Why Amazon’s Firefly Must Be Rejected

On Wednesday afternoon, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introduced Firefly, an app for its new Fire phone that can scan just about any object in the real world and, with the push of a button, allow you to purchase it from Amazon. As of today, 100 million items can be scanned and identified by Firefly. Firefly can read barcodes, a DVD cover, a QR code, damn near anything. It effectively turns every physical store into an Amazon showroom, where the customer can walk in, scan an object, and be on her merry way with an order waiting by mail or drone delivery. It remains unknown just how much Firefly tracks (such as scanned objects that the customer hesitates over) or what Amazon intends to do with the additional data it will connect through Firefly, but given Amazon’s $600 million contract with the CIA for cloud computing services, any sinister alliance is possible. What’s especially creepy is that Firefly can also recognize street addresses and phone numbers. Firefly intends to listen to any songs playing from your speakers and any movie screening on your TV, giving you the option to purchase these.

Assuming it garners substantial mass adoption, Firefly threatens to become one of the most insidious assaults upon American life, where every action and every quiet moment becomes an opportunity to squeeze dollars. It is the most salient example of Amazon reaching ever so closer to its ideal of vertical integration — a practice famously and rightly halted in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948), when the Supreme Court ruled that movie studios could not own their own theaters and maintain the exclusive right to show their own films. The difference with Firefly is that Amazon doesn’t have to make the products and could argue this if confronted with any serious legal challenge.

Amazon has just turned the entire physical world — the streets you walk on, the bedroom you retreat to, the shops you frequent — into a commercial marketplace. One can only imagine the fresh and awkward social hell to be experienced if a party guest points Firefly at someone wearing a snazzy dress. Rather than complimenting the partygoer on her sartorial flair, Firefly turns this into a potential sales transaction. One no longer has to seek exotic or bespoke items through languorous journeys in which one never asks for the time. With one simple app, the curatorial impulse and the quest for the obscure is traduced. Firefly threatens to deracinate the remaining tangible value of the physical world. It puts a price tag on taste, texture, hearing, sight, and smell. Will such quantitative objectification eventually extend to people? To credit poles that assess one’s financial worth along the lines of what Gary Shteyngart predicted in his satirical near future novel, Super Sad True Love Story?

The question that consumers must ask themselves is whether they want to live in such a world and whether convenience is worth pointing a phone in someone’s face. It is quite possible that establishments will fight Firefly by enacting “No Phones” policies along the lines of bars that prohibit Google Glass. But if Amazon is willing to take such a bold lead with Firefly, to truly view all humans as little more than avaricious hosts for the gargantuan corporate parasite, other companies will surely follow its lead.

We can Google any reference or half-formed remembrance with our phones. We can take photos of our families and friends. We can call anyone in the world from just about any location at a price and convenience that was inconceivable ten years ago. These are grand technological achievements that, on the whole, benefit the human race.

Firefly is a crass betrayal of this. It will cause many specialized businesses or establishments (such as indie bookstores) that operate at a precarious profit margin to go under. It could artificially inflate homogeneous products while expunging the artistic value out of the esoteric. But most importantly, it’s the first app to overtly put a price tag on everything in the universe. Think about that. Do you really want your friends to scan all the items in your house and get an instant cash value for everything you have struggled for years to build? (And how much sneaky data will Amazon grab to get a collective value on any individual’s possessions? Could this be compared against credit reports? Could this prevent working people from buying homes or small business owners from establishing credit?) Do you really want one company to encourage and profit from this rapacity?

That bald boorish billionaire has just signaled that he does not want to make your life better. He will stop at nothing to profit from you at every minute. Lex Luthor was never intended as a role model, but Bezos has set out to become just that. His efforts must be resisted by every thinking and breathing individual until the bright glow from his cretinous pate is permanently stubbed out.


BEA 2012: Richard Russo at ABA

Just hours before Amazon announced that it was gobbling up independent publisher Avalon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author addressed booksellers on how they could help save the industry, reminding them why they mattered while he and his interlocutor Lynn Sheer referenced many New Yorker cartoons. Neither Richard Russo nor his audience had become a mundanely ironic punchline quite yet. But Russo knew that he wouldn’t be standing in front of the audience if independent booksellers hadn’t given his first novel, Mohawk, that essential admixture of faith and attention. Most in the room agreed that Amazon’s threat to independent bookstores was comparable to a bully, perhaps even more insidious than the paperback revolution that had made books affordable for the mass population.

The kernel for Russo’s ABA talk had come from an op-ed for The New York Times published last December. While Amazon had been good to him over the years, what pushed Russo over the edge was when Amazon encouraged its customers to go into a brick-and-mortar store and scan items with a price-check app. All Amazon shoppers had to do was scan a bar code and they would earn a 5% credit on Amazon purchases. “Is it just me,” wrote Russo, “or does it feel as if the Amazon brass decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean and left in charge of the company a computer that’s fallen head over heels in love with its own algorithms?”

Now Russo, dressed in a black shirt, khaki pants, and a dark jacket, was before a crowd of booksellers who were loyal to him as an author and, perhaps more importantly, as a man who had their backs.

Russo’s talk went further than his op-ed piece, suggesting that Amazon was killing off what remained of humane business practice. “What really frosted me about all this,” said Russo, “was how cruel it was. They wanted to fill brick and mortar stores with people. So if you looked out, you’d see all those people out there. And you’d get the sense that commerce was taking place. The cruelty of it was so shocking, so stunning, so cold.”

It was an independent bookseller that had helped Russo garner his early reputation. “At Barbara’s Books, I remember they optimistically set up six or seven chairs,” said Russo of a vital appearance at a now defunct bookstore for Mohawk, which had then been released in a then daring paperback original format. “I got the sense that the employees at Barbara’s Books had read the book and they seemed to like it. Those people who filled those five to seven chairs, they were going to be hand selling that book. They were going to be hand selling that book and my next book and the next book after that. And as disappointed as I was, they weren’t disappointed at all strangely enough.”

This early crowd of adopters had more faith in Russo than he did. Russo pointed out that his daughter, Emily Russo Murtagh, had carried on in this proud tradition by writing a review of a Ron Rash book. Rash viewed this as one of the central tipping points of his career and has only just received his first New York Times Book Review. Russo insisted that there was a whole crop of young fiction writers worthy of recognition and wasn’t sure if a world with only Amazon would permit similar waves of face-to-face enthusiasm to help future generations of authors.

“There have been significant changes as a result of Amazon,” said Russo. “B&N is hanging by a thread. There’s nothing like Walden Bookstores. The Amazon threat is real.” Russo pointed out that Amazon has 75% roughly of the online market for both print and electronic books. “And if the Justice Department wins,” continued Russo, alluding to the recent ebook collusion suit, “Amazon will be able to go back to the practice they had before all this. And they will again be able to sell certain frontlist books for less than it costs them to buy. Because they know that they already have the backlist basically cornered.”

So how could the indie bookstore fight back against this threat? For the independent bookstores that have survived, Russo suggested that “what didn’t kill them made them stronger.” He compared indie bookstores to “curated shows” and suggested that the superstore days of yesteryear were done. “We’ve passed the point now where you’ll find everything.”

But while Russo remained opposed to the word “boutiquey” and wanted bookstores to thrive rather than merely survive, Russo had little more than instinct and accepted wisdom to uphold these views. While he copped to owning an iPad, he confessed that he didn’t really comprehend social networks (“You’re speaking to a dinosaur”) and that his love of physical books was perhaps generational (“The generations do react very differently”), noting that kids today are being trained to sit before a screen for twelve hours.

He didn’t understand why publishers simply accepted the manner in which online booksellers dictated the $9.99 price point when they offered the hardcover for $27. “Why would they have agreed to do that? It was like allowing Netflix to stream The Avengers on the weekend it comes out. Why would they have conceded the most important point?”

He received the greatest applause when he said, “What publishers need to do more than anything else is just find a spine.”

But how can independent booksellers stand up against a force when realtors (Russo’s wife is a realtor) are now encouraged to tell their clients to get rid of their books when they’re selling their homes? Or when Amazon can send an email telling people who have previously bought Richard Russo books and dramatically alter the ranking of the latest Russo volume?

Russo argued that bookstores had physicality and people as hard advantages. “You’re hoping to discover what you never knew existed,” said Russo, expressing a distaste for search engines. “When you go to the customer service desk, you’re not going to the engine.”

Russo remained cautiously optimistic about the future of publishing. But while hope made the crowd feel good, the unity he had inspired in being more explicit about Amazon suggested that these troops needed a hell of a lot more than a pep talk.

(Image: Steve Piacente)

Macmillan: The New Amazonfail

As widely reported, Amazon has removed all Macmillan titles from its site. This means that you won’t be able to buy new print or digital books from Paul Auster, John Scalzi, Richard Powers, or countless other authors bundled inside Macmillan’s many imprints through the Amazon website. The dispute, according to Macmillan CEO John Sargent, arose from a Thursday meeting Sargent had with Amazon, in which Sargent proposed new terms of sale for eBooks. Sargent desired to set the price for eBooks on an individual basis and under an agency model, sidestepping the austere $9.99 price point that Amazon has long insisted on for its Kindle titles. It is safe to say that Amazon, feeling particularly smug after reporting a profitable fourth quarter, felt compelled to not only have its cake and eat it too, but to throw numerous books beneath its oily guillotine. By the time Sargent returned to New York on Friday afternoon, the buy option for Macmillan’s books — both print and digital — had disappeared from Amazon’s website.

Bookstores have often refused to stock individual titles. (In 2004, refused to carry Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud.) But it’s important to understand that not a single bookstore chain has ever discriminated against a publisher like this before. It’s also important to understand that the laws of vertical integration — most famously ruled on through United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., in which motion picture studios, who produced the movies and owned the theaters that they played in, were ordered to break up their monopolies — don’t necessarily apply. Amazon may not be owned by the publishers, but there are some indicators that the company controls 90% of the eBook market, effectively securing a monopoly.

While Sargent’s statement is the only real word that has emerged from this conflict (Amazon has remained mum), Amazon’s lack of transparency about the sudden removal of Macmillan books, as Michael Orthofer severely understates, is unacceptable, possibly violating federal price discrimination statutes that were guaranteed under the 1936 Robinson-Patnam Act. And it remains to be seen whether the Federal Trade Commission, which has recently devoted its resources to badgering bloggers, will investigate these troubling developments to determine if its creaky howitzers might be rolled out to combat this greater greed.

But these developments have caused some authors, viewing Amazon’s aggressive pricing as a grave threat to their livelihood, to take umbrage. John Scalzi writes, “If Amazon is willing to play chicken with my economic well-being — and the economic well-being of many of my friends — to lock up its little corner of the eBook field, well, that’s its call to make. But, you know what, I remember people who are happy to trample my ass into the dirt as they’re rushing to grab at cash.” Charles Stross writes, “Amazon, in declaring war on Macmillan in this underhand way, have screwed me, and I tend to take that personally, because they didn’t need to do that.”

UPDATE: I’ve just received word that the Amazon Kindle Team has addressed the situation in a forum, stating that “we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.”

Did the New Yorker Make Nicholson Baker Elitist?

Last year, the New York Review of Books had the bright idea of commissioning Nicholson Baker to write an exuberant essay about Wikipedia. Beginning with the simple sentence, “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing,” Baker’s piece went on to chart his participation and subsequent obsession with the well-known website. Baker expressed his genuine horror at cavalierly deleted articles and depicted the many communal surprises he found along the way. It was a journey of self-discovery that permitted many who had used Wikipedia to rediscover the collective pixie dust selflessly sprinkled in the pursuit of knowledge. The essay was widely cited and linked. Here was the man who had once tapped his life savings to preserve newspapers now mining unexpected nuggets from a rich digital deposit. And Baker, under the moniker “Wageless,” continued with his Wikipedia contributions for some months after the article had been published.

Fast forward to today, with The New Yorker — a publication that not a single writer can afford to say no to — commissioning Nicholson Baker to write about the Kindle. But where The New York Review of Books managed to subvert expectations, the New Yorker has applied a marketing team’s craven predictability, with Baker corrupting his voice in the process. Baker’s essay is laden with cheap shots and clumsy generalizations. He’s not interested in seeing the bigger picture, even as he attempts some slapdash journalism when talking with Russ Wilcox on the phone. I’ll defer to Teleread’s Robert Nagle for Baker’s gross technological oversights. The more troubling betrayal here — one I hope that is merely temporary — is that the man who once unapologetically expressed his passion about John Updike, Wikipedia, and the use of “lumber” is nowhere to be found in this piece. He has been replaced by a brazen elitist who — in this essay at least — is closer to Lee Siegel in temperament than the man who once wrote gently and eloquently about card catalogs, or the writer who has devoted his career asking us to find the magic within the quotidian. The man who has subtly beseeched us to commiserate with the lonely and misunderstood people toiling in offices and talking on phone sex lines has momentarily transformed into a cavalier ruffian who scoffs at regular people for having the temerity to express their enthusiasm on Amazon and who likewise suggests that all blogs are “earnest and dispensable.” (That last comment echos a regrettable stance that can also be found within an inexplicably meanspirited passage from Baker’s forthcoming novel, The Anthologist: “You have to hand it to those podcasters. They keep on going week after week, even though nobody’s listening to them. And then eventually they puff up and die.”)

For a writer who has been so careful with his sentences, it’s astonishing to see Baker capitulate like this.

I’d be willing to accept Baker’s assaults on Jeff Bezos and the authors who appeared in the Kindle promotional video if Baker wasn’t so fixated on kicking down the average Joe like this. If Baker is going to go after Michael Lewis, Toni Morrison, and Neil Gaiman, then you’d think that he’d cop to the fact that he’s betrayed his own endearing populism for the New Yorker‘s lucrative word rate and prestige. (It should be observed that this is Baker’s first appearance in the New Yorker in nine years.)

The essay’s apologists will probably point to Baker’s defense of the iPod Touch (via Eucalyptus, ScrollMotion, and Stanza) later in the essay as a pro-technology concession. But aside from Baker’s inherently subjective position (indeed, one that doesn’t seem to consider other viewpoints), there’s Baker’s more troubling elision of class. How many unemployed types can afford either a Kindle 2 or an iPod Touch (costing $70 less than the Kindle 2) right now? Oh yeah. Baker hasn’t bothered with that. I guess one of the deals you make when you now sign on to write for the New Yorker is to act as if any thinking or feeling individual making under $30,000 a year doesn’t exist. Or that anybody who puts long hours into a blog or a podcast, or who uses a Kindle to read, can’t possibly be of societal value.

That’s a far cry from the man who once celebrated the “strangers who disagreed about all kinds of things but who were drawn to a shared, not-for-profit purpose” and who marveled at the capacity for people to build grand things with merely a keyboard and a desire to help. I hope that the old Baker comes back. But this new guy who can’t be bothered to laugh at a wasp passage because it appears on a screen? He sounds like a guy at a house party who can’t laugh at the Seth Rogen movie because it’s not playing in a movie theater.

[UPDATE: I will let this article stand unmodified and uncorrected as a reflection of how I felt at the time. But after some thought, I believe that I jumped to several needless conclusions, some of which have been cleared up by Nicholson Baker himself in the comments. (This update, incidentally, is not motivated by Baker’s appearance. I should point out that I was all set to respond to several comments before he arrived. But propinquity being what it is, the timing has worked out accordingly.) The upshot is this: I suspect that the rather grumpy tone of this article came about because I wrote it just after coming off a particularly terrible six-hour bus ride spearheaded by an unpleasant authoritarian driver who was screaming at random passengers and who did not know how to drive. My girlfriend and I, both in the early leg of this rather hellish journey, had acquired the article through email and read it on a cell phone. Perhaps these reading conditions prove Nick Baker’s point that the medium and the circumstances in which one reads can indeed factor into how one perceives the article, I detected several sentences as troublesome, interpreting them in an emotional way. I presented my findings in rather persuasive terms to my girlfriend, who was somehow persuaded. (I have a regrettable tendency to be able to persuade people of things even when I am wrong.) And the writing of this post occurred not long after we finally decamped from the raving lunatic driving the bus. I still believe that Baker should have used his writing talent for more enthusiastic purposes, but it was wrong of me to suggest some Svengali-like collusion between Baker and Remnick.]

Amazon Presents The Great Gatsby

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind since. “Bounty! The quicker picker-upper.”

“Whenever you feel like criticising any one,” he also told me, “just remember a little dab’ll do ya and all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had. Think different.”

He didn’t say any more, betcha can’t eat just one, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, please don’t squeeze the Charmin’, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. Make a run for the border. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, an army of one, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Screw yourself. IKEA. Most of the confidences were unsought — R-O-L-A-I-D-S spells relief — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that Ivory, it floats! An intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon — it’s not TV, it’s HBO — for the intimate revelations of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. American Airlines. You’re going to like us! Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I’d walk a mile for a Camel. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. Diet Pepsi. Same time tomorrow?

And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Say it with flowers. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. You can be sure of Shell. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. All the news that’s fit to print. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. Reach out and touch someone. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. Fly the friendly skies. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament” — it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic
readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. It’s everywhere you want to be. No — Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. Just do it.

(With thanks to Paul Constant for aiding and abetting. Related news here.)


Inside A Q&A With Kevin Smokler

ksmoklerIn 2006, Kevin Smokler, the speaker and editor behind Bookmark Now, partnered with Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, and software developer Adam Goldstein to determine just how information about bookstore events and authors might be collected at an online hub. That central place turned out to be, which purports to make “finding when a favorite author is coming to your town as easy as checking the weather.”

This sunny mission got a much needed dose of radiation back in April when BookTour received a $350,000 cash injection from While the news was eclipsed by the Amazonfail contretemps at the time, the big financial push certainly suggested that wasn’t about to set into the sunset anytime soon.

At the time the deal was announced, nobody had remarked on the grand irony of an online giant like Amazon using events listed at independent bookstores to make a quick buck. Fortunately, BookTour CEO and Chief Evangelist Kevin Smokler was kind enough to take some time out to answer some vital questions.

BookTour is financially supported by Amazon. Isn’t there a conflict of interest here? If, for example, a customer sees the BookTour link on an Amazon Author Page but the customer is encouraged to purchase the book from Amazon (instead of the bookstore at an author appearance), doesn’t this result in a lost sale for the bookstore? What steps are you taking to ensure that independent bookstores are able to secure the sales they require to support the financial burden of an author appearance?

Ed, we’re in the awareness business. Our job is make author events known to the greatest number of people that we can. No doubt that some potential customers who spot an event on Amazon will buy the book there and either (a) not go to the event at all or (b) go to the event with that Amazon purchase in hand. However, there’s an entire other second class of potential event attendees who will go to an event and may wish to reserve judgment on buying a book until they see the author in person. At that point, only the bookstore is in a position to sell the book to them. Also, we must consider whether that person would have known of the event at all without it being listed in such a high traffic place like Amazon.

Bottom line: The level of awareness that an event receives when listed on Amazon, to our mind, far outweighs the potential loss of sales. As to whether a store can financially support an event, that’s up to them. There are plenty of ways to run a bookstore in the 21st century and we believe smart booksellers know much more about this than we do.

Since BookTour is reliant on the Amazon Author Page for its infrastructure, have you worked out a scenario in which an Indiebound link will be available on an Amazon Author Page?

Sort of. Amazon has a corporate policy which disallows any outside linking to anybody. It’s a policy that BookTour disagrees with and which we have made known to Amazon. We hope to change this as our relationship with them deepens and moves forward.

For now, any bookstore may include a link to their e-commerce operation inside the description of any event happening at their store, so long as they added the event to our database. If their store’s website is powered by IndieBound, they need only include that link in the event description and the feed arrangement we have with IndieBound takes care of the rest.

(That link is not a clickable link, only one that can be cut and pasted into a separate browser window.)

We realize this is far from an ideal solution and we have told Amazon as much. We hope to change this going forward.

You say in your press release that Booktour represents the largest database of author and literary events. Do you mean to say that you now have relationships with every publisher? What are you doing to ensure the reliability of this information? Do you have someone on board who is checking the data on your site against the bookstores and the publishers?

Many publishers, but not all. Via our syndication relationships with both chain and independent booksellers, we can assure that we cover nearly every event happening in America in a bookstore. Libraries, universities, corporations, civic institutions and individual authors and publicists all actively list with us as well.

Reliability: Every event that enters our database is checked against several automated scripts and algorithms. We also do an additional level of checking by human eyes. All told, incorrect event data rarely lives on BookTour for more than 24 hours.

Checking: For more than a year, we’ve had syndication relationships with the major bookstore chains and Indiebound. Meaning they send their upcoming events in an automated feed to us which we update every 24 hours. We just set up a similar relationship with Simon & Schuster and we have several such relationships under active development with other publishers.

Is the information on Booktour proprietary in any way?


Are you applying any DRM?


Is Amazon claiming it to be proprietary because it appears on their pages?


If Booktour is open source, do you have a specific agreement in place with Amazon to ensure that the information, as disseminated through their pages, remains open source?

Yes. Part of the terms of our deal with Amazon was that anyone else is free to use our data exactly as Amazon does, now and in perpetuity.

You’ve introduced EventMinion, which will take author tour data in any format and permit professionals to enter it into your database at $1 a pop. Yet users will still be able to add events for free. How are you distinguishing between EventMinion-added events and user-added events?

We’re not. To us, an event is an event is an event.

Will you place greater priority to listing EventMinion events over the user-added events?

No. See above.

TourBuilder gives the author an opportunity to receive an automated itinerary of bookstores. Are you charging for this service?


Are you prioritizing some cities over others for this?

No. Users choose which cities they want to visit. If they don’t, we suggest larger cities with more available venues.

Big box stores over independent stores?


Then what is the methodology behind TourBuilder?

Venues are suggested based on where authors with similar books have toured in the past. Which means that the more authors that use TourBuilder, the smarter it gets.

If Amazon controls the minority stake, who controls the majority?

The three founders and our one employee.

To what extent is the majority committed to not being bought out by Amazon (as they are wont to do with such handy services that it deems valuable)?

We’ll certainly entertain an offer should they put one forward. But that also doesn’t preclude us from entertaining offers from other interested parties.

Kindle Bloggers Become Amazon’s Bitches

This blog will not be distributed through Kindle. I cannot possibly give away so many of my rights for a mere 30% of the cut. To put this into perspective, even the Scribd General Terms of Use limits what you give up to “solely in order to publish and promote such User Content in connection with services offered or to be offered by Scribd.”

Not so with Amazon. Here’s the relevant section of the Digital Publication Distribution Agreement:

7. Rights Granted. You grant to us, throughout the term of this Agreement, a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license to distribute Publications as described in this Agreement, such right to include, without limitation, the right to: (a) reproduce and store Publications on one or more computer facilities, and reformat, convert and encode Publications; (b) display, market, transmit, distribute, and otherwise digitally make available all or any portion of Publications through Amazon Properties (as defined below), for customers and prospective customers to download, access, copy and paste, print, annotate and/or view, including on any Portable Device (as defined below); (c) permit customers to “store” Publications that they have purchased from us on Amazon’s servers (“Virtual Storage”) and to re-download such Publications from Virtual Storage from time to time; (d) display and distribute (i) your trademarks and logos in the form you provide them to us, including within Publications (with such modifications as are necessary to optimize their viewing on Portable Devices), and (ii) other limited portions of Publications, in each case on and through any Amazon Properties and solely for the purposes of marketing, soliciting and selling Publications; (e) use, reproduce, adapt, modify, and create derivative works of any metadata that you submit to us for the purpose of improving categorization, recommendations, personalization features and other features of any Amazon Properties; and (f) transmit, reproduce and otherwise use (or cause the reformatting, transmission, reproduction, and/or other use of) Publications as mere technological incidents to and for the limited purpose of technically enabling the foregoing (e.g., caching to enable display). In addition, you agree that Amazon may permit its affiliates and independent contractors, and its affiliates’ independent contractors, to exercise the rights that you grant to us in this Agreement. “Amazon Properties” means the website with the primary home page identified by the URL, together with any successor or replacement thereto (the “Amazon Site”), any software application that is capable of supporting the electronic purchase, display and/or management of digital text, graphics, audio, video and/or other content, and any other web site or any web page widget or other web page real estate or online point of presence, on any platform, that is owned by us or operated under license by us (such as ), branded or co-branded Amazon or with any brand we license for use, own or control, and any web site or online point of presence through which any Amazon sites or products available for sale thereon are syndicated, offered, merchandised, advertised or described. “Portable Device” means any device that is capable of supporting the electronic purchase, display and/or management of digital text, graphics, audio, video and/or other content via wireless telecommunications service, Wi-Fi, USB, or otherwise.

Not only do you give Amazon “a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license to distribute” your blogging, but you also give this up to affiliates and independent contractors. So let’s say a major publisher decides to “independently contract” with Amazon. And they see a blog that they like. Well, guess what? They can take your content, publish it as a book, and collect the revenue without paying you a dime. Because Section 4 (“Royalties”) specifies that the blogger only gets paid for “Subscription and Single Issue sales revenues,” meaning any of the 30% revenue that you’re going to get with the Kindle. And I particularly love how Section 5 gives the blogger a mere six months to file a legal claim, which is “limited to a determination of the amount of monies” and not operational practices. You know, trivial concerns such as Amazon distributing your content to affiliates and independent contractors without the blogger’s consent.

I am extremely saddened to see so many of my fellow bloggers betray their interests. They have happily become corporate slaves, granting “a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license” to their thoughtful essays and carefully written posts.

I sincerely hope that any authors (and the agents who represent them) who appear on blogs distributed through Kindle are fully aware of what they are giving up here. The rights for any writing you publish on a blog go to Amazon. That goes for guest blog posts, excerpts of chapters*, interview excerpts, you name it. Thanks to Section 7 of Kindle’s Digital Publication Distribution Agreement, you effectively become Amazon’s bitch.

Well, I’m sorry. But I can’t do that for the authors who have been kind enough to take the time out of their schedules to express their thoughts and feelings in both text and radio form on these pages. In addition to the reasons eloquently provided by Kat Meyer and Megan Sullivan
I cannot in good conscience sell us out.

All this could have been prevented had the bloggers who signed up for this taken the time to read and study Amazon’s draconian language. Presumably, they thought Amazon would play nice.

But if you think that Amazon is benevolent, consider my investigations from November 2007, which demonstrated that Amazon was placing blogs onto its Kindle Store without obtaining permission. Consider also Techcrunch’s recent investigation, in which Amazon can steal any blog without the blogger’s consent. Yet many people continue to place their faith in Amazon. Even after Amazon’s poor response in last month’s Amazonfail scandal.

* — There’s some additional discussion about this aspect of the DPDA in the comments that you will probably want to check out.

Amazonfail: Amazon Responds

After multiple attempts to contact Amazon, I have at long last received the following reply from Patty Smith by email:

“This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

“It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

“Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.”

When I asked Ms. Smith about whether or not this problem represented a hack, she insisted that this was a “ham-fisted cataloging error” that had been caused by Amazon. Therefore, Amazon’s position seems to indicate that the cataloging problem came from its end. Ms. Smith did not, however, answer any questions I put forth to her about why much of this metadata was necessary in the first place.

It’s also worth noting that Amazon still hasn’t issued an apology.

Amazonfail: A Call to Boycott Amazon

It’s been called #amazonfail on Twitter, but it represents the greatest insult to consumers and the most severe commercial threat to free expression that we’re likely to see in some time. Amazon has decided to remove certain books that they deem “adult” from their ranking system. But the “adult” definitions include such books as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Amazon link) (screenshot), Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (Amazon link) (screenshot), Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (Amazon link) (screenshot), John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (Amazon link) (screenshot), and numerous other titles. [NOTE: These titles have now been ranked again. But please see UPDATE 11 at the bottom of this post, which contains additional links and screenshots. Amazon is still deranking many titles, but only seems to be restoring the ones directly called out by multiple sources.] Books that, in some cases, have fought decades to gain literary respectability have become second-class overnight because of Amazon’s draconian deranking policy.

To add insult to injury, such anti-Semitic texts as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Amazon link) and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Amazon link) remain within the ranking system while the less offensive books named above are considered too “adult.” In other words, if you’re a writer who has written openly about sex, Amazon considers you worse than an anti-Semitic writer who helped initiate pogroms and concentration camps.

As Kassia Kroszer noted, this is an offensive and unacceptable gesture from Amazon to the many readers and writers who make the publishing industry what it is. This is retail maneuvering of the most spineless and despotic form. It amounts to a store treating adults, who are informed individuals who can make up their own minds about how “adult” something is, as if they are incapable of independent decision making. It is a betrayal of the community that keeps Amazon thriving with the customer reviews. It is an insult to any author or reader who has dared to take a chance.

This decision must be responded to by a complete and total boycott of Amazon’s services. DO NOT BUY ANYTHING FROM AMAZON unless they restore the ranking system. Boycott Amazon and let them feel the sharp pincers of your wallet going somewhere else. Instead of supporting a corporate behemoth who wants to put up the equivalent of a beady curtain at a video store for many titles that don’t deserve it (including numerous GLBT and sex-positive books), go to an independent bookstore who will treat you with inclusive respect. Remove all links to Amazon from your websites. Let Amazon know precisely how you feel in these economically uncertain times, and then maybe they’ll think twice about treating you as if you are unthinking cattle.

We can make a difference in this. We made a difference back in February with the Facebook TOS snafu. We can make a difference with this needless and demeaning ranking system. Boycott Amazon. Because a retailer should never be in the position of determining what is “adult” or salable. As the old maxim says, the customer is always right.

UPDATE: See also thoughts from Mark Probst, a petition to protest the policy, and Google bomb efforts from Smart Bitches. Also, as many helpful people on Twitter have noted, the Amazon customer service line is 800-201-7575. Although we may want to see if we can track down the executives who enacted this ridiculous policy and hold them accountable instead.

UPDATE 2: Goddammit, that’s the last straw. Nobody deranks Jonathan Ames and gets away with it. Here are the numbers for the Amazon Board of Directors. Flood all these people with your complaints on Monday morning.

Thomas O. Ryder (914) 244-5782
William Gordon (650) 233-2750
Myrtle Potter (650) 225-1000
Alain Monie (206) 266-1000
L. John Doerr (650) 233-2750
Tom Alberg (206) 674-3000
Patricia Stonesifer (206) 709-3140

UPDATE 3: On Twitter, the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles reports that Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener has told him that there was recently a glitch in the sales rank feature and that he is working to correct the problem. I am likewise pursuing investigations to get Amazon’s side of the story.

UPDATE 4: Of course, if the glitch was only just “recently” discovered, the big question here is why Amazon told Mark Probst two days ago that the company was now in the practice of excluding “adult” material in some searches. For that matter, why did Amazon offer the same answer to author Craig Seymour? Something is fishy. I have left voicemails and emails for Amazon spokespersons. What they do not realize is that I am a rather tenacious fellow. If they do not answer me tonight, starting tomorrow, I will be contacting them once every hour until they offer a reasonable answer to these many questions.

UPDATE 5: An Amazon search for homosexuality revealing anti-homosexual books in the top results is more than a “glitch.” In the comments, it has been reported that if you search for Olympia Press and Cleis Press through Amazon, the results have been diminished with this “glitch.” Meanwhile, here is coverage from Foreign Policy, The National Post, and The Associated Press. Tiara Shafiq has called for Amazon alternatives. There will doubtless be more news as Amazon tries to mop up this morass on Monday. And it would very much be in Amazon’s interests to “comment further” on the “glitch” that has been in effect since February.

UPDATE 6: Dear Author has dug up metadata that would suggest not so much a “glitch,” but a conscious effort on Amazon’s part to exclude books.

UPDATE 7: As of Monday afternoon, I have left eight voicemails for various contacts at Amazon and they will not return my calls. Also, the main Amazon corporate number — 206-622-2325 — appears to have been disconnected. We still have nothing from Amazon elaborating on the “glitch” that they are working on.

UPDATE 8: I have sent numerous emails and left repeated voicemails to Patty Smith (Director of Corporate Communications), Drew Herdener (Senior Public Relations Manager), and Dean Falvy (Amazon’s legal representative). These are all people who should really be going on the record and answering very specific questions about the “glitch.” But these spokespersons have refused to return my calls. And I have learned that they are not returning calls from other journalists.

UPDATE 9: Still no response from Amazon in my ongoing voicemail efforts. Some speculation that this was a hack has been debunked. Meanwhile, Mike Daisey claims inside info to The Stranger.

UPDATE 10: The metadata theory promulgated by Dear Author seems to me the most reasonable explanation (and Jane now has spreadsheets up of the books with metadata categories). See also Scrivener’s Error and this theory from an inside coder.

UPDATE 11: Amazon is now pretending as if the “glitch” appears has been rectified as of 5:30 PM EST. But here’s what’s interesting. The specific titles that I linked to offered direct links to have been ranked again. But many other books are still deranked, including such as Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage (Amazon link) (screenshot), James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (Amazon link) (screenshot), and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (Amazon link) (screenshot). So is Amazon only ranking those titles that people are singling out? In other words, if the “glitch” is being fixed, then why does it only apply to the titles specifically linked to on other sites, rather than an across-the-board metadata value?

UPDATE 12: Patty Smith responds to some of my inquiries.

UPDATE 13: Andrew Sean Greer writes in the comments: “Well all I know is the paperback of The Story of a Marriage came out last week but you can only see it by searching directly, not by looking at sales lists of literary fiction, etc. The equivalent of having it for sale only by asking the bookseller for something behind the counter. *sigh* Glitch, hacker, cataloging error, it still hits a writer where it hurts. Nobody likes their new book to be invisible except if you know where to look. Isn’t book buying all about browsing for unexpected treasures?”

UPDATE 14: James Marcus, author of Amazonia, offers a lengthy response at Propeller. Meanwhile, Sara Nelson offers a contrarian take, suggesting that Amazon has every right to determine what it wants to sell.

UPDATE 15: The New York Times‘s Motoko Rich investigates. Shockingly, I actually agree with the smug Daniel Mendelsohn for once. But more interesting than this is that all the publishers who Rich contacted failed to comment on the record. In other words, we should be reminded by this setback that Amazon holds a needless vise-like grip on the publishing industry. But are we willing to accept such a hold when Amazon’s data can be so easily manipulated or modified?

Amazon Profiting Incommensurately Off Bloggers?

As I pointed out more than a year ago, Amazon has been offering monthly blog subscriptions to Kindle readers, but, in some cases, it hasn’t been paying the bloggers a reasonable cut of the revenue. And as my investigation revealed, in some cases, Amazon didn’t even bother to ask permission from the bloggers. While the monthly subscription cost has gone down to 99 cents per month, as Rebecca Skloot discovered on Twitter this afternoon, Maud Newton’s site is now for sale on the Kindle. (Maud has since revealed that a nonexclusive contract she signed with Newstex gives them the right to distribute her content through the Kindle.)

But there’s a big question here. If Amazon makes 99 cents per subscription, how much of this goes to the bloggers?

I am now in the early stage of a major investigation to determine, once again, if the bloggers listed on the Kindle store are collecting any commensurate revenue or granting their permission to Amazon to have their blogs distributed. And I will be updating this site with my findings. If your blog is listed on the Kindle Store, please contact me so that we can begin to hold Amazon accountable for seizing content generously offered for free and selling it to others on the open market.

There are currently 1,280 blogs listed at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Harriet Klausner: From Amazon Top Reviewer to Unhelpful Hack

Harriet Klausner, known for many years as Amazon’s “top reviewer,” has banged out uncritical reviews for damn near any book that came her way, “writing” as many as seven reviews a day. But it appears that Klausner’s glory days are now over. Amazon recently modified the criteria that determines the rank for Amazon’s top reviewers. Here’s the first priority to becoming a top reviewer under the new system:

Review helpfulness plays a larger part in determining rank. Writing thousands of reviews that customers don’t find helpful won’t move a reviewer up in the standings.

It appears that not enough of Amazon’s customers have found Ms. Klausner’s reviews helpful. Because of this, Ms. Klausner has plummeted from #1 to #442. It is not known if there were any tears shed in the Klausner household. But everything falls eventually. The Roman Empire. Rod McKuen’s popularity. The hair on Ron Howard’s head. And now Harriet Klausner. But Amazon has been kind enough to give Ms. Klausner a consolation prize, noting her Classic Reviewer Rank of 1.

Amazon’s new top reviewer is Beth Cholette, who jumped from the Classic Reviewer Rank of 85 to the current Reviewer Rank of 1.

I’m unsure if “Classic Reviewer Rank” is a bit like playing the first edition of AD&D when everybody’s just getting used to the fourth edition. But perhaps Steve Jackson will develop a GURPs-like solution that will appease Amazon reviewers of both types.

(Thanks, Gwen Dawson, for the tip!)

Responding to Asher: August 13

Levi: It is always a good habit to admit when one is wrong. I am wrong about something or someone almost every day. This afternoon, I blushed when a quite beautiful woman seemingly flirted with me on the subway. Minutes later, her boyfriend arrived behind me. Through the power of mathematics, the woman’s gaze and the boyfriend’s position lined up almost exactly. And I was more than a bit embarrassed. But there was a great sense of relief in knowing that I was wrong. And I’m man enough to admit it. So apparently are you. Let us both establish a secret society.

Sometimes, my wrongs almost make me want to see how much blood I can draw upon repeatedly stabbing myself with a spork. It is indeed a maddening and all too human feeling to be wrong, but also quite liberating. (The answer, incidentally, to the spork scenario varies from person to person. You do have to be quite patient. But I’ve found that it takes approximately 136 downward stabs, all aimed at the same spot, before one draws a near microscopic, but nevertheless evident burst of red. Of course, the last time I carried out this experiment, it was more than two decades ago.)

But here are a few facts you may wish to consider. In a six month during 1975, Americans bought five million Pet Rocks. To cite a more apposite technological example, the Sinclair MTV1 is, to my mind, a sleek-looking device. I like its black rectangular frame and the way that you tune into the channel as if trying to pinpoint a radio station. Its inventor thought that it would become a commonplace form of watching television. Three decades later, who has one?

Of course, it’s just possible that the Kindle may prove to be of stronger stuff. But 240,000 units doesn’t represent a paradigm shift. Let us wait this out like gentlemen before offering lofty conclusions. And then we can begin a series of spork tests.

Cory Doctorow’s Kindle Hypocrisy

Cory Doctorow, one of the few bloggers who didn’t return emails during my Kindle investigations, has posted his thoughts on the Kindle at Boing Boing. Doctorow says that he won’t be buying it because “it spies on you, it has DRM…, it prevents you from selling or lending your books, and the terms of service are nearly as abusive as the Amazon Unbox terms….”

Well, that’s all fine and dandy. But it still doesn’t explain why Boing Boing is listed as one of the Kindle blogs. It would appear that Doctorow prefers profit over principle. If Doctorow truly wanted the information to be free, then why did he sign on for Kindle in the first place? Based on all the evidence dredged up, it appears that the participants had at least nine months to say yes for this thing. In one case, a blogger was able to negotiate a private agreement. Further, Boing Boing was in a very close position to determine information, seeing as how John Battelle, the founder and chairman of Federated Media, is also the “band manager” for Boing Boing. So it’s not as if Doctorow didn’t have rampant opportunity to examine the Kindle’s specs, much less negotiate an airtight agreement.

Further, Doctorow remains conspicuously silent about Amazon stealing content from other blogs and distributing it and selling it without permission from bloggers. You have to wonder how Doctorow would feel if the roles were reversed or if he weren’t collecting a small sum of cash. While it’s true that Doctorow hasn’t shrieked, “Thanks Amazon for all the cash!,” I still find his “contrarian” post diffident and supremely hypocritical.

doctorowtattoo.jpgA true activist stands by his principles. For the record, a few major publishers have offered me considerable money to advertise on Segundo, with the proviso that I only interview their authors. One even suggested that I could download leftover audio snippets of authors from their digital archive and I could edit my questions in. I found this to be quite unsavory, and I politely declined these offers.

Doctorow is clearly a technological enthusiast, and it saddens me that he would rather use his position in the blogosphere to uphold corporate hypocrisy. It seems that Boing Boing isn’t about looking out for the little guy. It’s about looking out for Number One.

(Thanks, Christopher, for the head’s up.)

More Bloggers Weigh In On Kindle

[For more on these Kindle investigations, see ten arguments against the Kindle, the initial query concerning blog content being redistributed without permission or compensation, the first wave of Kindle blogger responses, and the the second wave of Kindle blogger responses.]

New emails have arrived and this post serves as an addendum to the previous report. First off, I should note Kassia Kroszer’s quibbles, which led to this report from Joseph Weisenthal, who pointed out that the only way one can access blogs through Kindle is through the page-flipping option. There isn’t the ability to scroll. (There is, however, a built-in browser — something that Weisenthal describes as “fairly clunky and prone to error messages.”) Then there’s Levi Asher’s thoughts: “They have got to be insane.” Levi insists that nobody will buy the Kindle at the $400 price. And I suppose we’ll have to wait a month or so to see if the momentum breaks down faster than the Segway.

kindle2.jpgHoward Rheingold, the man behind Smart Mobs, was likewise a Federated Media participant, and insists that Amazon won’t be preventing anyone from getting the feed for free. He views this as “an interesting experiment.” John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing negotiated a private agreement with Amazon, but sees this as “integrating and creating without judgment. The market does a pretty good job of that.”

Kevin Aylward, the publisher of Wizbang, sees the licensing deal as “no different than the type that Yahoo has done for other blogs’ content. It’s specific to the Kindle device. As far as I know there is no other way to access our RSS feed from that device.”

Nevertheless, two additional bloggers have witnessed their content redistributed and sold with neither permission nor remuneration. Mr. Faded Glory, the proprietor of High and Tight, tells me that, “I have never been informed of what the Kindle system is.” Glory does not profit off of his work and he doesn’t “want others to do so at my expense.”

Then there’s Jason Avant of Dadcentric, who faced a different scenario. Avant had been with Federated Media, who, as we have established, had been approached by Amazon for the Kindle experiment. Avant signed off back in April, “then promptly forgot all about it, and thus was surprised to see DadCentric listed among Kindle’s syndicated blogs.” But Amazon did have his permission, albeit in backdated form.

I still was a bit miffed, as I had ended my agreement with FM about two months ago. I did contact FM about that, and they have informed Amazon that I’m no longer with FM, but am entitled to any revenues that are generated via DadCentric. I’m in the process of determining what that means, and frankly I haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to continue with the whole Kindle deal.

Avant has no plans to endorse Kindle on his site, but he does “wholeheartedly agree that Amazon should be sanctioned if they have used people’s blogs without express authorization. There does seem to be a bit of that going on, and that is certainly going to determine whether or not I continue to do business with them.” Avant has requested Amazon to pull Dadcentric from their list of Kindle feeds. We will have to wait to see if his request will be honored.

So beyond Amazon angering bloggers by appropriating their content, consider how poorly such a tactic reflects upon them as a business. Consider how this great opportunity to present an alternative revenue stream is overturned by an inability on Amazon’s part to cross their Ts. When taken with the failure of Amazon to inform major rollers like Glenn Reynolds of the new developments, it seems that Amazon may very well care more about Amazon.

I have a few emails into Amazon to get their thoughts about all this, but, since it’s Turkey Day Week, I suspect I won’t be hearing back until next week. Nevertheless, I will determine who the primary contacts are, so that the four bloggers (and anybody else Amazon attempts to shanghai) who saw their content used without their permission can have some means of restitution.

[UPDATE: Jason Avant informs me that Amazon has removed Dadcentric from the Kindle directory.]

Responses from the Kindle Bloggers

[For more on these Kindle investigations, see ten arguments against the Kindle, the initial query concerning blog content being redistributed without permission or compensation, the first wave of Kindle blogger responses, and the the second wave of Kindle blogger responses.]

The upshot is that Amazon did indeed approach bloggers to participate in the Kindle Store. Mac Thomason tells me that Amazon approached him “either late last year or early this year.” Other bloggers, like Deane Barker, were approached largely because of their connection with third party outlets. In Barker’s case, it was Federated Media. (This is similar to what Glenn Reynolds told me about Pajamas Media.) In the case of bloggers who had a third party conduit, they don’t seem to be aware of the terms or even compensation specifics. The general consensus for high-traffic sites, however, is that advertising revenue will dwarf Kindle revenue. Thomason tells me that he’s “not expecting much.”

bezoskindle.jpgVinography‘s Alder Yarrow feels that “the fee covers the cost of making the content available via wireless access (since there is no monthly access fee). Yes it is a double standard, but some people are willing to pay for convenience.”

If the information wants to be free, at least one Kindle blogger has taken steps to remedy this. Bags and Baggage‘s Denise Howell, whose blog is licensed under Creative Commons, says that she generated “a separate, specific license to Amazon for their project.”

As to whether these bloggers see charging for a freely available RSS feed as a double standard, Barker notes, “I guess I don’t care if someone pays for my feed. I’d let them have it for free if Amazon would let me,” but expresses doubts that the operation will take off. Thomason suggests that because this is a different delivery system, these distinctions aren’t a double standard. “If someone were going to bind my postings up into a book, I’d expect compensation for that as well,” he said. And Thomason observes that his advertising revenue “basically only covers expenses.” So for bloggers in Thomason’s camp, Kindle may be an attractive option to boost revenue.

Howell, who hasn’t had advertising on his site in six years of blogging, begs to differ about this double standard. She wrote to me:

Your argument is like saying that simply because a musical artist makes some material available for free on the Web or as a “download of the day” in iTunes, it’s “a double standard” to ever charge for that work again. Doesn’t hold water. The creator maintains full control over uses (free or otherwise) of the work.

Howell likes the idea that “anyone who wants to can read it on the device.” And while the Kindle presents new possibilities for content delivery and revenue generation, the problem with Howell’s position is that Amazon has, in at least one case, screwed over the creator.

Daniel McGowan, the blogger behind Dan’s Take, tells me that had no idea that Amazon was doing this. McGowan tells me that he was never contacted by Amazon and that he was certainly never compensated by them. But there’s his blog at the Kindle Store.

So it appears, in at least one case, that Amazon has every intention of charging for content that they do not have consent for, and that, in McGowan’s case, they intend to leave him out in the cold while they collect 100% of the revenue. Apparently, not everybody can shout, “Thanks Amazon for all the cash!”

UPDATE: McGowan isn’t the only one being whose content is being sold through Amazon without his permission. Cork Gaines of Ray’s Index just responded to my email. He had no idea that Amazon was doing this until I contacted him. He had this to say:

Maybe two months ago, somebody from Amazon contacted me to tell me there was a problem with my RSS feed. At the time I ignored it, because my feed appeared to be working fine and had never heard any complaints (turns out it was just a quirk with Feed Validator). I wondered why Amazon would want my feed and just assumed they were going to integrate a feed reader on their site someplace in the future. I forgot about it and never followed up to see why. So to answer your question, NO, they never asked permission.

He says he isn’t gaining any revenue from Kindle, but he believes that it could generate new readers for his site, “but my thought is that the only subscribers will be people that are already familiar with my site.”

So that’s two bloggers who Amazon has left out in the cold. How many others are there?

Is Amazon Screwing Over Bloggers?

[For more on these Kindle investigations, see ten arguments against the Kindle, the initial query concerning blog content being redistributed without permission or compensation, the first wave of Kindle blogger responses, and the the second wave of Kindle blogger responses.]

On Saturday, Matthew Ingram noticed this about the Kindle:

The second thing that hit me was the part where Steven Levy says that users will be able to download books, newspapers and magazines, and will even be able to “subscribe to selected blogs, which cost either 99 cents or $1.99 a month per blog.” That one made me do a double-take. Pay a monthly subscription fee to read a blog? Either Levy and/or Bezos have been smoking something, or they have found some magical way to get people to pay for something that has historically been free.

So wait a minute here. Do any of these blogs get a cut here? I’m going to conduct some investigation and confirm if this is indeed the case.

[UPDATE: Here is a list of Kindle blogs. This blog does not appear to be listed, but Galleycat, Overheard in New York, Jossip and Boing Boing are. It appears quite likely that arrangements have been made with these respective outfits. But I will dig up more info and find out for sure.]

[UPDATE 2: Emails have been sent to many of the bloggers at the Kindle Store. If I find out anything for sure, I will post my findings here.]

[UPDATE 3: Jason Kottke has additional links, including the revelation of bloggers getting “a revenue share with Amazon, since it costs money to get those publications.” Nothing, as of yet, confirmed with anyone from Amazon. Hopefully, I’ll have some more answers later this afternoon about what’s going on.]

[UPDATE 4: Glenn Reynolds has emailed me back, telling me that his syndication rights are owned by third party Pajamas Media. He believes they cut this deal. I will follow up with them. Of being informed of the Kindle, he writes, “I’ve heard nothing from Amazon myself. I don’t mind being on Kindle at all, but it seems surprising that I haven’t even gotten a PR email from them.” I plan to assemble another post based on the responses I get.]

[UPDATE 5: Robert Scoble writes:

Because then I’ll get a few bucks back for each one you buy. If I read my email right, Amazon is paying bloggers $40 for each one sold. That’s pretty darn cool.

The price to you doesn’t change. But, if you don’t want me to get some money, then visit Amazon’s home page by typing into your browser window.

It’s not the only way I’ll get paid, though.

If you buy a Kindle and you buy my blog. It looks like I get 30% of that fee.

Anyway, thanks Amazon for all the cash! (I’ll need it, cause I just bought my own — it will be here tomorrow).

“Thanks Amazon for all the cash” indeed. If Amazon is indeed paying bloggers $40 for every Kindle sold and many of the top technology bloggers are on board for this, can we count upon these bloggers to be critical of the product?]

Books for Me, Thanks

[For more on these Kindle investigations, see ten arguments against the Kindle, the initial query concerning blog content being redistributed without permission or compensation, the first wave of Kindle blogger responses, and the the second wave of Kindle blogger responses.]

Ten arguments against the Kindle (one against the promotional video):

1. A book does not require a battery. Let’s say you’re on the second to the last page and the battery goes out. Then you have to hunt around for the damn charger. But where did you put the charger? In the same time, you could have finished a compelling book.

2. If you lose the book, you can borrow it from a library or buy another copy or read it at a bookstore before they kick you out because you wore the wrong T-shirt or you slept with the wrong bookstore employee (but that’s a side issue). If you lose your Kindle, you have to pay $400. Oh sure, it’s always “backed up online.” But you’ll have to pay $400 to use it again. (I’m assuming likewise that the specific text use here is proprietary, meaning that you can’t view a Kindle text in another format on your computer. Hackers will almost certainly crack this and who knows? Maybe we’ll see a piracy problem for publishers.)

3. Thirty hours seems like a lot of battery life. (“You can read for days without having to plug in,” my ass. Thirty hours is thirty hours.) But let’s say you want to read Against the Day or The Recognitions in one long sitting. And what if you fall asleep reading? Will the Kindle stay on?

4. Can you really read with the Kindle in the bathtub? If you drop the Kindle into the tub, will it survive? Or will the LCD screen be toast? How durable is this little bastard anyway?

5. This whole business of flipping the page is rather arrogant of Amazon, isn’t it? In one fell swoop, Amazon wants to usurp the reading experience by having the page buttons on each side of the display. But what if you want to flip back? Well, that glorious sense of the index finger and thumb clutching the right corner of the page is now gone. You don’t feel that palpable sense of being one with a book. It’s more like a game of Bioshock.

6. What about those of us who enjoy looking up arcane words in the dictionary? Is the Kindle Dictionary an unabridged? Or is it one of those yuk-yuk high school dictionaries? OED plug-in? Can you highlight a specific phrase or just a line? (The video skips through the “highlighting” part quite rapidly, suggesting that we shouldn’t pay attention. But, dammit, it’s important.) How will this compare with highlighting or flagging a specific passage with a Post-It? All we get here is an option to dog-ear a corner. This is eminently unsuitable for reference. (I will say, however, that finding all citations of a word in a book is very helpful, although will this discourage people from memorizing poetry or specific passages?)

7. The font size option seems nice, but what of specific typesetting choices? How, for example, can a book like Only Revolutions or The Raw Shark Texts or even Alfred Bester’s enneagrams be enjoyed this way? And what of the juxtaposition of illustrations with text? There is sometimes a specific reason for why a photo or an illustration appears in relation to a particular page.

8. “The same wireless technology as advanced cell phones?” Great. Guess I’ll have to turn the Kindle off then during a transatlantic flight and waste twelve hours watching that shitty in-flight movie. Thanks, Amazon!

9. The ability to hold a mere 200 books for $400 (plus extra for books)? I can buy a 4 Gig Compact Flash card for $80.

10. This guy in the blue shirt looks like he sells insurance or some kind of corporate mercenary. I wouldn’t trust him to buy me a beer if I gave him the money. He’d pocket the Lincoln and then ask me for the five bucks I “didn’t give him.”

Jeff Bezos: Not Even a Dime

Rick Simonson: “More than ever, it would then seem, it is time to publicly raise the question as to why Amazon has done nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way of overt philanthopy. Mist Place talked with various people in the non-profit community – everyone is perplexed at Amazon’s absence, its total, niggardly abdication of this role. It is perhaps only for a lack of media attention – and a kind of calling-out, or shaming – that this isn’t being addressed publicly. One person talked with knows two of the people on Amazon’s board, who know well the way of corporate giving, and say they even have gotten nowhere in inquiries. Mr. Bezos, in at least one online account of some time ago, asked about philanthropy, treated the question only in terms of his own wealth.” (Thanks, Vladimir!)

The Critical Acumen of Amazon Reader Reviews

Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land:

“After reading several pages of this book I encountered a gross insult to the President. This after other negative references to conservatives. Fine. I chose to return the book and exchange it for a copy of Mark Steyn’s America Alone. Mr. Ford, go sit with the Dixie Chicks.”

Anna Quindlen’s Rise and Shine:

“When Anna Quindlen was interviewed on TV, she said that most people think that their child’s teacher is more important than a rock star. Her book is a nice projection of that view. It is also well-written and entertaining.
I am giving 3 copies to friends as gifts.”

Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss:

“Terrible and pretentious writing. I tried to read this book without much luck. If you have trouble sleeping, this is the perfect sleeping pill.”

Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker:

“Way way too much science at the expense of what could have been a great story about the vanishing cranes. I read a lot of excellent literature but this book taxed my brain and not in a good way. I was sick of all the characters by books end. There was not one redeeming quality in any of them. I simply cannot imagine how this book could win any awards.”

Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions:

“ummm…started it…put it down…one of these days ill pick it up…but you really need to devote a ton of time to get thru the upwards and downwards and backwards and forwards… I dont know, Ill take Steven King’s books over these any day.”

Amazon Author Blogs

I suppose the move was inevitable, but Amazon has started hosting author blogs. The highest profile name on the list is Meg Wolitzer, whose posts can be found here. But I can’t buy into the ethics of a retailer pushing a blog while simultaneously encouarging people to buy things. Whatever the merits of Wolitzer’s posts, however much she feels that “Anything that can get fiction on people’s radar is good,” I get the unsettling aura of Shirley Maclaine talking with the dead during an infomercial.

Even the language of Wolitzer’s posts sounds as if it’s been lifted from a sleep-inducing MBA seminar. One reads, “I feel that writers need to remind readers why they ought to read novels. Fiction writers need to put the truth about the world into their books. Actually, in some sense, they need to put the world into their books.”

If we switch “readers” with “consumers,” “writers” with “corporations” and books with “Coca-Cola,” we get the following entry: “I feel that corporations need to remind consumers why they ought to drink Coca-Cola. Corporations need to put the truth about the world into their products. Actualy, in some sense they need to put the world into their Coca-Cola.” We’re clearly leagues away from Paris Review-style insight.

Granted, it’s easy to argue that 90% of blogs are vapid. But even a lousy LiveJournal is written with a voice of integrity and authenticity, likely because the shady influence of advertising is far from the impetus.

I understand the need to market books, particularly given the oversaturated fiction market. But author websites seem to me a better way to do this. Not only do they serve as a reference point which is compatible with both buying the book (if desired) and finding out about an author, but in the case of such authors as Michelle Richmond, John Scalzi, Tayari Jones and Jennifer Weiner, they become blossoming entities which emerge from their initial purpose, leading to impassioned discussions about plagiarism, race and the stigma against chick lit. But I doubt very highly that these conversations could have developed had these respective sites been hosted by Amazon (let alone any monolithic sponsor) because the concerns of offending the boys upstairs or attracting a broad readership tainted the posts.

And here’s a question someone should ask: does Amazon “place” blogs the same way that Barnes & Noble cuts deals with publishers for placement? Is there some clickthrough rate tied into whether or not Meg Wolitzer, for example, will get placement on the main page? When the overwhelming reason to blog is to move product, surely the motivation behind the posts will be moulded to ensure presence and survival.

In the end, I think the Amazon blog is going to hurt Wolitzer more than it’s going to help her. What could have been a way for readers to elicit honest feedback from Wolitzer has turned instead into one of those Gap Kids commercials. Initially, you’re dazzled by the performance. But as the initial allure wears off, you begin cluing into the fact that it’s a commercial (in this case, the realization that Wolitzer isn’t going to rock the boat, much less provide anything even slightly subversive). My guess is that Wolitzer will be communicating with the dead, blogwise at least. Sooner than she thinks.

[UPDATE: Galleycat’s Ron Hogan challenges my assumption, suggesting, for example, that a Uzodinma Iweala essay (by comparison, a one-shot deal rather than a continuous commitment) appearing at Powell’s might be reified as “too corporate.” I should point out that, although Iweala’s essay appears on a major retailer’s site, at least Powell’s has made more of an effort to distinguish its content from its marketing, confining all marketing links in rounded yellow boxes. In other words, we have a clear separation between marketing and editorial rather than Amazon’s “anything goes” principle, with its links just under “Meg Wolitzer’s Amazon Blog” going directly to “buy this book” links. Ron is misconstruing my argument. Again, as I pointed out above, I raise no objection to the need to sell books (in fact, while I’m not a fan of advertising, I nevertheless applaud Media Bistro for placing its advertisements in clearly delineated squares so as not to mislead readers). My concern here is over the blurring of marketing and editorial and the impact this is likely to have on worthwhile content (meaning that Wolitzer’s blog is not so much about Wolitzer the author but Wolitzer the book merchant, for her books, without the pivotal distinction, are now contextualized as laundry detergent rather than as works of art). It is no less invalid an argument than the concerns raised earlier in the year over the Target-sponsored New Yorker or what’s referred to in the MeFi world as Pepsi Blue. (See also this OJR article about ethical standards in the blogosphere.)]


More Fun with Amazon

Amazon has recently instituted “text stats,” which measures a book by Fleish-Kincaid index (the higher you go, the more difficult it is to read), percentage of complex words and words per dollar. Now if this is the basis for why one should read, let’s see how the thickass literary heavy-hitters stand up:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 9.3
Complex Words: 11%
Words Per Dollar: 25,287

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 7.3
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 24,553

The Recognitions by William Gaddis
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 8.4
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 25,458

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 9.5
Complex Words: 10%
Words Per Dollar: 24,086

The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 6.6
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 31,532

Ulysses by James Joyce
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 6.8
Complex Words: 10%
Words Per Dollar: 16,777

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 8.5
Complex Words: 14%
Words Per Dollar: 20,944

And here are the winners.

Best Words Per Dollar Value: William T. Vollmann
Author You’ll Need Your Dictionary For: Richard Powers
Most Difficult to Read: Thomas Pynchon (w/ David Foster Wallace a close second)
Easiest to Read: William T. Vollmann (w/ James Joyce a close second)

Because Being a Team Player Involves Occasional Cunnilingus

MacKenzie Bezos has a new book out. Clearly, the fact that MacKenzie is married to Jeff Bezos has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with this fawning interview at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Clearly, the fact that Amazon is based in Seattle has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the apparent urgency to get Mrs. Bezos precious column inches that could have gone to Kelly Link, Christopher Sorrentino, Lee Martin, or Kirby Gann. This interview was clearly intended to reflect the most seminal concerns for furthering humanities of our age!

Quick Roundup

  • We’re very sorry to learn that George Fasel of A Girl and a Gun has passed away. Our condolences to his friends and family.
  • Dan Wickett talks with more literary journal editors. At this rate, Mr. Wickett will have chatted with everyone in the literary world by June 2006.
  • Bad Librarian’s chronicles continue, with remarks on the Patriot Act and a shocking personal revelation.
  • Amazon will begin offering short story downloads. The stories will be 49 cents a pop. Presumably, each user who signs up for this service will have every known purchasing histroy detail logged and will be recommended tales that have nothing whatsoever to do with their literary interests. (Example: If you liked “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” you might like “The Snows of Central Park West” by Bret Easton Ellis.)
  • You have to love the way some folks jump to conclusions. The speculation continues with this latest press release (PDF) now making the rounds. The APA is now calling for the video game industry to reduce violence. Even if we accept the idea that video game violence is a major influence upon patterned behavior (and the resolution itself corrals this in with several other studies relating to “the media,” rather than “video games” explicitly), it apparently hasn’t occurred to these psychiatrists that parents might be the ones responsible for exposing their children to violent content and that the choice is theirs. As much as I would welcome the idea of preventing McDonald’s from operating, you wouldn’t, for example, see the AMA demand that the fast food industry stop selling hamburgers.