Death To The Gatekeepers: Bezos Talks Innovation In The Publishing Space

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The heart of Jeff Bezos’ mission has always to circumvent the traditional “gatekeepers” of commerce. He started with books, an industry ripe for disruption, and moved onto, well, everything else. At this point, his vision has come true. The old gatekeepers in the book sales cycle are on the ropes and electronics companies are already planning to collude in order to maintain a “minimum” accepted price, thereby ensuring Amazon doesn’t eat all of their lunch.

But Amazon is hungry and, like Plainview, they have a long straw. They won’t just eat the world’s lunch, they’ll drink its milkshake, too.

The recent lawsuits against Apple and various publishers are a testament to Amazon’s power. Publishers won’t accept that their product can be sold at Amazon’s prices and Amazon won’t accept that the product can’t be sold at a price that reflects the market. We are, after all, just talking bits shipped to devices and $1,000 made in 1,000 ninety-nine cent increments is the same as $1,000 made in one-hundred $10 increments. Amazon, for the longest time, served as a final lifeline for the paper publishing industry and it seems that this legal move is a way to strip the last vestige of respect from those gatekeepers who, for far too long, made the sale of ideas a process of getting widgets onto shelves. Like the CD makers before them, they just don’t want to give up what has served the industry for so long and so lucratively.

But this is just the beginning. In his letter to investors, Bezos writes:

I am emphasizing the self-service nature of these platforms because it’s important for a reason I think is somewhat non-obvious: even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation. When a platform is self-service, even the improbable ideas can get tried, because there’s no expert gatekeeper ready to say “that will never work!” And guess what – many of those improbable ideas do work, and society is the beneficiary of that diversity.

Arguably, Bezos isn’t a very sympathetic character. His company makes a lot of money and, if we really thought about it enough, we’d realize that he’s a bigger threat to the Mom and Pop stores than even Wal-Mart. At least Wal-Mart helps rural areas retain a sense of community. Amazon is a black box – money in, products delivered. You could live off of Amazon and never leave your house, given enough patience and a good bit of cash.

But it’s this mentality – that you don’t need to roll down to Borders for a book or a movie, that you don’t need to hit the student book exchange to get fleeced on a statistics textbook – that really makes sense in a world where most discourse and commerce is happening online anyway. To hold onto the old ways for sake of the old ways is conservative, to be sure, but it’s also a suicide pact with the writers and creators you’re championing.

Even more than Jobs, Bezos is intent on blowing up the publishing industry. Tim Carmody at Wired writes “He doesn’t care whether Apple, publishers or anyone else stands in the way,” and this is absolutely true. Call him a zealot, but when’s the last time you drove down to the local bookstore and didn’t think that soon this empire of the mind would be gone, replaced by something Gutenberg wouldn’t couldn’t fathom in his wildest imagination? Heck, when’s the last time you drove down to the local bookstore at all?