5 Questions for Deborah Emin about Amazon and publishing

Amazon and publishing

This is a guest interview with Deborah Emin. Deborah began Sullivan Street Press as a way to change the publishing paradigm. An advocate also for how we relate to this planet, the press publishes titles on veganism, animal rights as well as on the occupy movement. Follow @SullivanStPress.

1. If we could turn back time, how could the Amazon/publishing relationship have been established differently?

In this attempt to rewrite history, it would have been greatly helpful for those in publishing to have had the foresight to understand the power of e-books rather than having resisted them from the start. This acknowledgement by publishers of how much they could do, including investing in enhanced e-books, finding authors interested in writing a new form of book based on what the digital technology could allow them to do, would have disrupted the kinds of hegemony that Amazon was able to establish because ereaders themselves would have had to allow more than text on the screen and been created as serious players, with publishers, in developing the e-books fuller potential. Yet, it was not Bezos fault that he didn’t have this vision as he was not a publisher nor a creative of any kind.

2. What do Sullivan Street Press believe? And what actions have been taken?

At the start, Sullivan Street Press wanted to be an e-book only publisher. We began operations around the same time as the Kindle was introduced but we were opposed to the ways in which Amazon was trapping their ereading public to use a device that was so difficult for non-Amazon folk to load onto. We were selling all our books as e-books and from our site. It created lots of long-term customer relationships that have been good but was a very time consuming process. We have now migrated away from using our site to also sell e-books and are using an e-book distributor for the first time and so far are very pleased with this arrangement. And we sell our bound books as POD.

3. Do you think the issue might be that books are only a small part of a large ecosystem of digital products?

Your question goes to the heart of Amazon’s ability to collect and not share customer data. That data is so important and why we wanted to keep our e-book sales on our site. Publishers are at a disadvantage not knowing who is buying their books but even more, not knowing how far into their books their readers are going. So, cleverly, Amazon has built an all-purpose sales portal that allows them to gather data on all their customers and use that data to further their own interests. It is worrisome that they also sell cloud computing to the CIA as well so that data sits pretty close to the people watching us.

4. What can readers do if they also believe that proprietary formats are furthering corporate power grabs?

I’m afraid that readers at this point aren’t the key players. They have very little power as they have very little knowledge of how these businesses are run or what their goals are. Readers don’t ask questions about the publishing business even when given the opportunity. I give talks on the history of libraries, bookselling and publishing in this country and no one in the room ever knows the story of our relationship to books and how they have changed over the the last 2 centuries here in the US. Publishers and owners of bookstores never set up ways for their customers to learn about the business.

5. Do you not think Amazon has been smart as a business moving ahead of the times, and ultimately giving most consumers what they want and when they want it?

I think Amazon is canny at being cynical about the buying habits of most people. Most people want to buy things as cheaply as possible and to receive them as quickly as possible. As to being ahead of the curve, I am doubtful. Their newer products have not caught on because they are in essence too clever. What plays well for Amazon is their adamant loyalty to cheap prices, fast delivery and there is no other part of their business that a consumer cares about. Though, when it comes to writers and publishers, there are obviously many other more important concerns that Amazon’s customers also don’t care about.


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