Amazon, Macmillan & Apple Wag the Dog

Stop reading & take me for a walk!

It’s Saturday. I’m snowed in. The perfect time to give my opinion on the  Amazon / Macmillan showdown – as a mostly disinterested party.  How so?  Well, I’m not an author, not a publisher, not an Amazon or Apple exec, and have no relationship with any of the above other than through reading.  I do own a Kindle – but would be just as happy with a Nook, Sony or iPad, if it met my requirements.

(Disclaimer: some of this is recycled from comments I’ve already posted on forums at Bookninja, Biblibio & Fighting Monsters with Rubber Swords).

A quick rundown of events so far…

1/27/2010 – Apple launches iPad, which everyone mistakenly hails as Apple’s long awaited entry into the e-book reader market (more on that later).

Date unknown – Macmillan informs Amazon that the $9.99 price structure is no longer acceptable and dictates new terms based on those that 5 of the “Big 6″ publishers set with Apple’s iBookstore.

1/30/2010 – Amazon stops selling Macmillan titles from Amazon.com.  They are still available on the site through 3rd party sellers.

1/30/2010Macmillan sends out a letter rallying the troops

1/31/2010Amazon responds with this (frankly, embarrassing) post on its Kindle forums – basically amounting to a “blink”.

2/4/2010 Macmillan takes out ads in the NY Times (which are kinda funny).

2/6/2010 –  Amazon finally concedes and resumes selling Macmillan books on Amazon.com. Here’s another link, just cuz I love the NY Times.

2/6/2010Amazon is universally mocked (ok, so this link is actually from 2/1, but it pretty much summarizes the gist of what’s been going around).

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First, I find it surprising that no one is talking about the fact that the Amazon $9.99 model is based on the iPod 99-cent model originated by Apple. Or that $9.99 is not a pricing structure that exclusively benefits the Kindle.  (A quick peek on the Nook store shows e-book editions also priced at $9.99).  Which leads me to conclude that the whole point of this “loss leader” is not just to establish Amazon market dominance – it’s to clearly establish the benefit in the cost/benefit  analysis consumers go through when deciding whether or not to shell out the money for an e-reader.  E-books need to be cheaper than paper books. It’s how Apple was able to convince the world to switch from CD’s to iTunes.

The other connection no one seems to be making is that Apple doesn’t care how much they have to charge for e-books.  Why?   Bullet time!

  • Apple already has a large share in digital media market.  In fact, losing the $9.99 price point will hurt other e-readers much more than having it would help the iPad.  Why?  Glad you asked….

Ultimately,  I don’t think Amazon is being any more ridiculous (or sinister) in wanting to charge $9.99 for e-books than Apple was with it’s 99-cent iTunes pricing. I don’t think publishers are embracing technology.  I don’t think that  Apple really gives a damn about the e-book market, because according to Jobs publishing is already an industry on the wane.   And while I love the convenience of my e-reader – I don’t want to pay $15.99 for digital content that is usable on only one platform, that I can’t re-sell or lend to friends.  Especially when I can buy the physical book, which allows that, for the same amount or less.

(But what about the publishers’ costs, you ask?  I’m still a bit fuzzy on that.  A quick look at B&N reveals that I can buy James Patterson’s new release in hardcover for $16.79 and a paperback copy of The Book Thief, a NY Times Bestseller, for $8.63 – AND have both shipped to me for free.  How is that possible, and profitable, if they’re losing money on a $9.99 e-book?  If someone can explain that, please leave a comment below).

With the release of the iPad Macmillan saw an opportunity to push.  Amazon tried to push back.  Ultimately Apple, book publishers and Amazon are all just doing what businesses do – protecting their pocket of the market.  I do not fault them for it.  Just like the music industry a decade ago, the publishing industry is in flux. Everyone is adjusting.  But we knew this was coming, so why is everyone suddenly acting disingenuous?

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The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

*Warning:  contains spoilers.

The Lost City of Z:  A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, despite a truly horrendous cover design (compare to the Weekly World News, the sadly defunct supermarket tabloid responsible for such groundbreaking journalism as “Batboy Lives!”) and titillating title, is surprisingly well written. What David Grann lacks in survival skills he compensates for with literary ability.  He also has a journalist’s eye for a story.

See the resemblance?

In 1925 veteran explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett journeyed into the Brazilian jungle with his son in search of a mythical lost city which he called “Z”.  The party was never seen or heard from again.  Over the following decades expeditions were mounted to find out what happened.  All failed (some disastrously).  The disappearance of Fawcett and the possible existence of “Z” had captured the public’s imagination.  As is usually the case, a cottage industry grew around the story.  Some claimed the explorers went “native” and produced their white/Indian offspring (in reality albinos) as proof.  Artifacts and messages from the doomed party were “discovered”.  Sightings were reported.  Psychics became involved.  As recently as 2005 the Guardian newspaper published an article Veil Lifts on Jungle Mystery of the Colonel Who Vanished claiming that:

According to previously hidden private papers, it appears that Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain and, perhaps lured by a native she-god or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive, he planned instead to set up a commune in the jungle, based on a bizarre cult.

Into this circus walked David Grann, a staff writer for the New Yorker.  He was given access to journals by the family that shed light on the route Fawcett’s party had taken.  Based on the new information Grann decided to mount his own expedition into the Brazilian jungles – following an 80-year-old trail and with no wilderness experience to speak of.  Think Survivor meets the History Channel.

It should have been a great story…a lost city, an Indiana Jones-like hero and hostile landscape.  Grann was certainly equal to the task.  He skillfully controls the narrative – jumping back and forth between Fawcett’s life, the stories of those who attempted to find Fawcett, and his own trek into the jungle.  Unfortunately, in the process of reading certain things quickly become apparent.

First – David Grann’s journey was nothing like Fawcett’s (in Grann’s favor he never claims otherwise).   Fawcett macheted his way through unexplored jungle until his animals died and his companions were too sick to continue.  Grann brought a guide, handheld GPS and a Landrover.  He negotiated safe passage through tribal lands prior to entering them.  He had set destinations where people were waiting to meet him.  I’m not trying to take away from what Grann did… or to imply that he in any way cheated or misrepresented… it just wasn’t that exciting to read about.

Second – After 80 years no one is expecting a “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” moment.  Take the jungle out of the equation and Fawcett would now be 142 years old.  While the author never finds a pile of bones with a wallet in the pocket and a blowgun dart sticking out of the ribcage, there are numerous scenarios that have long been discussed which all point to the same conclusion:  Fawcett and party died in the jungle.  It’s a bit anticlimactic.  The reality is, Col. Fawcett made 7 expeditions into the jungle and could have died on any one of them.  Between the insects, maggots, infectious diseases, piranhas, anaconda, hostile tribes, lack of food and the jungle itself – the real mystery is how Fawcett wasn’t killed long before 1925.

Finally – By the people who care, namely archeologists and anthropologists, the existence of “Z” is no longer in question.  Discoveries had been made and books published prior to The Lost City of Z … they just weren’t calling the ruins discovered “Z”.  David Grann acknowledges this and points those interested  in the direction of further reading on the subject.  Which still doesn’t change that fact that the final chapter is disappointing.  Sort of like being shipwrecked on a desert island, believing you have found a tropical paradise and discovering Club Med a few beaches over.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed the book more if I’d picked it up without expectations.  Portions were interesting.  Particularly the present-day research being done by Michael Heckenberger, the archeologist Grann credits with re-discovering the ruins that Fawcett believed to be his lost city.  Yet this is only a small part of the narrative.   In the end I would have enjoyed the story more as a series of articles.  As it stands, The Lost City of Z implies big payoffs that it never manages to deliver.