- Industrial Disease
"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. … What has happened to me? He thought. It was no dream."— Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (1915)
Amazon has spread to every corner of the publishing industry in America. And everyone knows it is an industrial disease.
For those in the traditional publishing industry, Amazon is a contagion that is one of the primary sources of the decline of an industry that has been trending downward ever since the dawn of digital books. Not only has Amazon cornered the market on book sales and distribution, it is also now a rising power in the book publishing business.
If this were not enough, it also collects user data on your purchasing and reading habits. Recently, it went even further by offering Amazon shoppers a $10 dollar credit in exchange for handing over their browser data. With this additional data, the company now knows not only what you purchase from its online store and your reading habits through its ebook services, but also, for customers who download the Amazon Assistant app to their browser, it also knows the search terms and keystrokes which led to your purchase of items on the internet.
For the traditional publishing industry, these and other moves by Amazon are like a gigantic insect that crawls up on your plate at dinnertime rendering your meal inedible. Scream all you want, but it's not going to change anything. The traditional publishing industry has met in Amazon a formidable and destructive competitor.
While I am no fan of traditional publishing today, a world where the market is all, and where a handful of publishing corporations now enjoy market hegemony, at least traditional publishing only knew your purchasing and reading behavior indirectly and imprecisely. Amazon knows exactly what you purchase and, if it was an ebook, how you read it. And they are becoming better by the year at reading you in order to maximize their ability to sell you more products.
Amazon is the world's largest public company with an estimated 550 million retail items on its website. In addition, it has data on billions of customer transactions including information on every purchase you have ever made on Amazon. They have perfected the science of using this data to improve their customer targeting. It is not inconceivable in the future that when you log on to Amazon, it will provide you suggestions for products tailored to your precise spending range and product interests. One can even imagine a day when Amazon provides you with books that are specifically generated to meet your reading expectations regarding style, content, and form.
The first step toward this though requires Amazon to get into the book publishing business, which is something it has already begun. To date, Amazon Publishing has 15 imprints in the US and publishes everything from translations to romance novels, and it is growing fast. In 2009 Amazon published 373 titles, whereas in 2017 they published 1,231 titles. Moreover, these books seem to be selling—and some of them selling big.
One author, Mark Sullivan, who wrote a military saga that was rejected by eight New York publishers, received a low five-figure advance for his book from Amazon Publishing. Immediately upon publication, it had 300,000 downloads and to date has sold more than 1.5 million copies. It was ranked by USA Today as the 56th best-selling book of 2018.
Sales figures like this are possible because Amazon can promote these non-traditionally published books through its ebook subscription services, Amazon First Reads and Kindle Unlimited, which serve an estimated 10 million customers. As of 2019, 72% of all adult new book sales online and 49% of all new book sales by unit are through Amazon. But the potential market for their books is even larger because Amazon has over 100 million Amazon Prime members world-wide, who are allowed to select one Amazon First Reads book a month at no cost. Kindle Unlimited is an ebook subscription service that had as of...