Amazon, Amazon, Amazon. I’m tired of hearing about Amazon, aren’t you? I know—I’m not helping. The word “Amazon” is sprinkled liberally throughout this article. And I’m one of Amazon’s best customers. I can’t bring myself to bash it. Its customer service is second to none, as are its prices and selection. I love Prime. But in light of recent events, I am of the opinion that it is time for the world to rise up and form a Rebel Book-Lover’s Alliance, to storm the Amazon Death Star, to use collective force to take back the e-book galaxy.
So, over two days last week, I convened a meeting in New York of some of the brightest minds in publishing to tackle the topic of creating the “perfect” e-book store. The premise was simple: if we—as readers, writers, publishers, agents, librarians, and booksellers—were given unlimited time and resources to build our own vision of e-book nirvana, what features would it have that are either lacking at Amazon or that exist only in bits and pieces across a disconnected e-book ecosystem?
On the first day, we were exceedingly ambitious: I invoked Aaron Swartz and his dream that all books, knowledge, and academic research be freely available and readily accessible to everyone on Earth. We then brainstormed, discussed, argued. We wrote “pain points” on yellow sticky-notes and arranged them into groups on the wall: discoverability, search, economics, user experience.
We then divided into four small groups, each one devising an e-book store concept that could solve as many of the pain points as possible. We pitched our ideas. We voted on the concept we thought had the most potential. As it turns out, my team’s scheme for a site resembled the Kindle Cloud Reader. Our store would offer zero-click reading; integrated purchasing/library checkouts; buy-once, read-anywhere openness; a direct reader-author-publisher community built in; and an API through which anyone could create an embeddable e-book store widget with just a few clicks.
Day two of the e-book store dream-team exercise was supposed to be devoted to clarifying our idea and further developing the key features our dream store would have, as well as the features that would set it apart from other startups. Then a strange thing happened: we pulled back. We second-guessed. We found ourselves in a dark wood. How can we compete with the Amazons of the world? The challenge seemed insurmountable.
I’d hoped that by the end of the day, we’d be able to draw up an actionable specification that we could fund and build. But instead, we found ourselves focused on finding one thing—just one—that Amazon’s walled garden doesn’t do really, really well.
Someone quipped that we needed a hook, a jazzy one-sentence summation of our clever idea, like, “Uber, where everyone’s a taxicab”; or “Airbnb, where everyone’s a microhotel”; or “Square, where everyone’s a cash register.” Our dream e-book store thingy needed to turn everyone into... something. But what? A bookstore?
We set out with a desire to design and build something that could compete with Amazon’s massive scale. But, ultimately, we found that perhaps the best way to get traction against a dominant player like Amazon is not to build something equally titanic, but to build something wee, something human. Grassroots. Peer-to-peer. Something simple. Distributed. Democratic. Something that will turn the focus back to art and away from commerce and shareholders. Connection. Emotion. Humanity. Maybe each one of us should be a bookstore?
We didn’t arrive at a spec, but we started a worthy journey. We opened a dialogue that asked, “What shall we do next?” Amazon may dominate now, but nothing stays on top for long these days. Look at MySpace, Napster, Microsoft Windows, and Blackberry. Apple is post-Jobs. Google Glass isn’t a hit.
Maybe I’m a little naïve, but I choose to dream grandly. And I’m glad I’m not alone. The Internet and the future of electronic books and electronic thoughts belong to all of us, not just one or two gatekeepers. So we beat on, e-books against the current. The denouement of our gathering is the rising action of the future. We’ll build our perfect e-book store yet. And you can help. Tell me: what is your dream e-book store like?