April 9, 2013

Inventor of the Kindle: Amazon is the “mean stepmother in a fairy tale”


On Monday, The New York TimesBits blog had an illuminating insight into one of the minds that created the Amazon Kindle. Indeed, the fate of the book was a common theme in the Times over the weekend, including an op-ed from Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, deploring “The Slow Death of the American Author”.

David Streitfeld spoke with Jason Merkoski, a leader of the team that first built Amazon’s Kindle.  In a short interview, Merkoski was at times candid about his fears regarding Amazon’s intentions for the book business and its manner of operating.

Merkoski is the author of the upcoming ebook, Burning the Page: The Ebook Revolution and the Future of Reading, which Sourcebooks will publish this week. It promises to answer the usual questions—is digital the death knell for print? Or will it reinvigorate the written word? What will happen to bookstores, book browsing, libraries, even autographs?—but rather than musings on these topics from the usual academics, it’s worthwhile to be able to hear from an insider, especially given Amazon is usually so closed about their processes.

Speaking of Amazon’s reticence, Streitfeld asked Merkoski to comment on one particular passage in the book—“Amazon, Apple and Google are a bit like medieval fortresses in their own ways. They’re secretive like China or Japan before they opened up to Westerners, or like Tibet or Mecca, closed to foreigners.”

Merkoski answered:

“There are two issues about secrecy here: social responsibility and intellectual property. As far as social responsibility goes, let me just say this: These companies have entire buildings filled with lawyers. They aren’t there to come up with new lawyer jokes. They are there, in part, to keep people like me from even answering this question. That said, I think if people were given a chance to spend a day looking inside Amazon or Apple’s veil of secrecy, most of them would be fascinated—although some might boycott.”

For a long while, MobyLives has been tracking instances of ebook censorship, whether because of Apple’s prudishness or PayPal’s problem with erotica, and so it was interesting (and terrifying) to hear our fears confirmed by someone inside the industry. Merkoski is blunt:

“Frankly, I don’t trust the executives at any e-book retailer when it comes to censorship. I know many of them. If push came to shove, I think most of these execs would rather pull e-books from the store, effectively censoring them, if that would avoid bad press. These are major retailers, not your quirky corner bookstores. They’re manned by former management consultants in clean shirts and pressed Dockers, not eccentric book-lovers with beards and cats.”

To return to Scott Turow’s article about the death of the author, although his point about the damage wrought by book piracy and low royalties was sympathetic, his argument won’t influence lawmakers and it won’t change minds, especially not about Amazon. He just doesn’t tell his story in the right way.

Another comment Merkoski makes in his book, according to Streitfeld is, “It’s hard to love Amazon, not the way we love Apple or a bookstore.” While it’s certainly true that Amazon products don’t cause people to line-up around the block like they do for Apple, nor that anyone is asking Bezos for book recommendations, I’m not sure that this is strictly correct. For those in the book industry, I think it would be a mistake to think that the billions of Amazon users do not have a particular type of affection for it, especially for its convenience. Turow would be better-off starting from this assumption when lobbying on behalf of his members.

Certainly, what seems like disruption to us in the industry, has already become status-quo to many of our customers.

Some of the better successes over the past few years in countering Amazon has been the fight for them to pay sales tax—a campaign taking place both in the US and Europe. This is the kind of thing people and governments can get behind. For many people, questions of fairness are a persuasive story, and for governments, well obviously, taxes are money.

This “changing the narrative” problem may be too simplistic, but to find a model that works for authors, publishers, and readers, we desperately need a different approach for countering Amazon. Turow hyperbolically comparing our current system to “Soviet-style repression” is unlikely to help. Perhaps an ex-Amazonite can help us out?


Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.