An Amazon Problem: The Book Is Dead, Long Live the Book

This is finally driving literature and publishing houses out of their ivory tower. Literature, almost even more so than journalism, has become a mass pastime.

Amazon already has a strong position with the printed book in its online business, and it is becoming a dominant force in the e-book market, a sector in which the company already holds a market share of more than 41 percent. And Amazon's power in the marketplace continues to grow, a situation that is unlikely to change with the advent of the new Tolino Shine e-reader, a joint venture of German booksellers and Deutsche Telekom that became available last week.

"It's essentially becoming a monopoly," says publisher Helge Malchow. "In the future, all the world's book publishers could very well be dealing with the same company."

A Digital Age Challenge for Publishers

Every economic sector that is affected by the digital revolution, from news journalism to mail-order companies, travel agencies, the music industry and television, is in a similar position. The experts whose job, until now, has been to find the best books, furniture, beach hotels, TV shows, hits or news articles for their customers, are all realizing that much of their work is actually replaceable.

Customers are now ranking and evaluating these things entirely on their own, as part of a larger crowd, and they're doing it for free, at least for whomever they're giving information about their purchases and opinions. In this case, it's Amazon.

Publishers are only gradually realizing that they cannot leave the processing of this data entirely up to the Internet giant. And they are slowly realizing that it's a game in which they have to participate to succeed.

That may explain why those in the industry have suddenly become conversant in trendy Internet slang terminology, fluently rattling off terms like "big data," "targeting," "re-targeting" and "discoverability."

Companies like Cologne-based publisher Kiepenheuer & Witsch have all of the sudden started using Twitter to allow readers to vote on book cover designs. The Piper publishing house in Munich is proud of its blogging authors and is using social media in an attempt to establish contact between authors and readers at all levels. And the global book conglomerate Random House is now hiring mostly statisticians and mathematicians in the United States, because CEO Markus Dohle has dubbed Random House a "data driven company." Your E-Book Reader Is Reading You, Too

There's a reason for it, too. People who read e-books aren't actually reading alone. Software uses millions of pieces of anonymous data to monitor how readers actually behave. Almost everything can be documented: how fast people read, which text they highlight and which pages they stop reading. The reader has become transparent.

It is difficult to predict the consequences for the future of the publishing business. Could software be influencing the work of the editor soon? Is it conceivable that books will be rewritten based on readers' reactions, so as to achieve a higher read-through rate?

Or, as Constanze Kurz of the famous German hacker group Chaos Computer Club recently wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper: "Will there soon be versions of books that are optimized to maximize sales, advertised with a sentence like this: 'Now in the second, revised edition: easier to understand, based on data from readers' experiences'?"

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