himself to this vision. Bezos looked elsewhere, convinced that one day he could fashion an unbroken chain of ordering and delivering books, despite the deep losses Epstein warned hed have to sustain to. But first he had to insert the name of his new company into the frontal lobe of Americas (and not only Americas) consumers.
Like all great and obsessed entrepreneurs, his ambitions were imperial, his optimism rooted in an overweening confidence in his own rectitude. He aimed to build a brand that was, in Marcuss phrase, both ubiquitous and irresistible. A decade before, while a student at Princeton in the mid-1980s, he had adopted as his credo a line from ray bradbury, the author. Fahrenheit 451 : The Universe says no. We in answer fire a broadside of flesh at it and cry yes! (Many years later, the octogenarian Bradbury would decry the closing of his beloved Acres of books in Long beach, california, which had been unable to compete with the ever-expanding empire of online bookselling.) A slightly built, balding gnome of a man, bezos often struck others. If not exactly cuddly, he was charismatic in an otherworldly sort of way. A columbia university economics professor who was an early boss of bezos said of him: he was not warm. It was like he could be a martian for all i knew.
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He was sure that the algorithms of computerized search and access would provide the keys to a consumer kingdom whose remote riches were as yet undiscovered and barely dreamed of, and so he set out to construct a twenty-first-century ordering mechanism that, at least for the. one of Amazons consultants was publishing visionary jason Epstein. In 1952 Epstein founded Anchor books, the highbrow trade paperback publisher; eleven years later he was one of the founders of the. New York review of books, and for many decades was an eminence at Random house. His admiration for bezos was mixed with a certain bemusement; he knew that for Amazon to really revolutionize bookselling, physical books would have to be transformed into bits and bytes capable of being delivered seamlessly. Otherwise, bezos would have built only a virtual contraption hostage to the Age of Gutenberg, with all its cumbersome inefficiencies. But Epstein could not fathom that the appeal of holding a physical book in ones hand would ever diminish.plan
That same year, 513 million individual books were sold, and seventeen bestsellers each sold more than 1 million copies. Bezos knew that two national distributors, Ingram book group and baker taylor, had warehouses holding about 400,000 titles and in the late 1980s had begun converting their inventory list from microfiche to a digital format accessible by computer. Bezos also knew that in 1992 the supreme court had ruled. North dakota that retailers were exempt from charging sales tax in states where they didnt have a physical presence. (For years, harvard he would use this advantage to avoid collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in state sales taxes, giving Amazon an enormous edge over retailers of every kind, from bookstores to best buy and Home depot. In recent months, however, Amazon, under mounting pressure, has eased its opposition and reached agreements with twelve states, including California and Texas, to collect sales tax.) books are incredibly unusual in one respect, bezos said, and that is that there are more items in the. A devotee of the culture of Metrics, bezos was undaunted.
that growth? Bezos decided selling books would be the best way to get big fast on the Internet. This was not immediately obvious: bookselling in the United States had always been less of a business than a calling. Profit margins were notoriously thin, and most independent stores depended on low rents. Walk-in traffic was often sporadic, the publics taste fickle; reliance on a steady stream of bestsellers to keep the landlord at bay was not exactly a sure-fire strategy for remaining solvent. Still, overall, selling books was a big business. In 1994 Americans bought 19 billion worth of books. Barnes noble and the borders Group had by then captured a quarter of the market, with independent stores struggling to make up just over another fifth and a skein of book clubs, supermarkets and other outlets accounting for the rest.
One was the way the Internet made it possible to banish geography, enabling anyone with guaranteed an Internet connection and a computer to browse a seemingly limitless universe of goods with a precision never previously known and then buy them directly from the comfort of their. The second was how the Internet allowed merchants to gather vast amounts of personal information on individual customers. The Internet permitted a kind of bespoke selling. James Marcus, who was hired by bezos in 1996 and would work at Amazon for five years, later published a revealing memoir of his time as Employee 55. He recalls bezos insisting that the Internet, with its bottomless capacity for data collection, would allow you to sort through entire populations with a fine-tooth comb. Affinity would call out to affinity: your likes and dislikes—from beethoven to barbecue sauce, shampoo to shoe polish. Laverne shirley —were as distinctive as your dna, and would make it a snap to match you up with your 9,999 cousins. This prospect, marcus felt, was either a utopian daydream or a targeted-marketing nightmare.
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From writings the start, jeff bezos wanted to get big fast. He was never a small is beautiful kind of guy. The Brobdingnagian numbers tell much of the story. In 1994, four years after the first Internet browser was created, bezos stumbled upon a startling statistic: the Internet had been growing at the rate of 2,300 percent annually. In 1995, the year bezos, then 31, started Amazon, just 16 million people used the Internet. A year later, the number was 36 million, a figure that would multiply at a furious rate. Today, more than.7 billion people, or almost one out of every four humans on the planet, are online. Bezos understood two things.