Innovation Haters, aka “Good writers”

I recently heard a New Yorker editor speak on a panel and say “we just raised our subscription prices.” This was an answer to the “isn’t publishing suffering?” question.

To me it also says their writers know nothing about the business part of their business. (Pretty much all the press regularly raises their print prices as paper and commodity costs grow, and their print ad revenues decline, and their subscribers flatline or decline. So the answer didn’t say anything. Check the NYT. If anything it confirmed the theory that the NYer is in slow decline.)

An amazing tirade about Amazon from earlier this year finally made it through my queue today. It’s the NYer’s “Amazon is evil” piece, and someone had to write that piece. Might as well be them. The publishing industry needs comforting.

But man it’s horrible.

On the one hand it is awesome as reporting. It lists out every possible complaint about Amazon made by everyone and stitched together the case. Nice quotes and anecdotes from everyone.

It also has nice writing, which provides an attractive story unfolding and fast-moving style.

Missing though is the right analysis. For every single gotcha is a really naive “this sucks” point.

For example, here is my list of stuff Amazon does that is bad from this article:
– Lower cost books for readers to buy and read is bad. That is devaluing a valuable thing.
– Removing editors as gatekeepers is bad. It lets the masses have what they want, ignoring virtue.
– Defeating the big box stores “we only sell best sellers” filtering system is bad. Too much choice confuses the consumer.
– Building warehouses with jobs in low income, high unemployment areas in bad. It is opportunistic.
– Donating to book charities is bad. It proves feeling of guilt.
– Being on the side of the US government’s winning anti-price fixing case is bad. Because the entire publishing industry and Apple were too weak to compete against Amazon without collusion.
– Providing a publishing arm for writers to distribute through is bad. Many of them only earn $500/year.
– Getting shoppers out of retail store lines and checkouts is bad. It dehumanizes the workers they don’t meet.
– Using fewer workers per dollar of revenue is bad. There will ultimately be no jobs left due to efficiency.

The meta point, apart from being a slushbowl of feelings and sad anger for the publishing industry, is that innovation is sometimes foolish.

“Disruptive innovation” was the topic of a captivating piece by Jill Lepore a little while ago attacking the Clay Christensen theory of disruptive innovation. And this piece six months prior captures the mood exactly — disruption is disruptive and not necessarily better if innovative.

Here is the Amazon-related “we hate innovation” section–

Since the arrival of the Kindle, the tension between Amazon and the publishers has become an open battle. The conflict reflects not only business antagonism amid technological change but a division between the two coasts, with different cultural styles and a philosophical disagreement about what techies call “disruption.”

“Book publishing always has a rhetoric of the fallen age,” a senior editor at a major house told me. “It was always better before you got here. The tech guys—it’s always better if you just get out of my way and give me what I want. It’s always future-perfect.” He went on, “Their whole thing is ‘Let’s take somebody’s face and innovate on it. There’s an old lady—we don’t know we’re innovating unless she’s screaming.’ A lot of it is thoughtless innovation.”

The senior editor, like most people in publishing, rarely deals directly with Amazon, but in the fall of 2010 he attended a meeting with Russ Grandinetti, the Kindle vice-president, who was visiting the big New York houses. Like Bezos, Grandinetti went to Princeton and worked on Wall Street. He joined Amazon in 1998, as treasurer, then moved on to apparel, before taking the Kindle job. An Amazon colleague described Grandinetti as the smartest guy in the room at a company where everyone believes himself to be just that. Many publishing types consider him a bully. The literary agent, who knows him, said, “When you spend time with Russ, you get the sense that he thinks publishers are idiots.”

This is a bummer but I suspect the new kids are right and the old fogies are wrong. In fact the old way is melting like a snowman as they are that Amazon are jerks for being there.

There is an interesting pattern. Some lines of knowledge workers are under fire and have the gloomy attitudes of the Rust Belt union worker.

I used to watch car workers in the 1980s complain outside of factories that were firing them, and I thought “man that sucks but you need to move on”. Coal miners in England. Wal-Mart workers.

Increasingly though the suffering is on outsourced or freelanced or automated functions for knowledge workers. Public school teachers. Customer service reps. Journalists. Book editors. Musicians and record companies.

Packer in the New Yorker obviously thinks this idea is horrible–

Engineers also developed software, called Amazon Storyteller, which scriptwriters can use to create a “storyboard animatic”—a cartoon rendition of a script’s plot—allowing pilots to be visualized without the expense of filming

A tool to help creative people test their ideas without jumping to finished products? Absurd!

Weirdly, there is a tension throughout that goes unanswered. If good editing and writing is good, and if robots can’t do it, then why doesn’t anyone read it? Or, why doesn’t it win?


Those who do so anyway will have to expend a lot of effort mastering the art of blowing their own horn. “Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere—academics, rich people, celebrities,” Colin Robinson, a veteran publisher, said. “The real talent, the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing—they aren’t going to be able to afford to do it.”

My own view is that a lot of what WAS good about writing has already been massively simplified and democratized so “any idiot” can write pretty decent stuff. Compared to 1900, in 2014, the following resources and skills have been massively increased–

– population that is literate from a young age. Now 100% in rich countries

– access to great literature – you can get every single great book and some do read them. Compared to even 1985 when I only had a few great books around

– access to writing tools – everyone can write something and have it recorded somewhere

– copy editing- everyone gets 90% edited automatically. Spelling, dictionary available, punctuation near automatic.

– feedback – easier to share easily with likeminded folks

So how can the world possibly be worse off with fewer good writers? Surely there are more.

The ones complaining seem to be the BEST writers. Writing has gotten so easy for so many people that apparently folks have stopped appreciating what the best writers do so well.

What if heart surgery were to have that problem? What if everyone everywhere had access to very safe and effective surgeons — even though less good than the top 1% of their time? We should be so happy about that.

A final bit —

But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?


The full article by George Packer at the New Yorker’s website —