NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #46
by Pat Holt

Friday, March 19, 1999

THAT 'CUSTOMER-CENTRIC' AMAZON
LETTERS

THAT 'CUSTOMER-CENTRIC' AMAZON

As Barnesandnoble.com makes its uncertain way into IPO land, it's almost fun to watch Jeff Bezos dancing as fast as he can to keep Wall Street dazzled with Amazon.com as the only game in town.

PC Week Online recently put it this way (http://www.zdnet.com/pcweek/stories/news/0,4153,1014082,00.html): "It's unclear what exactly Amazon is just yet, so Bezos falls back on the mantra of creating an entirely new customer experience. Mentioning 'selling products for profits' is tantamount to sullying the pure mission of innovation and building value."

Tee hee. Some "pure mission," as readers learned when Amazon got caught selling "recommendation" and "best-seller" space without telling its customers (see below). But let's hear Bezos hang himse - explain why Amazon is unique: "We are building something that can't be pigeon-holed," Bezos told the magazine. "We defy easy analogy . . . Barnes and Noble is on a different mission."

The idea is that Barnes & Noble is a bookseller scrambling onto the web and worrying about profit. Amazon is so far ahead of the game that profits right now are irrelevant. "To be profitable would be a bad decision," he says. "We were profitable for about an hour in December, 1995, but it was probably a mistake."

We know what he means - it's better to build steadily into real profit than go bouncy-bouncy in and out of the red - but that's irrelevant. What's important here is attitude and language - the swashbuckling bravado, the visionary cool, the cavalier dismissal of competitors ("there are no companies we focus on as competitors," he says) and a 21st century version of Newspeak that sends chills up the spine:

"The next big thing is personalization," says Bezos. "We've only seen the first 2 percent. If Amazon has 6.2 million customers, there should be 6.2 million highly customized stores. It's a myth that there is an average customer." Wait a minute, Jeffy. How exactly do you intend to "customize?" By building up information on each customer? By creating the kind of "personalized" histories that any new version of Ken Starr would love to get his hands on for any new reason?

Oh, well, no time to bicker. To remain "the leader in e-commerce," Bezos says, "management needs to be focused 24 hours a day creating genuine value for customers." Then another Newspeak word pops up: "We want to be the most customer-centric company in the world." Oops. "Customer-centric"? Sometimes one feels the yuppies have won. But wait, PC Week asks, "were the stories about Amazon selling book review placements an embarrassment?"

"It was not embarrassing," says Bezos. "This is something every catalog company and retailer does. The recommendations were never for sale. Now we disclose the whole practice. What surprised us is that our customers hold us to a higher standard. It's too bad there was this misunderstanding."

You bet there was a misunderstanding, and say, have you seen how Amazon now "disclose(s) the whole practice"? Not exactly right up front on the home page, is it? And "a higher standard" compared to what - competitors that don't exist?

But then, that's old news. For the future, Amazon is worried less about customers than the investment community. Describing "ever receding expectations for profitability," Inter@ctive Week Online described concerns on Wall Street that Amazon's house of cards (not the magazine's term) is getting a little old. "If they [Amazon] encounter a hiccup, the stock is going to be crushed," said Paul Cook, manager of Munder Capital Management's Net Fund.

So PR is everything to Bezos, and this brings us to the capper of the story. When PC Week Online asks Bezos to comment on the fact that "small bookstores blame Amazon for their sorry state," he answers: "They primarily point the finger at the big chains. I go to Elliot Bay Bookstore here in Seattle and buy half my books at bookstores. You can hear the bindings creak and you can touch and smell the books. There's been strong pressure on independent bookstores for five years. It started happening long before Amazon was around."

Once again we know what he means. Yes, the chains started it (but come on: of all the assaults on independent bookselling in the last two decades, Amazon has hit the hardest) and we're all sure Bezos likes brick-and-mortar bookstores as much as the next guy.

But how odd to hear him single out Elliot Bay, one of the best bookstores in the country, as a place where "you can hear the bindings creak." It's as though Bezos were a contemporary Ulysses or Gulliver finding himself in an ancient petrified forest where all the little people bring offerings he can "touch and smell."

This kind of patronizing attitude may impress investors, but in fact, independent booksellers in Seattle (and Portland, Ore.) are creating a new kind of bookselling environment that is proving astonishingly resilient. As Holt Uncensored discovers in a series about the Pacific Northwest, beginning next week, when Amazon.com is in your back yard, cracks begin showing in its image as "the leader in e-commerce."

LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

For some time now my search engine of choice has been InferenceFind at www.infind.com. It is a very fast search engine with no banner advertising. It organizes the "hits" into manageable chunks and tries to eliminate redundancies (its not perfect in that part). When you search for Tattered Cover: Walla, you get links to Tattered Cover Bookstore.

Sandra Martz

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Check out this site: http://elf.chaoscafe.com

Dennis Allison

H.U. Responds: This site offers full-length classics, including some with modern text, of books ranging in categories from Medieval & Renaissance Literature ("The DivineComedy," "The Canterbury Tales," "Paradise Lost") to Arabian & Persian Literature ("The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" and - in April - "The Arabian Nights"). Sponsored by The Electronic Literature Foundation, the site provides brief biographies of writers, background chronologies and a forum for discussion. Official opening is April 1, so it has a few omissions (two tales from Canterbury are missing, for example). But it's a great example of the "online browsing" phenomenon that makes the Internet useful. If you've never been exposed to any or all of these classics, here's a way in. When your eyes turn googly from too much text on the screen, you know it's time to buy the book.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm surprised by all the hullabaloo over Amazon's "misleading" links. I thought it was pretty obvious the first time I ever saw one of their ads pop up that they had simply taken my search keywords and filled in the blank on their ad. I had no belief that they had books on "Blake Babies Lyrics" or "Jack Micheline," and since I'm not inclined to shop at Amazon, I've never clicked on the link anyway. I'm very surprised that so many intelligent, anti-Amazon readers of Holt Uncensored keep getting fooled by this. If it's a blind link, don't click on it, your browser can tell you where you're going before you click. Anything on your screen that is not a direct part of your search results is an advertisement. Stop hitting your heads against the wall.

Ray Fort

H.U. Responds: Well, we can all turn away from billboards that lie, too, but why should we have to? Of course, you're not alone in voicing this comment - read on:

Dear Holt Uncensored.

You gotta be kidding me. When I put "book passage" into Yahoo, the FIRST link that comes up is "Book Passage - a living breathing independent bookstore". Same thing with Tattered Cover, same thing with Cody's (with or without the apostrophe). The Amazon button is clearly labeled "Buy Books About {whatever}." If anybody thinks this is consumer fraud or name hijacking they 1) seriously misunderstand how computers and search engines work; even worse 2) must think their potential customers are complete idiots. Why, if I'm looking for Book Passage and the link is right there in front of me, would I click on a link that says buy books about Book Passage? OK, it's possible maybe one out of a hundred newbies might get confused and click on Amazon. So what? That's what Back buttons are for. This is a non-issue, and IMO if you want to whine about it and call Amazon a bully it only reinforces a victim mentality that (I don't think) is a good image for independent stores to project. I think there are plenty of good issues you can and do slam the chains on. Just don't think this is one of them.

Pete LeBar

H.U. Responds: Please don't blame independent booksellers for getting mad at this or for the way I expressed the problem. Just because I think it's time Amazon and the chains should get their ads off these pages doesn't mean the independents are guilty of victim mentality. I'm saying it's wrong for the chains/Amazon to do this, period. OF COURSE consumers can look the other way - that doesn't mean the chains/Amazon aren't guilty of untruths. All they have to do is get off the sites; it's an easy screen! So why don't they do it? The longer they're on there, the more they're going to at the very least interrupt the journey of the customer to the independent store of choice. Gad, it's sleazy. Anyway thank you for writing - smoke was coming out of my ears as I read it so excuse me for venting (again).

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Anyone interested in scholarly electronic publishing will want to visit these sites:

"Who Owns What?" - articles on intellectual property, copyright, and the next millenium - Journal of Electronic Publishing, http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/04-03/glos0403.html: examines the challenges and opportunities for intellectual property and copyright in the digital age. The featured articles explore topics such as the current state of electronic publishing, managing rights electronically, the future of scholarly publishing, libraries as publishers, and even open source software as a model for managing intellectual property.

"The New Age of the Book" by cultural historian Robert Darnton, New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev/WWWfeatdisplay.cgi?19990318005F: explores the potential and pitfalls that arise from the electronic publication of scholarly monographs. Darnton discusses the prospects of electronic monographs in relation to issues such as recent changes in publishing in general and to university presses in particular, publishing and tenure, and the pricing of journals.

Margo Sasse

Dear Holt Uncensored:

If I understood you correctly, you're thinking of putting together a list of independents who provide on-line ordering. I sent a request for mystery store sites to DorothyL, and those incredibly helpful people responded with the information below. I hope this is helpful, and not presumptuous.

Sophie Annan Jensen

MYSTERY STORES:

UK: http://www.twbooks.co.uk/bookshop.html
and the Weekly Listings http://www.twbooks.co.uk/crimedigests/digests99/weeklylists99.html

Tangled Web UK.
http://www.twbooks.co.uk

TEXAS: Remember the Alibi Mystery Bookstore, San Antonio. web site coming soon, meanwhile,: patsy@world-net.net, via phone at (210) 366-2665 or fax (210) 366-2702. We do special orders all the time and accept most major credit cards. Owner Patsy Garza Asher.
Murder by the Book, Houston:
http://www.NeoSoft.com/~mrdrbybk/
From Anne Petersen in Denmark:
Try checking the Cluelass page :
http://www.cluelass.com/Sale.html
and the section Deadly Directory should be of help too.

OHIO: John Leininger
Alice Ann Carpenter
Grave Matters (mystery & detective fiction catalog on request)
P.O. Box 32192
Cincinnati, OH 45232-0192
(513) 242-7527; FAX: (513) 242-5115; E-mail:
books@gravematters.com; online catalog: http://www.gravematters.com

Alec West has a list too at http://www.pacifier.com/~alecwest/bookstor.htm

GENERAL:

http://www.trussel.com/f_books.htm This is a great place if you want to know search several different bookstores. On Steve's page, you'll also find MXBookfinder - one of my favorites.

I buy books online, but I don't buy from Amazon unless I have absolutely no choice. There are many, many other sources, such as http://www.powells.com or http://www.bookfinder.com, two places that Amazon buys a lot of their books from. Why not buy directly and keep independent booksellers alive?

Karen karen@wordwrite.com