Contradictions, Amazon and Attention

Two pieces appeared on Medium in the last couple of days about Amazon; both critical and complimentary in their own way. But put together they reveal a contradiction at the heart of what Amazon is doing in terms of social value.

Let me explain. The first piece you should read is by Clay Shirky. When Shirky nails an issue he really nails it. He centres his discussion on the ongoing dispute with Hachette. 

In the current fight between Amazon and the publisher Hachette over the price of ebooks and print-on-demand rights, Amazon’s tactics are awful, the worst possible in fact: They are denying readers access to books, removing pre-order options and slowing delivery of titles published by Hachette. Amazon’s image as a business committed to connecting readers to books is shredded by this sort of hostage-taking. The obvious goal for readers in should be to punish anyone using us as leverage

This looks like it will be an Amazon slam but, in fact, the piece evolves quickly into an ode for Amazon against publishers and also authors who support them. One line is the DRM issue that I have highlighted many times before: if publishers care so much about readers and want them to have retailing choice they would eliminate DRM. (On that score, Cory Doctorow also raises this point again on Locus, but surely makes an error when he says “Only Amazon can remove Amazon’s DRM from Hachette books, and they’re in no hurry to release Hachette’s readers from their walled garden.” But Hachette can overcome this by supplying a book DRM-free for free to anyone who has proof of purchase from Amazon. So this isn’t Amazon’s call at all).

Shirky’s scorn then goes to authors defending publishers and their right to set high book prices. 

The traditional industry belief — if you don’t live in a big city and have a lot of money, you deserve second-class access to books — is being challenged by a company trying to say “If you have ten bucks, there’s not a book in the world you can’t read.” If the current industry can’t keep their prices high while competing with instant distribution of a vastly expanded literature — and that seems to be their only assertion worth taking at face value — then it’s time for them to figure out how to make a business out of improved access. They can drop DRM, sell ebooks directly to readers, add or improve their subscription services, offer print-on-demand—any strategy, really, except continuing to insist that readers must accept high prices and restricted access

These are words that warm an economist’s heart. Near as I can tell, it is the argument that is our reason for being. I quote Shirky here only to provide a taste. You should read the whole piece. 

Shirky then moves further to attack the gatekeeper’s role in restricting supply.

When Packer registers his concern for “books,” he masks the aristocratic core of his argument: fear of popular participation. Like Coll, he imagines a world where the current elites aren’t in charge, and he does not like it, ending his discussion of Amazon with a the question, “When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?”

To which the answer is obvious: Of course Amazon won’t care. That’s none of their business. And note well Packer’s concern: It is not that people will stop writing or selling books that rich, well-educated people want to buy (an unlikely outcome, in this or any market.) Instead, he is concerned that publishing will become too easy, that there will be no one who can stop the publication of dreck, and by dreck he means books he and I and our fellow members of the highly educated class won’t approve of.

Now it’s a safe bet that Packer and I hate the same books — pop psychology, turgid genre fiction, heart-warming novels with relatable protagonists: “At a hotel in the Swiss alps, a penniless young beauty guards her secrets even while opening her heart…” He and I have been bred to hate that stuff. The difference is that while I disapprove of what other people read, I will defend to the death their right to read it. In a democracy, the only test any book should ever have to pass is whether the reader likes it

Again a wonderful attack on market power. He goes on:

Given their deep ambivalence about expanded participation in the making and selling books, it’s worth noting some scenarios Amazon’s critics aren’t afraid of: They aren’t afraid that books will become less accessible. They aren’t afraid that there will be fewer readers. They aren’t afraid that fewer books will be published

And he concludes:

Bezos is proposing taking Earth’s biggest bookstore (a phrase that used to smack of hubris but is now merely descriptive) and using it to move the world closer to that state of affairs. He wants to increase access to ebooks in order to make money, of course, just as the publishers want to restrict access in order to make money. Bezos doesn’t love books (something his critics never fail to note, as if selling things designed to be sold is an atrocity) but his motivations are producing better outcomes than those of the dominant cartel. If we have to pick between two corporate strategies for making money, the one offering more access is better

That concludes my ode to Shirky. Now to the wrinkle. That one comes from Craig Mod. Mod has thought deeply about reading and publishing. While Shirky’s post is high prose, Mod’s is awkward. I have no great quotes to pull from it. But his point is an important one: when Amazon provides the world’s largest bookstore — and it is getting larger and larger — how do authors compete in the market for attention? Specifically, while it is nice to believe, as Shirky appears to do, that just “getting it out there” will let the cream rise to the top, Amazon doesn’t provide a platform that quite does that. 

Instead, Amazon provides a rating platform and, when there are small numbers involved (as they must to have a long tail work out), then we get distortions creeping in. Put simply, people who hate the concept of a particular book, need not have read it to give it one star and distort the picture. Mod argues that Amazon can surely do better with its data and I would argue it surely has an interest to do better.

But how to do so is not that obvious. The standard in terms of how to start has been shown to us by researchers at eBay. As I noted a few months ago, Chris Nosko and Steve Tadelis were able to theorise about a better rating system and then also test that it would improve outcomes for consumers. So while we can praise Amazon for putting a competitive wind into an old and rigid industry, we must also be careful to continue to hold them to the fire of accountability for the efficiency of the platform in attention they are creating. It is only if they do so that the old gatekeepers and ‘standard bearers’ will face the challenge Shirky is hoping for.

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