Leaving aside the moral, philosophical, cultural and financial implications of this weekend’s Amazon/Macmillan slapfight and What It All Means for book readers and the future of the publishing industry, in one very real sense the whole thing was an exercise in public communications, a process by which two very large companies made a case for themselves in the public arena. And in this respect, we can say this much without qualification: oh, sweet Jesus, did Amazon ever hump the bunk.
How did it do so? I’m glad you asked! Let us count the ways.
1. The Stealth Delisting. Look: Wiping out roughly a sixth of your own bookstore product inventory, even temporarily, is one hell of a dramatic statement. If Amazon had given it any sort of rational or at least tactical thought, they could have played it up for all it was worth, starting with strategically-placed rumors to trusted, sympathetic media about the behind-the-scenes struggle with Macmillan, which would build to a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger corporate decision to put Amazon shoppers first and to stand up to Macmillan, followed by the announcement of a public deadline for the delisting of Macmillan product to highlight the struggle, with a notation that all orders placed before that deadline would of course be honored (hint, hint), and so on. Basically, all sorts of public gamesmanship designed to put the pressure on Macmillan and to make it look like the bad guy. And in the meantime the media would be all abuzz with What It All Means. What drama! What excitement! What corporate theater. Amazon could have spun this its way for a week.
But no. Instead, we got the Foot-Stompingly Petulant Friday Night Massacre: One minute the books were there, the next they weren’t. And everyone was left going “huh?” Was it a hardware glitch? Was it a software bug? Was it a terrorist act in which renegade Amish attacked Amazon’s server farm and poured jugs of hard cider into the machines, shorting out the ones holding Macmillan’s vasty inventory? No! It was one corporate entity having a big fat hissy fit at another corporate entity, and everyone had to figure out what the hell was going on the weekend from bits and pieces that they found on the Internet, which was not easy to do. Which may have been Amazon’s plan all along: Kill every sixth book on your site, hope no one notices! Well played, Amazon, well played indeed.
2. Amazon Lost the Authors. Hey, you want to know how to piss off an author? It’s easy: Keep people from buying their books. You want to know how to really piss them off? Keep people from buying their books for reasons that have nothing to do with them. And you know how to make them absolutely incandescent with rage? Keep people from buying their books for reasons that have nothing to do with them, and keep it a surprise until it happens. Which, as it happens, is exactly what Amazon did. As a result: Angry, angry authors. Oh so very angry.
Amazon apparently forgot that when it moved against Macmillan, it also moved against Macmillan’s authors. Macmillan may be a faceless, soulless baby-consuming corporate entity with no feelings or emotions, but authors have both of those, and are also twitchy neurotic messes who obsess about their sales, a fact which Amazon should be well aware of because we check our Amazon numbers four hundred times a day, and a one-star Amazon review causes us to crush up six Zoloft and snort them into our nasal cavities, because waiting for the pills to digest would just take too long.
These are the people Amazon pissed off. Which was not a smart thing, because as we all know, the salient feature of writers is that they write. And they did, about this, all weekend long. And not just Macmillan’s authors, but other authors as well, who reasonably feared that their corporate parent might be the next victim of Amazon’s foot-stompery. Which brings us to the next point:
3. Amazon Lost the Author’s Fans. The interesting thing about the fans of authors: They feel somewhat connected to their favorite authors. So when their favorite authors kvetched on their blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter feeds about the screwing Amazon was giving them, what did many of these fans do? They also kvetched on their blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. So in pissing off a myriad of authors, Amazon also pissed off an exponential number of book readers, many of whom followed their favorite authors’ leads in complaining about Amazon, and who themselves were read and followed by an exponential number of others. Even on a weekend, the traditional slow time for the Internets, that’s a lot of pissed-off people.
So, two and a half days of the Internet being angry at Amazon. To be sure, there were people taking the side of Amazon, too. But those people lacked the social cohesion of an aggrieved class (writers) backed up by a mass of supporters — not to mention the relatively high profile of these writers online, which, if you were a journalist looking for reaction quotes while on deadline, made them the go-to sources.
Could Amazon have come out and given its side of the story? Sure, but it didn’t — not soon enough. First it let angry authors define the event, and then it let someone else, rather more damaging to them than the authors.
4. Amazon Let Macmillan Strike First in the Press Release War. Both Macmillan and Amazon took their time making statements, but Macmillan did its first, and when it did, it didn’t bother with any ol’ flack to make a statement — no, to underscore the significance of the event, it trotted out its CEO, John Sargent, who outlined in a calm and businesslike letter to his underlings (but presented as a paid ad in Publishers Lunch) the causes of the incident, as he saw them, and the issues at stake. The letter took time to praise Amazon but also did some interesting rhetorical heavy lifting — for example, labeling Amazon a “customer” of Macmillan rather than a “partner,” which is a fun corporate way of jamming Amazon into an ecological niche it probably would prefer not to be in.
Bloggers and journalists updated their posts and stories to include Sargent’s letter, launching another round of discussion and criticism online, largely at Amazon’s expense — not only because Macmillan was now shaping the rhetoric of the discussion, but because Amazon remained silent, offering no official version of the events for another full day. And when it did:
5. Amazon Flubbed Its Own Response. When Amazon responded, it was not via a letter or comment from Jeff Bezos, or some other major Amazon executive, or the head of Amazon’s publicity and marketing department, or even Amazon’s winter PR intern — no, Amazon’s initial reponse was an Amazon forum post from “The Amazon Kindle Team.” Which is to say, an unsigned comment from unspecified people, not in senior management, tucked away in a backwater of the Amazon site.
And not only a forum comment, but a mystifyingly silly one: the bit in the comment about Amazon having no choice but to back down in the fight because “Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles” was roundly mocked by authors, some of whom immediately started agitating against Amazon’s “monopoly” of the Kindle, or noted how terrible it was that Nabisco had a “monopoly” on Oreos.
Think on this for a minute, won’t you. Think about the disparity of corporate responses here. Macmillan issued a detailed statement from its CEO discussing the event and his company’s reasons and rationales for acting as it did. Amazon issued an unsigned forum comment written by someone who is apparently a little shaky on Macmillan’s relationship to its own product. Now, which of these two corporate responses seems most appropriate, given the gravity of the situation? Which of these responses appears to be the work of a company that understands what it’s doing on a corporate level and why? Which of these responses, in short, appears to be the work of actual adults?
But enough fiddling with all this inside pool! In the real world, no one actually gives a good healthy squirt about points one through five. So let’s trot out the real, actual stupid thing Amazon did:
6. Amazon Destroyed Its Own Consumer Experience, Without Explanation, For Several Days.
Note to Amazon: Real people do not give a shit about your fight with Macmillan. Real people want to buy things. When your store takes them to a product page on which they cannot buy the thing on the page, they will not say to themselves, “Hmm, I wonder if Amazon is having a behind-the-scenes struggle with the publisher of this title, of which this is the fallout. I shall sympathize with them in this byzantine struggle of corporate titans.” What they will say is “why can’t I buy this fucking book?” Because, you know, they are there to buy that fucking book. And when you don’t let them buy that fucking book, they aren’t going to blame Macmillan. They are going to blame you.
Honestly, now, Amazon: Even if your weekends are slower sales times than your weekdays, how many times over the weekend was a customer not able to buy something they wanted to buy from Amazon? I’m guessing a lot. Do you think any of the frustration, irritation and anger for that is going to accrue to Macmillan? Seriously? Because, remember, you didn’t actually tell the public why you were doing what you were doing for two whole days, and when you did, you buried the explanation down a hole, where no normal person would find it. Do you think all of your customers read author blogs and Twitter feeds? Do you think they are imbued with some sort of corporate Spidey-sense that lets them know when you and a publisher are going after each other with hammers?
No, you silly, silly people! When they can’t buy something on Amazon, what they will think is Amazon is broken. And they would be right. It was. Because you broke it. Intentionally. For days.
(Oh, and: don’t even try the “they could buy from third party vendors” line with me. If you really believed people would, you wouldn’t have left it as an option.)
And all of this is why a final, ironic bit of Amazon fail will come to pass:
7. Because Of the Idiotic Events of This Weekend, People Will Just Want an iPad Even More.
Again, Amazon: Well played. Well played indeed.