Saturday March 26, 2011
From the Archives: Amazon.com Ushers in New Era (1996)
I wrote the following for the now-defunct Downtown Source, a Seattle Times publication, in October 1996...
Amazon.com Ushers in New Era
by Erik Lundegaard
Jeff Bezos, the founder and president of Amazon.Com, the Seattle-based on-line bookseller, wants to quiet the fears of traditional booksellers.
“I still buy about half of my books from physical bookstores,” he admits, “and one of the big reasons is I like being in bookstores. TV didn't put the movies out of business, because people still like to go to the movie theater, they like to mingle with their fellow humans; and that's going to continue to be the case. Good physical bookstores are like the community centers of the late 20th century. They have great authors come in, and you can meet them and shake their hands. You do booksignings and hear readings. You can't duplicate that on-line.”
Bezos has a reason to soothe the competition. His company has moved to progressively bigger offices four times since its inception in July 1995. His staff has ballooned from 33 to over 100 in just four months. And, though he won't disclose monthly sales figures, Bezos says that Amazon.Com is growing at the rate of 34 percent a month. “That annualizes to more than 3000 percent a year,” he adds.
It was a similar figure—the 2300 percent Internet growth rate—that drove Mr. Bezos, 32, from a senior position at D.E. Shaw & Co., an investment bank in New York City, and onto the Web. But what to sell there? It wasn't a love of literature that led him to choose books; it was the volume of literature: one and a half million English-language titles in print at any given time; three million titles worldwide.
“When you have a huge number of items,” Bezos says, “that's where computers start to shine, because of their sorting and searching and organizing capabilities.”
Amazon.Com's claim to being “Earth's Biggest Bookstore” is a bit misleading, however. Though they offer 1.1 million titles—in comparison to, say, Elliott Bay's 140,000—the only thing you'll find in their warehouse south of the Kingdome is bestsellers. Other titles come from wholesalers or directly from the publisher—services that traditional bookstores offer as well.
Even so, Amazon.Com's list of books, culled from the Library of Congress, and various publishers and wholesalers, is spectacular. An author search of “Mailer, Norman” brought up three unheard-of titles (special orders for $70 each), while “Salinger, J.D.” elicited not only the familiar titles but Hapworth 16, 1924, a novella that appeared in The New Yorker in 1965—the last published sighting of the reclusive author—and never released in book form. Until now, that is. According to Amazon, a small outfit in Virginia is issuing Hapworth next January.
Amazon's Web site, for all its choking information, is as quirkily fun as its originator, with on-line shopping baskets, author self-interviews, and free giftwrapping. (One can choose between Holstein, Flowers, and “Fish of the Amazon.”) Readers are encouraged to write their own reviews, and each month Amazon's eight-person editorial staff selects a winner. Obscene reviews are deleted. “But if you want to trash a book,” Bezos adds enthusiastically, “that's fine with us. If you want to come in and say 'I thought this was John Grisham's worst book ever; he should be embarrassed for foisting this on us. It's not as good as Time to a Kill. Blah blah blah.' Fine. Because that helps people make purchasing decisions.”
Services are continually added. The two month-old Associates program allows anyone with a Web site to start their own bookstore in conjunction with Amazon.Com. Bezos was simply trying to figure out how Amazon.Com could act as an expert on all 300,000 Library of Congress narrow-niche subject categories. “There's just no way,” Bezos says. “But there are such experts out there, and they already have Web sites, so let them do it; then we will share the revenues with them.”
The effect of all this is already apparent on traditional bookstores. Mr. Bezos predicts that “Physical bookstores are going to compete by becoming better places to be. They'll have better lattes, better sofas, more comfortable environments.” And, he might have added, more Web sites. There are already over one thousand on-line booksellers. They include such traditional booksellers as Powell's, The University Bookstore, and Elliott Bay Book Company.
What the website looked like circa 1996...