There is a lot of truth in the statement that follows from The Passive Voice.  At all the events I attend publishers are constantly saying that bookstores are necessary so that readers can find books they don’t know about.  This simply shows how little publishers understand the online world.  Amazon has a fantastic recommendation engine that suggests books to me based on what I’ve bought.  They are “right on” a so often that it is spooky.  Another example of how traditional publishers don’t  understand what is going on around them:

Because Amazon, compared to traditional publishers, has an extraordinary winning card that none of them have (at least for the time being) – and neither do traditional bookstores like Borders (hence its demise). Only those who go digital, cleverly combining the physical with the digital, like Barnes & Noble (vide its Nook, a real rival to the Kindle), can look forward to a serene future in the digital age.

What am I talking about? Those of you who have a Kindle will know right away what I am referring to: their computers’ capacity to track your digital purchases, memorize them and the next time you turn up in the Kindle shop looking for a new book, to propose new titles to you on the basis of what you’ve bought. This is a very powerful tool to catch customers. Physical libraries have traditionally used shelf space, organizing them by genres and types of books to help their customers and make new titles accessible.

This possibility is of course denied to Amazon as an Internet company. They have had to devise digital search tools to make books accessible – but in so doing, they’ve developed an incredibly powerful marketing tool. Much more powerful than the “genre” system used by traditional publishers which is necessarily based on the history of past sales of their stable of authors.

Herein lies the main difference: traditional publishers know what their authors sold (how many copies, when, where, in what genre) but they don’t know who bought them. Amazon does – perforce, it’s on Internet, every transaction is written, a complete contract between seller and buyer, with credit card and home address. It’s not like when you buy a book in a bookstore or at the WalMart with cash. And at the end of the day, knowing who bought what is going to win the race.

. . . .

Amazon has already started to put this knowledge to good use. For example, in publishing international literature in English with its imprint AmazonCrossing,  it is careful to pick the winners on the basis of customer feedback from Amazon stores worldwide. Result? Its first title, the Hangman’s Daughter, sold 100,000 copies in the first six months after publication. And it seems AmazonCrossing is fast becoming a roaring success in the US market that is not particularly given to reading foreign authors.


  1. Another issue is the failure of chain bookstores to stock and display titles I want to read. I’m not interested in bestsellers, series, vampire romance, or young adult which seems to me the bulk of shelf space. I’m not likely to find what I’m looking for a Borders or B&N. I do better with a well stocked independent like Seattle’s Eliot Bay Book where I went in to get Fataleby Jean-Patrick Manchette but also discovered The Damned Don’t Die by Jim Nisbet. That kind of buying couldn’t happen in chain store—their selection is too thin.

    I used to work for Borders in the 90s before Amazon and the Internet when their selection was deep and wide. Their idea was to stock hundreds of titles that only sold 1 or 2 copies every other year or so and customers flocked in to buy —and maybe they’d picked up a couple of bestsellers too with that other titles they’d been trying to find for forever.

  2. Amazon keeps track of everything you’ve ever read and performs predictive analysis based on that history: “This is the coolest thing ever!”

    The government keeps track of everything you’ve ever read and performs predictive analysis based on that history: “This is a flagrant violation of my Constitutional rights!”

  3. Oh… and unlike book stores and most publishers Amazon has one other thing. A STEADY RELATIONSHIP WITH MANY PAYING CUSTOMERS!

    Do not leave out that part. Most publishers have no interaction and could care less who buys their shit to begin with which is why they will die.

  4. @Steven, it’s occasionally made some huh???? type recommendations for me as well, but one nice thing is you can refine what gets recommended by editing out purchases and also adding/rating books that you didn’t buy from Amazon to make the results you get hopefully more accurate. But maybe you already knew/tried that.

  5. If I could find a site where I could place a bet, I think I would bet on Amazon over the publishers in knowing how to sell in a e-market.

    I remember the days before Amazon when I had to go to a bookstore every couple of weeks in the hopes of finding some books to read. Right now I have samples for over 50 books to read on my Kindle and some 8 pages of lower priority books on my Amazon wish list Add to that some 30 books on “eReaderIQ” waiting for a reasonable price drop.

    With the web I have access to at least 15 sites for book reviews, plus Amazon’s recomendations, plus 30 second delivery. Amazon has always treated me like a valued customer (and rightly so when I open my Visa bill each month).

    Methinks that the publishers need to phone back to earth.

  6. This is just another example of how Amazon responds to it’s customers – readers, while publishers respond to their customers – bookstores. Publishers and bookstores are concerned with what sells the most and the best. Amazon clearly believes that the widest selection is also a selling point and their recommendation engine facilitates that.

    In retail, know your customer is the most important attribute of a successful company. Amazon wins that prize many times over.

  7. I know some people think they don’t want places like Amazon collecting the information needed to make the recommendations, but I love it. I have found more new authors and started reading more new genres since I used the recommendations. It is the same as with iTunes, they recommend songs based on my purchases, and they are rarely wrong. iTunes takes it further by giving a new song a week for me to try. I don’t know if it’s tailored to me, but it sure seems like the songs fit my taste.

  8. I think the extent of privacy desired is a generational issue. My children think nothing of baring their souls to the world on Facebook and think nothing can possibly go wrong as a result of Mark Zuckerberg mining their personal data. I, OTOH, do not want to be tracked, don’t like giving out personal data no matter how innocuous the data seems, and find it risky to let any company — everyone’s-but-mine-buddy Amazon included — vaccum up my personal data. I grant that some disclosure I can’t avoid, but that is no reason to merrily stroll down the path strewing all my personal data out to the world.

    Additionally, different folk have different perspectives about how useful Amazon’s book browsing methods are. Personally, I much prefer the browsing experience at B&N. Amazon’s suggestions might be more useful to me if Amazon actually read the books I purchased and the books it suggests. Just as I find the Amazon book reviews to be of little value, largely because I have no idea who reviewer 947Dragon is, I similarly find Amazon’s automated suggestions.

    I like to go to my local B&N and browse the bookshelves. I usually walkout with a couple of purchased books and a list of others that interest me — few, if any, that appear on any “suggested” list. None of the suggestions included my most recent purchase, “Death and a Maiden: Infanticide and the Tragical History of Grethe Schmidt” by William David Myers, which I found by browsing at B&

  9. The Amazon prospect selector is agnostic on format encouraging print sales as well as screen sales. Many times it makes the perfect selection for me. Many times there is no screen format. Many times I will prefer the print version.

  10. @Richard: I don’t think privacy is a generational issue, so much as it is an experience issue. How many under-18’s have experienced their bank accounts, credit cards, social security numbers or phone accounts hijacked by another party, and perhaps hundreds to thousands of their dollars lost to such attacks? How many under-18’s have been stalked or attacked by someone who tracked them based on obtaining personal information?

    Those who are older are more likely to have had at least one of those things happen to them (including me), and as a result, are much more touchy about who knows what about us. The kids largely haven’t had that happen, and like most people, are not concerned about something that doesn’t directly impact them. But as they get older, and the realities of life begin to knock on their door, they will understand the need for privacy soon enough.

    @Brian: I’ve tried to massage Amazon’s system often enough, but to me, it still remains a brute-force system: Buy a graphic novel, and it throws two dozen GNs at you; buy a Wild Cards book by George R.R. Martin, and get all of GRRM’s fantasy books thrown at you; etc. It bases its recommendations on what others have done when they’ve bought an item… but I’m not everyone else. It knows nothing about me, it guesses based on others that Amazon thinks are like me. And its guesses are usually way off the mark.

  11. Who do you think got you those books onto amazon in the first place? Who selected them out of a huge pile of manuscripts, read them, corrected them, discussions with with the author about amending the story line, selected a good cover. Amazon is just a shelf stacker and price promoter. Think they honestly care about the quality of the book? Or care about anything for that matter. Of course not. the only thing they are interested in is how much money they can take out of your wallet and how frequently they can do so. Amazon is destroying this industry. The day will come when you will wake up, with nothing but a kindle, and rubbish on it, because by then publishing as we now know it will no longer exist.

  12. @does amazon really care about what you read?

    What makes you think publishers really care about what you read? They’re just as interesred in pulling your cash from your wallet as fast as possible.

    So far as I can tell, they’re pumping out vampire romances by the truck load, along with media tie-ins, and repetative series. Can you even count the number of series about vampires in love? Have you looked in a bookstore with shelves stacked tight with Star Wars and Star Trek books? Can a mystery author somewhere somehow please write interesting novels that don’t feature the same cast of characters sloving the same kind of crime over and over and over again? That’s what I call rubbish. Amazon may or may not do a better job in the end, but if they can put a stack in the current publishing trends, then they’ll have done a good job.

    Then again, of couse, there are probably indies out who will want to write the next high school vampires in love saga or Billy Bob the Gumshore Book # 42 and Amazon will sell them.

  13. And add to this one more thing: an indie writer’s ability to upload freely to the Kindle Store. Ask J. A. Konrath how that’s going for him and you’ll see that this one aspect alone makes Amazon stand out, by accepting indie writers with open arms, no stipulations whatsoever. I have yet to see any other major book company offer anything like it. Pub-It by B&N doesn’t even come close. The next closest platform is Smashwords, and if Amanda Hocking success isn’t enough incentive for publishers to pay attention to the viability of self-pub autonomy, then I don’t know what will.

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