AmazonEncore vs. Harper Collins' Authonomy

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Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
Last week, Amazon announced it's publishing its first book. Written by a 14-year-old girl named Cayla Kluver, "Legacy" is a fantasy/sci-fi title that had originally been self-published by its author, with the help of her mother. With this book, Amazon vaulted into the traditional publishing arena with a service called AmazonEncore. Leveraging self-publishing, the fastest growing category in book production, Amazon is combing its vast list of digital titles, crowd-sourcing user data through rankings and reviews, and printing the winning titles under its own imprint.

It's often said that the most profound industry transformations come from completely unexpected quarters. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan, explored this theory. To paraphrase the work, many industries are inward-looking and, as a result, are best prepared to deal with issues that come from worlds similar to their own, and unprepared to deal with unexpected difficulties. The Black Swan theory is based on the assumption that the "impossible" or unimaginable will happen, especially to industries that have traditionally been more insular.

The difficulties the traditional publishing industry is facing provides a great example; while publishing was worried about being undercut by cheaper offshore printing or ad-space price wars, digital media was growing into the behemoth it is today. Print media is still trying to find a solution to their revenue problems caused by migration to digital media, and unfortunately most of the ideas are still coming from a framework based in their traditional understanding of the world. In essence, the train has left the station and they're not on it.

Self-publishing is not a new phenomenon. Vanity presses have been around as long as the printing press itself, and digital printing has only broadened the playing field. Online publishers such as Blurb and Lulu and even Apple provide low-cost platforms for people to get their stories published. Anyone can get published. It's finding an audience that's hard. It has taken a bit longer for traditional publishers to get on board. And when they've ventured into self-published waters, the results have been mixed. Authonomy, launched by Harper Collins a few months ago, is getting less than stellar reviews on its own attempts to crowd-source the next big thing in an "American Idol"-like format.

The print world is just making its first steps into digital. Harper's effort is faltering; it has gotten bad feedback regarding holes in the voting system and the way it treats reviewers. It's reliant on the old-world framework that the ultimate form for a book is physical. In this effort, it's hampered by passion for the traditional form. An inability to let go of the reins of control, to cede the editorial and curatorial authority to users, will doom this effort.

It would be naive to think that Jeff Bezos got into publishing because he loves books. He's never given any indication that he values them more than any of the other products sold on Amazon. This lack of passion is actually a strength. He's less prone to place physical books on a pedestal, more inclined to break down the form and to find new ways of packaging the contents.

Superficially, AmazonEncore is little different from Authonomy, in that it uses the crowd to determine content. However, the mindset used to approach the project is totally different. Coming from an outsider's perspective where nothing is sacred gives Amazon impressive strength in a moribund industry afraid of change. Its mastery of well-established web conventions like voting for content and this recent venture into traditional books is going to put the squeeze on companies like Harper Collins, which are still trying to come to grips with a future that transitions them from book-sellers to content-providers.

Amazon's move into publishing's traditional turf, the printed book, must be a shock to the system; but it's also a fantastic catalyst for change. Like it or not, publishing is going to have to do something against its nature and evolve rapidly and aggressively. I think publishing is starting to recognize the opportunities for change, but I also think that uncertainty and fear is preventing a radical move just when it's most needed. Perhaps the counter-intuitive way to save the publishing industry is actually by loving books a little less, cooperating instead of competing and exploring new vehicles for content.

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Nick de la Mare, a Creative Director at frog design San Francisco, has spent his career designing digital, physical and experiential systems.
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