“Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”
– Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid
Technology is a neutral thing: neither good nor bad, it can change the world for the worse or for the better – sometimes both, depending on the hands it’s in.
In a recent article I was reminded of how significant a role Polaroid played in bringing the technology of photography to everyone. I’m old enough to have had a Polaroid camera when I was a kid, and it was the coolest thing: aim, click, and watch a version of the world appear on a smeary piece of plastic. With Polaroid’s technological achievements, making images was no longer the domain of experts in darkrooms toiling with paper and chemicals. By undertaking the nearly impossible, Polaroid made the world better for many people.
Zola Books has been working on technology that is manifestly important and nearly impossible for a few years now. I didn’t realize just how nearly impossible it would be when we started, how many pieces of the puzzle were required for it all to make sense. It’s been a challenge to put it all together. But the events of the last few years have made it clear how essential our mission is. That mission – to provide technology that empowers diversity in the online book world – is as manifestly important as ever.
We are speaking of a particular kind of diversity. The publishing workforce is one of the least diverse on the planet, but we aren’t talking about how people of color are vastly underrepresented, and this isn’t the space to address how women do not hold positions of power proportional to their presence (in any publishing industry anywhere) and what effect that may have on the critical reception of their work. We’re specifically addressing the fact that of all the hundreds of thousands of books (or really, millions) published each year, there are just a handful of retailers who are making most of the sales to customers.
This is not a new story. Once upon a time, buyers of almost any product were relatively restricted in their options; there were local stores that carried one brand of a product, and there were a few national department stores that carried a few varieties of most products, but selection was fairly limited. Then came the internet, and within a few years, anyone anywhere could buy almost every variety of every product from online stores that typically offered better prices.
A lot of that was good – it certainly felt good to be able to go to Amazon.com and be able to buy almost every book in print, and even books that were no longer in print. Driven by an intense focus on growth, those online stores also worked very hard to operate efficiently so that they could offer lower prices for their goods. I for one loved getting books at significantly discounted prices. In the early days, when Amazon was essentially an independent bookstore itself, buying from them instead of a local independent bookseller didn’t seem to have any moral component.
That is no longer the case. The “buy local” movement arose in the last few years because it became abundantly clear that the low prices offered by major online retailers came at a high cost. Cash that went to billion-dollar online retailers disappeared from local communities, never to return: there was no local sales tax that would come back into the community, the small businesses that depended on that disappearing cash began to disappear themselves, and with them went local workers who would have spent their wages in the community. Ironically, the very diversity the internet should have enabled has become imperiled by the growing power of a very, very small group of online retailers who through their vast scale are gaining control of the market.
Maybe I’m starry-eyed about the importance of diversity. Business has always been about survival of the fittest, after all. But I’ve loved the concept of diversity since I was a kid. I profoundly connected with the world of Star Trek – the image of that command bridge, with white men, black women, Asian men, various nations and creeds (and Vulcans) all working together: it resonated with me. It was such a positive vision of the future of humanity. It seemed clear (and still does) that that is the world we must build, a grand adventure of growth and exploration where everyone contributes, everyone is included. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.
So I might just be another geek caught in a fantasy of how the world should be…but the idea that growth has to be sustainable is gaining in power every year. Growth cannot be based on a philosophy that revolves around the extinction of competition. Without diversity, every ecosystem – and everyone in that ecosystem – is vulnerable. That is particularly true in the realm of books, the carriers of ideas and culture, avatars of evolution and change. We simply cannot have a handful of companies delivering all books to all readers; the danger is too great.
I’m not even talking about the potential down-the-road danger of censorship. Real-world ramifications of a lack of diversity are clear now. Aside from the measurable negative impact the loss of local shops has on communities, there has never been in history a monopoly player that continued to extend its monopoly-achieving terms once that monopoly had been achieved. Kindle Direct Publishing originally offered extraordinary terms and opportunities to independent writers, but those terms changed over the last few years as Amazon acquired the ability to do so. Audible offered authors extraordinary royalties…until they acquired 90% of the market and reduced their top royalty rate 55%. Similarly, there is no reason to believe that any company, once it becomes a monopoly, will continue to offer consumers the terms that got the company a monopoly in the first place. Low prices can feel great…until the prices start to rise and all the options are gone.
More subtle is the effect of the gradual disappearance of independent publishing houses. It is estimated that the “Big 5” publishers now account for 60% of all the trade books sold in the United States. With fewer publishing houses, their power is greater – but the stakes are higher as well, since those houses need to spend a lot of money publishing fewer books, each of which needs to generate major profits. With so many books being published, this may not seem a serious problem, but consider John Irving, whose work has moved millions of readers (and is one of the reasons I ended up in publishing). In today’s market, Irving may never have been able to publish The World According to Garp, since his first three novels didn’t sell well. In a less-diverse market where every book has to be a hit, he might have found himself without options, unable to move to a new publisher after failing to reach a big audience with the books before Garp. The bestseller lists tell the story: every year, they feature fewer new writers, and more “brands” selling more copies. Dead authors who are brands (I’m looking at you, ghosts of Robert B. Parker and Robert Ludlum) are more reliable than living authors whom readers don’t yet know.
Given the lack of diversity in book retailing, this move of publishers becoming bigger is understandable: they need to be big in order to hold their ground under the pressure put upon them by the major retailers. The Amazon/Hachette dispute was widely publicized, but a year earlier, conflict between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster was just as damaging. Books published during a period of many months were simply not ordered by most Barnes & Noble stores. It’s not censorship, but the effect is the same: if one of your favorite writers had been published during this time, you wouldn’t have seen their book, so you wouldn’t even have known it wasn’t there. It’s unclear who “won” either of those publisher-retailer disputes, but it’s clear who lost: writers and readers.
I admire the long-term thinking of companies like Amazon. They are willing to sacrifice profits today for greater success tomorrow. But in the long run, real long-term thinking is not predicated on eliminating your partners (never mind the competition). Real long-term thinking recognizes how manifestly important diversity is, whether in the book space or any other ecosystem. So it seems obvious to me that Zola, or a company like Zola, must succeed in doing the nearly impossible: creating technology that everyone can use to make the book retail world more diverse.
Zola will be launching some of that technology in the coming weeks and months. With luck, we can start an evolution. Stay tuned….