Billed as a conversation about “Internet and Technology: The Good and the Bad,” the keynote at the New Atlantic Independent Discovery Conference (Sept. 19-21) at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., focused instead on one particular Internet behemoth, Amazon.
That Amazon was the subject of the keynote was inevitable, given the strong stance that NAIBA booksellers have taken in the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Many NAIBA members put up displays in their stores when Amazon first took down its pre-order buttons on certain Hachette titles. Those booksellers continue to keep those signs up.
The conference also coincided with renewed media interest in the dispute, sparked in part by Authors United’s latest push, this time to the Amazon board, to take authors out of the middle of the dispute with Hachette.
As New Republic editor Franklin Foer, author of Insurrection of the Mind, who interviewed Andrew Keen, author of The Internet Is Not the Answer, noted, “This is a bookseller convention, and the big topic is always going to be Amazon.” A company that he said aspires to be a monopoly.
For Keen, Amazon isn’t all bad. “They’re not a complete catastrophe for publishers,” he said, adding that he thinks Google is more dangerous than Amazon. The biggest threat to him lies in how Amazon has changed the conversation and created the “cult of the consumer.” In the process, “the citizen” has been replaced by “the consumer,” who never thinks about the cost. “We have to stop confusing consumers with citizens,” said Keen, who also lambasted another idea promulgated by Amazon that we no longer need hierarchies. “We need government; we need authorities; we need editors,” he said.
Asked by Foer if there are any causes for optimism despite Amazon’s increasing dominance, Keen reminded booksellers that “no one can go back to the twentieth century. The world you grew up with or developed your businesses in doesn’t exist. The old world won’t come back again.”
That said, he noted that the increasing proliferation of information and data has made the physical more meaningful. “My sense is the physical is the future of the bookstore,” said Keen. “You need to see your stores as not only places where you can have signings, you need to be creative. They have to fill a vacuum. No one trusts anyone online. Your opportunity is to be trusted. You need to build on that trust, not just by selling books.”
Keen recommended that booksellers “disrupt the disrupters.” Although our culture is so technologically saturated, he compared it with the 1950s. “Kids are going to grow up and be sick of the selfie culture,” he said. “The hope is not in the people who remember the past, but the unborn.”
In response to a question about how booksellers can communicate the true cost of replacing citizens with consumers, Foer said, “we need to think of this as a movement” and advocated the equivalent of a sixties-style teach-in with celebrity authors. To which Keen responded that at the same time booksellers and authors don’t want to come across as being “very old-fashioned.”
As to the possibility of a political solution, Keen referred to the “intimacy” between Silicon Valley and the Obama administration, which has been seduced by the cult of innovation, as making this unlikely. Foer added that it would only take a few congressmen and a senator to hold a hearing on Amazon and antitrust. But he, too, acknowledged that for now, booksellers can’t expect government assistance as Amazon builds a monopoly.