Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

The harder they fall? Amazon faces a succession of scrutiny as people draw snap judgments


If you’ve been following any of the publishing news stories lately, most likely you’ve seen quite a few stories that report missteps, mistakes, and mysteries concerning the giant e-tailer that so many in publishing love to hate: Amazon. Here’s a rundown of a few upsets that have been sweeping across the industry lately.

Incident #1: User loses access to Amazon account, including all purchased ebooks. Story spreads like wildfire. 

(Said incident serves as a big fat wakeup call that customers do not own, but merely license, ebook purchases. Just in time for gift-giving season.)

Now, it seems that this story went viral before everyone really knew all of the facts, but here’s the complicated gist: a Norwegian customer had purchased a Kindle in the United Kingdom, used it, liked it, and ended up giving it to her mother. Then she bought a used Kindle from a Danish classifieds site and added her account to it. The device began exhibiting “faults,” and after she reported this to customer service, they said the replacement device would need to be shipped to a United Kingdom address, not one in Norway. Long story short, Amazon then reportedly issued some form letters stating the account associated with the device was in violation of their policy, and the account had been closed. The user lost access to all purchased ebooks as well, which was the key that made this story light up online riots.

After the news of the closed account spread, Amazon released a statement that an account status should not affect access to one’s library, and this previously banned user was suddenly able to access her ebooks again. (Coincidence? Many think not.) To be honest, the details of this story are still very unclear to me. I was raised on the adage, “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see,” and it is true—there is always more than meets the eye.

It seems that Amazon was content with issuing vague form letters—that is until the issue came under the public eye. But even official responses lacked detail that would help the general public understand exactly what had happened.

This was an important incident, however, not only for Amazon, but for the ebook industry as a whole. Yet again, it put DRM right under the spotlight and reminded users that DRM-laced ebooks equate to a licensing agreement rather than a flat-out purchase.

Incident #2: Booksellers push back against Amazon’s foray into publishing. Tim Ferriss responds.

When Amazon started seriously dabbling in the business of actually publishing books, many in the industry were outraged. While some feared that Amazon could give one swift backhand to the foundation of publishing, others took a firm stance and said, “Hey, Amazon, if you won’t play by our rules, we won’t play by yours.” The big news was when Amazon scooped Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body, from Random House and announced it would be publishing The 4-Hour Chef. Not so fast. Now that the release of this title on November 20 is nearly upon us, we are reminded of the complicated ebook vs. print debates, particularly when places like Barnes & Noble will not sell the print book if it cannot sell the ebook version as well. Other booksellers are completely uninterested in selling Ferriss’s title.

Now, as this article from PaidContent notes, when Ferriss decided to move to Amazon, he expected criticism, and he is still confident his book will do just fine:

When Ferriss originally signed up with Amazon, he expected “blowback” from the traditional publishing industry and retailers, he told me (and the NYT). “I’m very convinced this book will succeed in terms of the sheer number of units moved to readers,” he said. “I think it could sell as many [copies] or more than my previous two books. Am I going to have the same channels of distribution? No, I won’t, necessarily, because there are people who have blacklisted it…I think that no matter how well I do—even if I sell a million Kindle copies, for instance—there will be people in the book trade who call it a failure because they’re using different metrics.”

Regardless of what happens, this is yet another instance that adds to the tension we’re all feeling in publishing today. Will Amazon succeed? Will Amazon fail? The world is watching very closely and just waiting for a misstep. Though Ferriss has responded to the reports, Amazon has been relatively quiet.

Incident #3: The “buy” button mysteriously disappears from Big 6 ebooks on November 8 due to a purported “technical issue.”

With all of the controversy on ebook pricing and the agency model, as soon as the “buy” buttons disappeared from ebook titles published by the Big 6, rumors started swirling. Was Amazon making a statement regarding the pricing wars? Was Amazon flexing its muscles post-Penguin-House announcement?

If you think about it, it doesn’t make all that much sense as a big, pointed “statement” against ebook prices given the DOJ’s ruling. Moreover, it’s unclear if other non-big-six titles were affected by this “glitch.” So, what happened? Was this supposed to be a secret middle-fingered gesture to the players in the publishing industry? Or was this truly just a technical glitch with no grandiose, nefarious purpose behind it? (Is the cigar just a cigar, here?) Amazon’s official statement attributed it to a technical issue, and not much more was said beyond that.

But with the proximity of these “incidents,” one common trend emerges that might very well emphasize a big, noticeable chink (or perhaps strength?) in Amazon’s armor: Amazon keeps the truth under wraps. While the truth behind a lof of these very public incidents may be a lot more complex than the initial reports, at the same time, there isn’t a whole lot of damage control being done. So you have the real truth, and then you have the perceived truth. And the perceived truth is a fire (sorry, no pun) that is easily fueled by passion, rumor, and speculation.

But these rumors are ablaze, not just because there are some who want to see Amazon fail, but because there is quite often a lack of response to the issue at hand. If you don’t tell people what happened, they start to fill in the blanks on their own. And at that point, the truth doesn’t matter anymore.

Although Amazon positions itself as customer-centric, they are simultaneously quite secretive about the reality of the circumstances and they are extremely guarded in how they choose to respond to these reports. It is an interesting choice, particularly when today’s corporate-culture buzzwords are smothered with the word “transparency” and all of its other synonyms. Smart strategy? Frustrating strategy? You tell me.

Despite these incidents, Amazon continues to be a formidable competitor, taking risks and chances all over the place in its conquest to be the earth’s most customer-centric company. (Wine, anyone?) And, to play devil’s advocate here, there is no denying that Amazon is a disruptive business that prides itself on being on the bleeding edge of innovation. This is necessary to keep the publishing business on a forward-moving path.

Nevertheless, when you have such a powerful player, every step is under scrutiny. And when the giant missteps, the earth shakes, and fault lines are exposed.

One comment on “The harder they fall? Amazon faces a succession of scrutiny as people draw snap judgments

  1. mayorkl
    November 14, 2012

    I guess my question would be this – if Amazon is making so many “mis-steps”, why is none of it hitting the general marketplace of tech news? All of these stories seem very publishing world centric, and each seems to have either been brought to a close or was not really a big deal in the first place. It’s entirely possible that Amazon is the big bad here, but it’s equally possible that Amazon is living in the world of Star Trek, and the publishing world still thinks Mad Men is a story about present day advertising.

    In the end, it’s probably somewhere in the middle, but for all the faults (pun) brought up in this piece, aren’t a good many of them on the hands of the industry looking to for Amazon to fail and not Amazon itself?

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This entry was posted on November 14, 2012 by in Culture, News and tagged , , .

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