Tag Archive for Distribution

New Writing – Working Papers in Cultural Studies

If it wasn’t clear already, I needed a little break from blogging.  This past year has been an amazing one here on The Late Age of Print, with remarkable response to many of my posts — particularly those about my new research on algorithmic culture.  But with the school year wrapping up in early May, I decided I needed a little break; hence, the crickets around here.  I’m back now and will be blogging regularly throughout the summer, although maybe not quite as regularly as I would during the academic year.  Thanks for sticking around.

I suppose it’s not completely accurate to say the school year “wrapped up” for me in early May.  I went right from grading final papers to finishing an essay my friend and colleague Mark Hayward and I had been working on throughout the semester.  (This was also a major reason behind the falloff in my blogging.)  The piece is called “Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Gray Literature,” and we’ll be presenting a version of it at the upcoming Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference in Paris.

“Working Papers” is, essentially, a retelling of the origins of British cultural studies from a materialist perspective.  It’s conventional in that it focuses on one of the key institutions where the field first coalesced: the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which was founded at the University of Birmingham in 1964 under the leadership of Richard Hoggart.  It’s unconventional, however, in that the essay focuses less on the Centre’s key figures or on what they had to say in their work.  Instead it looks closely at the form of the Centre’s publications, many of which were produced in-house in a manner that was rough around the edges.

Mark and I were interested in how, physically, these materials seemed to embody an ethic of publication prevalent at the Centre, which stressed the provisionality of the research produced by faculty, students, and affiliates. The essay thus is an attempt to solve a riddle: how did the Centre manage to achieve almost mythical status, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t much in the business of producing definitive statements about the politics of contemporary culture?  Take for instance its most well known publication, Working Papers in Cultural Studies, whose very title indicates that every article appearing in the journal was on some level a draft.

I won’t give away the ending, but I will point you in the direction of the complete essay.  It’s hosted on my site for writing projects, The Differences & Repetitions Wiki (which I may well rename the Late Age of Print Wiki).  Mark and I have created an archive for “Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Gray Literature,” where you’ll find not only the latest version of the essay and earlier drafts but also a bunch of materials pertaining to their production.  We wanted to channel some of the lessons we learned from Birmingham, which led us to go public with the process of our work.  (This is in keeping with another essay I published recently, “The Visible College,” a version of which you can also find over on D&RW.)

Our “Working Papers” essay is currently in open beta, which means there’s at least another round of edits to go before we could say it’s release-ready.  That’s where you come in.  We’d welcome your comments on the piece, as we’re about to embark on what will probably be the penultimate revision.  Thank you in advance, and we hope you like what you see.

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The Indies and the E’s

OR, HOW TO SAVE INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ONE E-BOOK AT A TIME

Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University.  It’s been a blast so far.  My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture.  More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.

Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers.  I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of Amazon.com, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.”  In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.

One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading.  Really, it’s an oligarchy.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States.  And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies.  Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away.  But these booksellers have it backward.  The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are.  How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?

The first thing they need to do is, paradoxically, to cease acting independently.  Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online.  I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding.  Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete.  Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.

Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly.  So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats.  Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library.  Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! – one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.

What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic.  Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism.  The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller.  In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures.  That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them.  The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.

How do you make it work, financially?  The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect.  Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books.  It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway.  So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē.  Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.

There you have it.  Will the Indies run with it?  Or will all of the students enrolled in my next  “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?

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Ambivalently Scribd

You may remember back in March my announcing that The Late Age of Print was available on the document sharing site, Scribd. I was excited to see it there for many reasons, chief among them the Creative Commons license I’d negotiated with my publisher, Columbia University Press, which provides for the free circulation and transformation of the electronic edition of Late Age. The book’s presence on Scribd was, for me, evidence of the CC license really working. I was also excited by Scribd’s mobile features, which meant, at least in theory, that the e-book version of Late Age might enjoy some uptake on one or more of the popular e-reading systems I often write about here.

Lately, though, I’m beginning to feel less comfortable with the book’s presence there. Scribd has grown and transformed considerably since March, adding all sorts of features to make the site more sticky — things like commenting, social networking, an improved interface, and more. These I like, but there’s one new feature I’m not feeling: ads by Google. Here’s a screenshot from today, showing what The Late Age of Print looks like on Scribd.

Screenshot of Late Age on Scribd

Note the ad in the bottom-right portion of the screen for a book called, Aim High! 101 Tips for Teens, available on Amazon.com. (Clearly, somebody at Google/Scribd needs to work on their cross-promotions.) You can subscribe to an ad-free version of Scribd for $2.99/month or $29.99/year.

Now, I’m not one of those people who believes that all advertising is evil. Some advertising I find quite helpful. Moreover, on feature-rich sites like Scribd (and in newspapers and magazines, on TV, etc.), it’s what subsidizes the cost of my own and others’ “free” experience.

Here’s the problem, though. The Creative Commons license under which the e-edition of Late Age was issued says this:

This PDF is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or by mail from Creative Commons, 171 Second St., Suite 300, San Francisco, CA 94105 U.S.A.

“Noncommercial” as defined in this license specifically excludes any sale of this work or any portion thereof for money, even if the sale does not result in a profit by the seller or if the sale is by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or NGO.

I’m pretty sure the presence of advertising on Scribd violates the terms of the license, albeit in an indirect way. It’s not like Late Age is being sold there for money. However, it does provide a context or occasion for the selling of audience attention to advertisers, as well as the selling of an ad-free experience to potential readers. Either way, it would seem as though the book has become a prompt for commercial transactions.

As of today, the site has recorded close to 2,000 “reads” of Late Age (whatever that means), which would indicate that Scribd has managed to reach a small yet significant group of people by piggybacking on my book.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do about this.

In software terms I’ve always considered the e-edition of Late Age to be more like shareware than freeware. That is, my publisher and I are comfortable with some folks free-riding provided that others — hopefully many others — go on to purchase the printed edition of the book. The e-edition is not, in other words, a total freebie. Columbia has invested significant time, money, and energy in producing the book, and if nothing else the Press deserves to recoup its investment. Me? I’m more interested in seeing the arguments and ideas spread, but not at the cost of Columbia losing money on the project.

In any case, the situation with advertising on Scribd raises all sorts of vexing questions about what counts as a “commercial” or “non-commercial” use of a book in the late age of print. This became clear to me after finishing Chris Kelty’s Two Bits: The Cultural Politics of Free Software (Duke U.P., 2008). Kelty discusses how changes in technology, law, and structures of power and authority have created a host of issues for people in and beyond the world of software to work through: can free software still be free if it’s built on top of commercial applications, even in part? can collectively-produced software be copyrighted, and if so, by whom? should a single person profit from the sale of software that others have helped to create? and so on.

Analogously, can the use of an e-book to lure eyeballs, and thus ad dollars, be considered “non-commercial?” What about using the volume to market an ad-free experience? More broadly, how do you define the scope of “non-commercial” once book content begins to migrate across diverse digital platforms? I don’t have good answers to any of these questions, although to the first two I intuitively want to say, “no.” Then again, I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with an issue that’s never presented itself in quite this way before, at least in the book world. Consequently, I’ll refrain from making any snap-judgments.

I will say, though, that I recently ported one of my wiki projects, Differences and Repetitions, from Wikidot to its own independent site after Wikidot became inundated with advertising. In general I’m not a fan of my work being used to sell lots of other, unrelated stuff, especially when there are more traditionally non-commercial options available for getting the work out.

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Going Mobile

Great news!  A good Samaritan, whose handle is “creiercret,” recently uploaded the free, Creative Commons-licensed PDF of The Late Age of Print onto the document sharing site, Scribd.  Here’s the link to the PDF if you’re interested in checking it out.  The book has already had more than 100 views on the site, I’m pleased to report.

Late Age has been accessible for free online for almost a year, so why am I so excited to see it appear now on Scribd?  Mainly because the site just added new sharing features, making it easy to send content to iPhones, Nooks, Kindles, and just about every other major e-reader you can imagine.  In other words, The Late Age of Print’s mobility-quotient just increased significantly.

I may have some more exciting, mobility-related news about the book, which hopefully I’ll be able to share with you in the next week or so.  I’ll keep you posted.  Until then, be sure to check out The Late Age of Print on Scribd, and why don’t you go ahead shoot a copy off to your favorite e-reader while you’re at it!?

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“The Localized Appreciation of Books Is Gone”

Sherman Alexie
www.colbertnation.com


I love it when something that you think will be good turns out to be even better than you’d hoped.  Case in point: author Sherman Alexie’s visit to The Colbert Report last Tuesday night.  I expected Alexie to chat up his latest book, War Dances. I didn’t expect to be treated to such an intelligent commentary on the future of book culture in America.

Colbert starts out by affirming the author’s decision not to allow the digital distribution of his book.  Alexie cites concerns over piracy and privacy as his motivation for doing so.  I’ve noted here on the blog how certain e-book devices can expose book lovers to all sorts incursions into their intimate reading lives.  Alexie, for his part, ups the ante.  “I’m an Indian,” he states.  “I have plenty of reasons to be worried about the U.S. government” peering over his shoulder while he e-reads.  Colbert — ever the (alleged) enemy of literacy — chimes in with his objection to digital books. “You can’t burn a Kindle.”

Alexie then notes how the revenue structure of the music industry has changed in the digital era.  Here I believe he over-reaches somewhat, but in any case his claim is that the music is no longer what primarily makes money for top recording artists.  Now, touring and performances comprise their primary revenue stream.  He fears the same may one day hold true for book authors as well, suggesting a future in which the book-as-cultural-artifact will become incidental to paid-for author appearances.  And here Alexie echoes one of Kevin Kelley’s predictions from his 2006 bombshell published in The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!“, from which the late John Updike recoiled in horror.

The rest of the interview offers something of a rejoinder to this vision for the future of the book.  In a word, it is unsustainable.  Alexie recounts how the experience of the book tour has changed for him over the last decade or so.  It used to be that he would engage all sorts of local media and indy bookstores while traipsing around the country to promote his latest work.  Today, Alexie complains, “the localized appreciation of books is gone.”  Book blogs notwithstanding, what little coverage books receive in the media today mostly occurs in the national press — in exclusive forums like The New York Times and, well, The Colbert Report.  Chain bookstores, meanwhile, now play host to the vast majority of author events.  The result, he notes, is not only a diminished conversation about books at the local level, but also the elimination of untold numbers of book-related jobs that are ancillary to, yet nonetheless sustain, the book industry proper.

I can’t say that I agree with everything Alexie had to say about the past, present, and future of books in America, but his insights were provocative enough for me to air them here.  I do agree with his final point wholeheartedly, though: “White folks should be ashamed that it’s taking an Indian to save part of their culture.”  Indeed.

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Is the ISBN Still Necessary?

My inner distribution nerd was thrilled to discover (via José Afonso Furtado) Michael Carins’ recent reflections on the death of the international standard book number, or ISBN, over on his blog PersonaNondata.  The argument goes something like this.  Over the last several years there has been a noticeable movement away from the ISBN, particularly in the case of e-books.  Leading the way has been Amazon.com, which refuses to assign ISBNs to any of the Kindle books it sells.  With book digitization there has also tended to follow dis-aggregation, or the chopping up of books into smaller, component parts that can be sold separately.  How do you assign a single ISBN to what’s fast becoming an exploding whole?

Cairns clearly knows his stuff.  As a former President of Bowker, he was chin-deep in the trenches of the recent effort to rework the ISBN for the 21st century.  The result was the shift from a 10-digit to a 13-digit standard, which went into effect on January 1, 2007.  My question is this: is the ISBN still necessary?

Anyone who’s read The Late Age of Print will know that I do not ask this question lightly. I devote the better part of Chapter 3 to the ISBN’s history, and to tell you the truth, in the process of doing the research I developed something of a crush on this smart little product code.  Personally I’d be sad to see it go.  But as an historian of technology it seems clear that the ISBN has just about exhausted its usefulness.

It’s important to bear in mind what computing and online communications looked like when the ISBN was first conceived, back in the late 1960s.  Processing power was paltry by today’s standards.  Broadband was barely an inkling of an idea.  The ISBN was developed within the context of these technological constraints, as a concise and thus highly efficient way in which to convey extremely detailed information about the language, publisher, title, and edition of any given book.

Today computers are capable of processing much more complex data strings, which need not be limited to numerals or the occasional letter X.  Furthermore, broadband has resulted in much faster electronic communications and consequently obviates the need to “keep it simple” and to the point (Twitter notwithstanding).  In other words, the constraints under which the ISBN was created hardly apply today.

The ISBN was designed not only to facilitate “back-office” communications about books.  It was also designed to facilitate their distribution.  And in this respect Amazon’s move away from the ISBN with its Kindle editions is telling.  Time and again the company has shown that it, and only it, wants to control the distribution of Kindle books.  Indeed they are digitally rights managed so as to forestall their circulation beyond anyone besides the reader/customer/end-user/licensee (I’m not entirely sure what to call this person anymore).  Amazon is moving us away from an era of more or less unfettered book circulation, and its slow abandonment of the ISBN is a manifestation of this.

It’s also worth remembering that the ISBN grew up at a time when the book industry showed perhaps its sharpest division of labor.  There were authors, agents publishers, typesetters, printers, binders, distributors, booksellers, and certainly a whole host others all working in concert in disparate places on a single product.  Now consider Amazon. With Kindle the company effectively becomes an extension of the publisher, typesetter, printer, and binder, all while acting as book distributor and seller.  If Amazon has its way then we are likely to see a further breakdown in the book industry’s division of labor.  What’s the point of an industry Esperanto when centralization is fast becoming the order of the day?

Incidentally, this is precisely why the answer to my question, “Is the ISBN still necessary?” is still a “yes,” despite all that I have had to say about historical contexts and the like.  The ISBN was more than just a product code.  It was an accomplishment — a testament to an industry’s ability to achieve unity despite the pressures of competition, corporatization, and globalization.  Disturbingly, the waning of the ISBN signals the opposite trend: the growing hegemony of a single player who holds disproportionate sway over the industry as a whole.


with thanks to p.

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Good Morning, Amazon…

First it was the cola wars.  Now, it’s the e-book wars.

At this past weekend’s book industry trade show, BookExpo America, Google announced that it will begin selling digital book content in the near future.  According to this article in today’s New York Times, the search engine giant has the backing of major players in the publishing field.

The move should come as a wake-up call for Amazon.com, which, since the introduction of Kindle in late 2007, has dominated the retail e-book market. Many questions remain, however, about whether Google’s latest foray into the book world ultimately will pan out.

Why it Will Work
First, there’s Google, whose power, prevalence, and brand recognition shouldn’t be underestimated.  But the success of its latest e-book initiative will stem from more than just the company’s shear Google-ness.  It will result from its growing recognition of itself as not merely a search engine company but indeed as a platform for online businesses.  This is, incidentally, exactly what Amazon.com has been doing of late — refashioning itself, a la Google, from a retailer to a business incubator; and in this respect it’s playing catch-up to Google.

Second, there’s the Kindle factor.  Google’s plan is to release digital editions of books which, though secure (read: DRM), will not be native to any particular e-reading device.  This is good news for those of us who’ve been less impressed with Kindle than we we ought to be; this is especially so where images are concerned.  Plus, it’s great news for readers who, in a time of economic downturn, are discomfited by the prospect of shelling out hundreds of dollars for the privilege of accessing and reading digital content via Kindle.

Third, did I mention Google?  Besides the technology, one of the major problems that has beset e-books thus far has been distribution.  Amazon has successfully addressed the issue by providing readers with a reliable, centralized hub from which to download e-titles.  There aren’t many companies out there who could compete with Amazon along these lines, but Google is surely one of them.  It’s already become a nodal point for people to access e-book content via Book Search and Google Library.  Becoming a nodal point for distribution of e-content shouldn’t take a great deal more than a hop, skip, and a jump.

Why it Won’t Work
Book publishers are greedy and do not understand how to sell their products in and to a digital world.  As the New York Times today reported, Google intends to allow its partner publishers to set their own e-book prices.  If recent history tells us anything, it tells us that the publishers likely will charge something close to print-on-paper prices for content whose material support has already in essence been outsourced to consumers (e.g., in the form of computers, netbooks, and other mobile e-readers). This is unacceptable and will only hinder e-book adoption.

Relatedly, there’s the Amazon factor.  The company has insisted that, where possible, Kindle e-book titles should be kept low.  Most bestsellers cost around $9.99, and although there are many Kindle books that cost more, Amazon should be commended for pressuring publishers to keep their e-book prices down.  If Amazon can continue to do so, purchasing a Kindle with the prospect of having access to cheaper e-book content won’t seem as off-putting as having to buy e-titles from Google at or near ridiculous print-on-paper prices.

Finally, there’s the question of form.  Will Google’s e-book content largely reproduce what would otherwise be available on paper?  If so, then Google e-books won’t have as much uptake as they otherwise could — that is, if they broke with what Gary Hall calls a “papercentric” model of electronic content.  Indeed, if the publishers want to charge near-paper prices for the e-books they sell/distribute via Google, then readers will expect additional types of features to make up for what is, essentially, lost value.

Bottom Line
Only time will tell what will become of Google’s latest venuture into e-books.  I see a great many downsides that would really spell disaster for an anxious contingent of publishers who have convinced themselves, as they do about every eight years or so, that e-books will “save” their industry.  More optimistically, it is my hope that Google will spur Amazon.com to move more quickly on developing cheaper, better Kindles and related e-reading systems that are even more user-friendly.

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Book Publishing’s Reality TV

Will book publishers be able to maintain their cultural authority into the future?  Should they?

These seem to be the questions implicit in a recent article in the New York Times, “Site Lets Writers Sell Digital Copies.” The focus of the piece is a new file sharing site called Scribd.  In a nutshell, Scribd allows users to upload all sorts of document files to the web, whereupon anyone with internet access can read, download, embed, comment on, and share them.  The site also provides pricing and encryption options for writers who’d rather not give their work away for free.  Scribd scoops up 20% of the revenue.

Scribd is the latest in a wave of self-publishing platforms, including blogs, digital journal archives, wikis, and more.  Collectively, these types of sites allow writers to bypass publishing’s traditional gatekeepers and thus to reach the public more directly and with less — if any — editorial intervention.

It’s hardly news to say that these developments make book publishers and other cultural authorities quite anxious, given how easy it’s become for writers simply to bypass them.  It may be news, however, to say that publishers shouldn’t see Scribd and other self-publishing platforms as threats.  Instead, they’re opportunities.

Think about it this way: sites like Scribd are the reality TV of book publishing.

Love it or loathe it, you cannot deny the brilliance of a show like American Idol.  Essentially it amounts to a months-long focus group, where potential music buyers vote on who they’d most like to become a signed recording artist.  The presumption is that many who’ve voted will then go on to buy singles and albums by the people they’ve seen featured on the show.

American Idol demonstrates how amateur cultural production and a more traditional, hierarchical approach can be made to harmonize.  Why not use sites like Scribd toward similar ends?

Indeed, marketing has long been a major sore point for the book industry, filled with guesswork and erroneous conclusions about what will and won’t ultimately sell.  So why not take some of the guesswork out of book marketing?  Why not use Scribd or some other site to focus-group books (or parts thereof) up front before investing all the time and resources to publish them?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: why would people buy something that they might well be able to obtain for free, or at a comparatively reduced cost?  That’s where the publisher comes in.  Pubishers have long imagined their work to be about proferring cultural authority; in the model I’m proposing here, their work would be more about proferring cultural authenticity.  That is, their job would be to produce the definitive tangible object — an object whose content may nonetheless continue to evolve in the digital realm.

Think about it: the contestants’ live performances from American Idol are available for purchase online, but I’d venture to say that most people would consider the studio recordings of their songs to be the “real thing.”  This is how academic journal publishing has been working for some time now, by the way.  Journal publishers have recognized the ease with which academic authors can post pre-prints (e.g., .doc files) of their work online.  In response, the publishers are now insisting that PDF journal offprints that are posted online be referred to as final, definitive versions of scholarly articles.

People love things, and indeed they love to consume what they perceive to be “real” things.  When your authority starts waning, book publishers, what you need to start selling is exactly this type of authenticity.

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Mr. Bezos Goes to Lexington

Amazon.com seems to be all over the news in 2009.

In January we learned that the company posted a profit in the final quarter of last year, despite the severe economic downturn.  Then in February, Amazon released the second-generation of its heralded e-reading device, Kindle, whose text-to-speech feature prompted a swift and bitter response from the Authors Guild.  March was a relatively quiet month for the retailer — that is, until CEO Jeff Bezos decided to shake things up again.  On Friday he reported for work not at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle but rather on the line at the company’s Lexington, KY warehouse.  He plans to work there for a week.

One can only wonder what motivations underlie Bezos’ decision to go blue-collar, if only temporarily.  The company hasn’t said much about why he’s decided to do so.

A commentator on the New York Times “Bits” Blog sees Bezos’ week in the warehouse as a stand-up move, especially given the penchant of late among billionaire CEOs to deny they had any sense of their company’s day-to-day operations.  And according to the Lexington Herald-Leader: “Local Amazon employees say Bezos is working in the warehouse with the company’s hourly employees to see what they do and hear their comments about their work.”

I’m inclined to believe that Bezos’ reasons for getting his hands dirty are many.  No doubt he feels extraordinary pressure to show that he knows what’s going on in his firm, everywhere from the corporate boardroom on down to the warehouse break rooom.

The timing of his visit to Lexington, however, raises all sorts of other questions. It just happens to coincide with the quiet-ish shutdown of three of Amazon’s distribution facilities: in Munster, IN, Red Rock, NV, and Chambersburg, PA.  More than 200 employees will be affected, though at least some will see transfers to neighboring facilities.

In its rosier moods, the book industry likes to say that it favors culture over commerce.  Perhaps that’s true, but claims like this can only be sustained by ignoring what, in The Late Age of Print, I call the book industry’s “back office.”  This consists of places like Amazon.com’s colossal warehouses, which are nothing more and nothing less than labor intensive workplaces.  I detail how so in the book; for more, check out this fascinating article from the Guardian (UK).  Here’s an excerpt:

[T]he Sunday Times reported that staff at the . . . [Amazon warehouse at] Marston Gate near Milton Keynes . . . were required to work seven days a week and “punished” for being ill (where staff with a sick note received a “penalty” point; six points meant dismissal). The quotas for packing – 140 items an hour, which is only slightly below the 5 items per two minutes of 2001. Collecting items for packing can mean walking up to 14 miles during a shift.

Given these working conditions, one can only hope that the ultimate aim of Bezos’ week in the Lexington warehouse isn’t a speed-up of Amazon’s order fulfillment system.  But given the questionable timing, that doesn’t seem implausible, either.

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