by Sandra Parshall
I knew Amazon had its fingers in a lot of different pies, but I didn’t realize how long its reach is until I read the interview with Jeff Bezos in the December issue of Wired magazine. Amazon is not only the biggest bookseller in the U.S. and a media powerhouse; it is also the power behind a huge chunk of the internet. Even if you’ve never held an e-reader in your hands or ordered a print book from Amazon, the company has probably affected your life in some way.
What writers and publishers obsess about, of course, is Amazon’s hold on bookselling. Even with publishers resisting its steep discounts, the company has surged ahead of brick-and-mortar stores to become the number one source of books for American consumers. With a little piece of hardware called the Kindle, coupled with its offering of digital content, Amazon quickly accomplished what Sony and other companies had failed to do: it made e-books wildly popular. Now, through its Kindle Direct Publishing program, it’s making self-publishing respectable, as everyone from unknowns to bestselling authors rushes to make previously unpublished and out-of-print work available in digital format.
Some people cling to the memory of what the book world was like before November 2007, when the Kindle first appeared, but those days are beginning to feel like ancient history.
Now Amazon is a publisher, and fully intends to shake up publishing the same way it has shaken up bookselling. Bezos believes $9.99 is “really the highest price that’s reasonable for customers to pay” for a book. He also believes writers should get a bigger chunk of the income from their work. He cautions the publishing industry that others – such as Amazon – will eagerly move into the vacuum if traditionalists continue “leaning backward” instead of adapting to the changing market.
Amazon is getting into the movie business too, working in partnership with Warner Bros. Pictures. Bezos describes this project as, what else, a “completely new” way of making movies. We’ll no doubt be hearing more about Amazon films before long.
These are the visible ventures, the Amazon activities everybody knows about. Behind the scenes, the company provides an internet base for a broad array of businesses and institutions, attracted by Amazon’s low fees and obsession with giving flawless service.
Here are some of Amazon’s web services customers, as listed in Wired: Foursquare (10 million users worldwide, three million check-ins a day); Harvard Medical School’s vast database for developing genome-analysis models; NASA’s processing of hi-res satellite images to guide its robots; Netflix, a video-streaming service that accounts for 25% of U.S. internet traffic; Newsweek/The Daily Beast (one million page views every hour of every day); PBS (more than one petabyte of streaming video per month); SmugMug’s storage for 70 million photos; the USDA’s geographic information system for food stamp recipients; Virgin Atlantic’s crowd-sourced travel review service; Yelp’s storage for 22 million-plus reviews.
Most of us know Amazon as a store that will sell us anything, including a lot of stuff we can’t find elsewhere. I’ve even used Amazon to locate a particular flavor of feline hairball remedy that nobody seemed to be selling anymore. If it exists, Amazon can find it for you. But beyond the mundane merchandising transactions, Amazon connects us to the rest of the world in many ways every day.
Oh, and did I mention that Bezos owns a company called Blue Origin? It’s a space exploration program. Bezos thinks access to space costs too much, and he’s going to use Blue Origin to bring down the price.
As I said: Wow.