February 14, 2018

Into the Bezosphere: The Washington Post will syndicate Amazon Charts


Last Thursday, the Washington Post announced that its new weekly bestsellers list would be calculated with some unconventional data. The calculations will include information from Amazon’s reading subscription services, including Prime Reading and Kindle Unlimited. The Post has also begun publishing Amazon’s “Most read” list in syndication.

David Naggar, vice president of Amazon, said he was “excited to collaborate with The Washington Post to give book lovers a more comprehensive U.S. bestseller list to help them discover their next great read.” And Mitch Rubin, deputy features editor, said, “Readers have long turned to The Post’s books coverage for reviews and recommendations from some of the top book critics in the nation. The new Bestsellers lists add to the breadth of our books coverage by giving readers a truer sense of what books are being sold each week.”

Neither Naggar nor Rubin, nor anyone else in the press release, took time to mention that the Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who bought the paper for $250 million in 2013. The Post does provide a disclosure on its reviews page, which reads:

The Post compiles its bestsellers lists by combining hard cover, paperback and ebook sales data from Nielsen Bookscan and Amazon.com — including qualified borrows of books read through Amazon’s digital subscription program. The Post excludes non-narrative books at its sole discretion. Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.

Which is relevant, as this appears to be the first time that Bezos has intentionally cross-pollinated his two ventures, though he has quickly imported his own sensibilities into the Post’s business model. Since Bezos acquired it, the paper has branched out into platform-building on the Amazon model, developing a suite of fairly obscure technical services — stuff like Heliograf, an “automated storytelling system,” and Bradbury, “a streamlined workflow, allowing a single editor to create far more lists in much less time,” announced in the same press release, as part of the Post’s publishing platform, Arc Publishing.

Amazon Charts launched last year as “a reimagined weekly bestseller list that shares which books are being read the most and which books have sold the most across all formats each week.” Along with a general ranking, and links to purchase the books, Amazon Charts occasionally include “fun facts” about a book’s performance over a given week. Select books are labelled “Unputdownable” (meaning Kindle and Audible readers finish them faster than similar books) or “All Ears” (meaning the book was listened to more than read in the past week), and sometimes Amazon will provide regional context for a particular book. This week, for example, Amazon let us know that A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window was the most popular of the Most Read books in New York State.

The only novel element of Charts is the availability of subscription sales data, which has not traditionally been available through other reporting methods like BookScan. But, as Ingrid Lundgrin pointed out in TechCruch last year, these lists are also a window into one of Amazon’s huge strategic advantages: the staggering amount of information the company gathers on its customers’ purchasing habits. The inclusion of these data streams into the Post’s bestseller lists offers a sleek public example of one way that Amazon is taking advantage of its constant surveillance and its owner’s multiple media holdings.

Of course, the Amazon has been playing a variation on this tune for the better part of a decade now: Amazon Alexa, Amazon Web Services, and IMDbPro, for a few, are all powered by Amazon’s titanic information storehouses and the infrastructure that was built to manage and organize them. What’s surprising and a little unsettling is how seamlessly and quietly Bezos has managed to integrate Amazon services into a nominally independent publication. It’s a perfect example of the not-so-slow Amazonification of American culture and commerce.

It’s too soon to say exactly what this means for booksellers and publishers. While the Post has not gone so far as to include sales links to Amazon (the Times and USA Today lists do), it’s safe to assume that the preponderance of readers will be buying there anyways, in which case Bezos needn’t overplay his hand.

But, as is always the case with monopolies, no particular action taken by Amazon or Bezos is that scary or weird, viewed in isolation. Syndicating a bestseller list seems like a pretty normal thing for a retail conglomerate to do, and a newspaper owned by the same guy as said conglomerate seems like an obvious choice of venue. But in context, it’s clearly the opening of another front in Bezos’s decades-long quest to control absolutely fucking everything.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.