Are Amazon e-books in New York City schools going to lead to even more Amazon dominance in the marketplace down the line? It’s something I’ve been pondering for a while, and I just ran across an article that seems to confirm it as a possibility.
On Business Insider, Andrew Meola reports that the majority of US teenagers shop online, and Amazon ranks as the “preferred shopping website” of 41% of them. This figure is up from 31% in Spring 2014 and 35% in Spring 2015. And while teens don’t have a lot of money, the spending habits they set now will stick with them later in life. While this story is talking about merchandise in general, it’s worth remembering that Amazon is known for books and e-books.
The recent story about Amazon getting a contract to sell e-books to New York City schools reminded me of a scene from Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s brilliant Madison Avenue satire, The Space Merchants, in which ad agency execs discuss how they’ve managed to get public schools to package the good parts of school lunches in the colors associated with their clients, and the yucky parts in colors associated with their clients’ competitors, so kids will grow up with positive and negative emotions already associated with those respective colors.
While Amazon getting the contract for school e-books isn’t anything quite that sneaky, seeing Amazon’s brand name on them is going to strengthen the association of Amazon and e-books in the minds of the kids exposed to them—including the ones who haven’t even gotten to be teenagers yet. That can only help Amazon’s brand further into the future when they’re adults with more disposable income.
Is this “evil”? Not especially—or if it is, not any more so than any other big company that produces products for use by children, or advertises on children’s television, or anything like that. The time when kids could grow up without constant exposure to brand names is long in the past—if it ever existed at all. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was at least a minor consideration for Amazon when it came to bidding for the contract.
The more this kind of thing happens, the less likely it is that Amazon will abruptly fizzle at some point in the future, because Amazon is reaching future consumers while they’re still young and priming them to continue its commercial legacy down the road. Which is a good thing for people heavily invested in Amazon e-book libraries, at the least. By comparison, who knows what the future of Barnes & Noble’s e-book division is going to look like?
Chris, I attach for less value to brand loyalty than you. I doubt getting these books from Amazon will create such loyalty and, if anything, associating often dull school textbooks with Amazon could do its brand harm. Has dominating textbooks helped create a powerful Pearson-branded line of other books. No, for those who want a good novel, Pearson means nothing.
As for Amazon’s market strength, the history of retail in this country suggests that the ‘top dog’ in the field invariably loses out when it fails to stay ahead as retail sales makes a critical turn. In my lifetime, A&P, Safeway, and Walmart once held the household retail positions that Amazon now intends to dominate. They slipped down, in A&P’s case, almost into insolvence. The same will happen to Amazon.
The same will happen with the current market leader in digital. Apple’s already making some serious mistakes. It’s tossed away most of the business market because it doesn’t have a single desktop that appeals to cost-conscious businesses. Cost-conscious businesses are not only most businesses, they’re the ones most likely to remain around. By ignoring that market, Apple loses all those who want their computer at home to be like the one they use at work. In the end, that will began to tell on them.
The Greeks noticed the problem long ago. Success leads to hubris, or overwhening pride, and pride leads to a fall, as the Bible notes. The very success of Amazon and Apple is laying the seeds for their subsequent decline. Certain that they hold the key to success, they’ll miss a critical turn and fall into decline.
With Amazon, attempting to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of employees will mean that the better people leave for companies that treat them better. Amazon will be left with those who can’t get any other job and who make a nasty-to-work-for company even worse by their own backstabbing.
For Apple, it’s the company’s obsession with style over substance, as if it were in the luxury jewelry business. A good business computer is about as stylish a lathe, but if you’re not selling them—preferring instead a toy like the iMac—you’re leaving a door open to a rising competitor. Just like iPhones can sell Macs, creating good business desktops is an opening into the consumer market. What people like at work, they’ll buy for home.
Or look at automobiles. The Big Three automakers, in their pursuit of high profits, left open the market for reliable economy cars. Japan and later other Asia automakers moved into that market, conquered it, and used it to enter the far more lucrative market in luxury cars.
In the economy, the only certainty is change. And the only way to avoid change is to create command economies where the state dictates what is made, bought and sold. The end result of that is massive shortages like those in the old USSR or today’s Venezuela.
“Worst of all, the country is running desperately short of food and medicine. Venezuelans spend much of their time waiting in lines outside stores, but increasingly the shelves are bare.”
The only real solution is brutal honesty that never forgets the possibility of failure. I once worked nights caring for children with leukemia, something you can read about in My Nights with Leukemia. Managing night work isn’t easy. Some nights, I was so tired it felt like a thousand ants were crawling all over me, but I never let my attention slacken. Every night when I came to work I told myself, “If you screw up, a kid could die. Don’t screw up.” Kids getting treated for cancer are very fragile. Even one second of slackness might be the moment in which there was a clue one of those kids was in serious trouble.
In addition to vigilance, a company must pay attention to every aspect of a business rather than just a chosen few aspects. Amazon mistreats employees and authors, thinking only customers matter. Apple neglects the concerns of practical businesses and hard-nosed ‘creative professionals’ like myself, thinking only fashion matters. Those are mistakes that can become costly.
Like hubris, neglect of something critical can lead to failure. Some of the most dedicated professionals in existence are the nurses who work in children’s hospitals. They’re infinitely more committed to their adorable young patients than employees who’re hoping the stock options an Amazon or an Apple offers will make them rich. The hospital where I worked tried to prey on that committment and the result was disasterous. You can read that in Senior Nurse Mentor, where I offer a solution.
To get its message out, the ebook version is free at the iBookstore. If Amazon had let me, it’d be free for Kindles too. While its central message is for hospitals, what it says applies to any company that thinks it can get away with employee abuse, including giants such as Amazon. In the long run, employee happiness matters far more than brand name recognition. Your employees are your company. Neglect them at your peril.
–Mike Perry, Inkling Books