Monday, December 07, 2009

So much for breakfast

The Q&A with Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, in the NY Times Magazine this weekend, done by Deborah Solomon, is a brief but frustrating read. I give Solomon credit for being bratty, though clearly she kind of puts Bezos on the ropes throughout. Still, there's no getting around Bezos' quest for retail domination. It's been edited down so I wonder how the conversation actually went. Judging from the end result in the magazine, it was somewhat tense.

Bezos' defensiveness seems a bit feeble, with him dismissing products that could be better and coming up with rather pathetic reasoning. The Nook allows you to share a book (file) with someone else, something you cannot do with the Kindle. Bezos is unimpressed:
The current thing being talked about is extremely limited. You can lend to one friend. One time. You can’t pick two friends, not even serially, so once you’ve loaned one book to one friend, that’s it.

But that's still slightly better than the Kindle, for those keeping score.

Then he's asked about the limits of reading an electronic device in a place like the tub. His suggestion to get around this problem is partially an attempt at humor, I think, but also real. His suggestion for modifying one's device to make it more bath-friendly puts him in line with friends who get a device that's too cool for school. "Look at this new calculator! It does everything!" "But can you do basic addition?" "Oh yeah, you just have to type these extra codes, which are totally, um, easy, and turn off this function..."

What do you say to Kindle users who like to read in the bathtub?

I’ll tell you what I do. I take a one-gallon Ziploc bag, and I put my Kindle in my one-gallon Ziploc bag, and it works beautifully. It’s much better than a physical book, because obviously if you put your physical book in a Ziploc bag you can’t turn the pages. But with Kindle, you can just push the buttons.

What if you dropped your Kindle in the bathtub?

If it’s sealed in a one-gallon Ziploc bag? Why don’t you try that experiment and let me know.

At that point, he's just sounding bitchy.

And then he once again confirms my concern that places like Amazon are desperate for us readers to move to a digital platform, which would mean less warehouse space for Amazon, less laborers for Amazon (see Ted Striphas' book on this issue), and probably more profit. This smells like the dream of a self-fulfilling prophecy lies beneath it:

Of all the books that Amazon sells, what percentage are digital books?

For every 100 copies of a physical book we sell, where we have the Kindle edition, we will sell 48 copies of the Kindle edition. It won’t be too long before we’re selling more electronic books than we are physical books. It’s astonishing.

Astonishing, as if there are not major ads pushing the Kindle, including commercials on the tv. No, it's just what people want, right? Just like flat screen tvs and sports cars. It's demand - we retailers are just here to provide.

This isn't a man who loves books or ideas. This is a man who loves selling crap and making money. Books made him some money, but not enough, so he changed Amazon: as Solomon points out, Amazon is now "a retail omnivore that sells basketballs and vacuum cleaners and hamster food and everything under the sun." Then he found a way to increase book sales, by pushing an exclusive (and severely limiting) reading device and files to go on it.

I'm amazed that everytime I hear or see him speak, I get that same bad taste in my mouth. And then I go to Indiebound.


Biblibio said...

Two things. The first is that I suspect Bezos's somewhat annoying responses are because some of these questions challenge his product quite intensely. He's right to laugh off some aspects (like the quite ridiculous bathtub question), but treats legitimate claims kind of strangely (the sharing aspect). He seems to view the interview as another possibility to advertise. I don't particularly blame him for that, but you're right that it's a little grating.

I do, however, agree that Amazon went from being a bookseller to a massive online store. And that... that's somewhat troubling. It's legit for business to grow, but if Bezos had read The Lorax, he might know that it's not always a good thing. As convenient as Amazon can be, I do sometimes wish it could revert to the days where it felt clean buying from them.

Brian said...

Biblibio, you're right that Bezos had to work with the questions he got, and I also wonder how the Q&A was ultimately edited. More newspapers are cutting down interviews to this kind of short and quirky Q&A, and I often wonder what is lost in this effort to reduce and style.

And Amazon is doing the same thing all the big chains do, and as Ted Striphas explains (very well) in his book: start with books and then expand, so books become an afterthought. When I worked at B&N, I was told they made no money on books so we should push the other merch. So frustrating...