Thompson, and Evelyn Waugh. Naipaul, Bob Dylan, and many, many others. His battles on behalf of his writers have often put him at odds with publishers but at the same time have won the fealty of his clients. The nickname associated with him is the Jackal, and it cuts in two directions, depending on your point of view. In , Wylie took on the publishers over e-book royalties. Naturally enough, e-books had not been included in the contracts for books published in the pre-digital age, and some publishers proposed to pay the standard 15 percent royalty.
But he had made his point. E-book royalties, which for the most part settled at 25 percent, remain a contested sphere. The issues at the heart of the conflict are both margin and price, according to Wylie. Publishers have been slow to recognize the danger of percentage creep, he told me. Wylie stared incredulously at the memory of this encounter. And, Keith, you will not be able to afford to write a book. The stakes are Western culture.
Western culture I could take or leave, but the part about me sent a chill down my spine. This is not what you want to hear from your literary agent. And yet he believed that the publishers had finally wised up. Perhaps a new era was beginning. Then what would you read on your silly Kindle? They should get nothing. I pointed out to Wylie that his willingness to take the fight to Amazon partly on behalf of the publishers was a curious position for the famous scourge of publishers. And the reason is that, like ISIS, Amazon is so determined to wreak havoc on the culture that unlikely alliances have been formed.
The next morning I got an e-mail from Wylie. In eight years of being a client at his agency, I had never received an e-mail from him, much less a mass e-mail prompting me to action. In it, an impassioned Wylie urged all his authors to sign the Authors United petition, the one organized by Douglas Preston. On an unseasonably hot day in late September, I visited a latest-generation Amazon warehouse in San Bernardino, California, out in the desert an hour and a half east of Los Angeles. The Amazon warehouse covered the equivalent of 28 football fields.
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Inside, it was a wonder of organization. Amazon warehouses fall into two categories: those that ship small objects toys, Kindles, corkscrews, books and those that ship large ones refrigerators, flat-screen TVs, kayaks. The one in San Bernardino is for small objects. All the merchandise enters the warehouse from a series of docks in the back, where it is unpackaged.
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The discarded boxes are placed on one conveyor belt, for recycling. The merchandise is placed on another belt, which takes it to the three-story storage area, where it is scanned and entered into the computer system. The merchandise is placed on a shelf wherever it can be made to fit, not necessarily neatly, and in no particular order, so one cubbyhole on the shelf might be filled with a book, some paper plates, some jars of marmalade, and a chess set. The job still requires a tremendous amount of walking—it has been estimated that some pickers end up covering as many as 11 miles a day, on punishing hard concrete—but it is a very efficient system.
The ingenuity is in the software—it knows exactly where everything is and knows the shortest route to get there. After an order has been boxed and placed on the conveyor belt, a machine stamps the proper label on it as it passes and then an electronic scale weighs the item and makes sure it is the right weight for the contents that are meant to be in that order.
The boxes then travel, all in a row, toward the loading dock, and on the way a scanner identifies all the packages that are supposed to leave in a particular truck, and a little arm nudges the box off the conveyor belt and into a chute down to the proper loading dock. The crucial software systems that make it all work had to be developed by Amazon pretty much from scratch. A tremendous amount of thought and research has gone into these devices. They are filmed and studied. People reading in a chair will, naturally, hold their Kindle differently from people standing up on the subway, for example , but even people sitting in a chair will shift their positions over time.
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Eighty percent of page turns are forward, by the way, but 20 percent 20! The designers settled on two sleek lines for forward and two cool dots for back. After meeting the designers and engineers, I went down to the Kindle stress-testing lab, where various machines twisted the Kindle and dropped it and tumbled it around as if in a dryer. There was a machine that sprayed a salty mist over the Kindle, because the devices are frequently taken to the beach.
All of this testing was monitored by quiet, serious people in light-blue lab coats who looked as if they had once worked for Dr. And I remembered something a book editor, one of the best I know, had said to me about the Amazon situation.
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I mean, yeah. They too represent a remarkable human achievement. But art by definition is something for which there is no practical use. The dispute between Amazon and the publishers is a dispute between an e-commerce giant and companies that have for generations been printing text on paper. In some respects it is also a dispute between the East Coast and the West Coast. It is definitely a dispute between hyper-capitalism and cultural conservation. But in the end it is a dispute that comes down to different visions of the future of the written word.
Various companies and personalities have been vying to shape that future alongside Amazon and the publishers. In the past year and a half, two start-up companies, Scribd and Oyster, have made a serious push into the book-subscription market, on the Netflix model. When I asked Trip Adler, the year-old C. A gym, for example, or a buffet. If a person goes to your gym every day, that is not a profitable customer.
You have to look at the average-use case across millions of users. Another big player is Apple, which, after its bad experience with the anti-trust lawsuit Apple lost in court but is appealing , seems ready to try to compete again through the medium of its iBooks Store. The company has sold million iPads and an astonishing million-plus iPhones. Amazon, on the other hand, has sold something like 80 million Kindle devices, both e-readers and tablets combined.
An Apple executive explained that iBooks already has a strong foothold with books that have a movie tie-in if Apple has a 20 percent overall share of the e-book market, with a book like The Fault in Our Stars, this share can be more like 35 to 40 percent because people who watch movies on their iPads seem happy to read books on the same device.
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As with subscriptions, publishers are simultaneously hopeful and wary. An Apple executive explained that keeping iBooks out of iOS meant the software team could do more frequent updates than otherwise. Inside and outside of publishing, people disagree about how the business will shake out.
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But in fact e-book adoption has been slower among young readers than among adults, and the growth in e-book sales overall has slowed considerably. And it is possible that Wylie was right, that the publishers were finally standing up for themselves. Everyone is waiting to find out what happens with the recent merger of Random House and Penguin into one giant publisher, Penguin Random House.
The merger might create a house strong enough to battle Amazon.
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No one wants to speak on the record when this subject comes up. Authors United has announced that one of its members, Barry Lynn, author of Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction, was putting together a letter to try to persuade the Justice Department that Amazon is violating anti-trust laws by, among other things, delaying the shipment of Hachette books. I spoke about this with Steve Berman, the class-action lawyer in Seattle.
Amazon Lab Since I like sunrises, my limbic system is busy distributing dopamine - a reward chemical that affects my mood. And my body is soaking up Vitamin D, which improves my health. There are no devices involved in this interaction between me and the sun accompanied by soft dew on the grass between my toes, birds chirping, and that undefinable smell released by vegetation as it, too, awakes and greets the sun. As a designer, I see user experience UX as the perception left in someone's mind following a series of interactions between people, devices, and events - or any combination thereof.
Some interactions are active - clicking a button on a website, giving a waiter your order at a restaurant, getting out of the rain at a picnic. Some interactions are passive - viewing a beautiful sunrise will trigger the release of reward chemicals in our brain.
This applies to any and all of our five senses. Some interactions are secondary to the ultimate experience - the food tastes good because the chef chose quality ingredients and prepared them well. The ingredients are good quality because the farmer tended his fields. The crop interacted well with the rain that year. Of course, all interactions are open to subjective interpretation - some people don't like celery or sunrises. Remember, a perception is always true in the mind of the perceiver; if you think sunrises are depressing, there's little I can say or do to convince you otherwise.