Friday, April 18, 2008

O'Reilly Says "Publishers Beware"

There is a major thunderstorm advancing on Dallas. I'm going to do my post and then curl up in bed with the new Jim Butcher urban fantasy, Small Favor.

Two weeks ago when it became clear that Amazon really was going to push their proprietary POD publishing press BookSurge down the throats of the small publishers and e-publishers, I wrote Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media, asking him to intervene.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have enormous respect for Tim O'Reilly. My first post about him was in November, 2005, here, and it was followed by several more posts over the last few years.

In case you didn't know it, O'Reilly is credited with coining the term "Web 2.0." He has been involved in many of the major trends on the Internet, including the open source and free software movements.

I didn't just pull Tim's name out of a hat when I wrote him that email. I had a good reason for thinking he might be the right person to address's latest move.

In September, 1997, submitted a patent application for what later became known as Amazon's One-Click technology. Two years later, in September, 1999, Amazon was awarded U.S. Patent #5,960,411.

One month later, Amazon filed suit against Barnes and Noble, arguing that had copied the one-click technology.

On January 5, 2000, Tim wrote Jeff Bezos of Amazon a private email, urging him not to keep filing for patents on technology that was originally open source. He later made his letter to Bezos public on his website. It included the following:

"I think that you are reaping a harvest of ill-will with the technical community. While I know you are setting your sights on a wider consumer audience, the serious technical community represents the core of your early adopters and many of your best customers, especially in the book market . . . And I can tell you that those customers are solidly against software patents."

When Bezos responded on January 27, his email made it clear he had no intention of changing course.

In February, 2000, Amazon was awarded a patent for its affiliate program, the technology that permitted it to link to other websites, "affiliates," who were paid a commission for linking to

That second patent in six months created a backlash against Amazon on the Internet. On February 28, Tim O'Reilly wrote an open letter here on his site to Jeff Bezos. O'Reilly invited readers to join him in urging Amazon to "clarify your intentions with regard to software patents, and avoid any attempts to limit the further development of internet commerce on the basis of the patents you have already been awarded."

Over 10,000 signatures were collected before O'Reilly shut down the letter.

Jeff Bezos did respond with his own open letter here. Bezos' letter included this:
". . . the more I thought about it, the more important I came to realize this issue is. I now believe it's possible that the current rules governing business method and software patents could end up harming all of us -- including and its many shareholders, the folks to whom I have a strong responsibility, not only ethical, but legal and fiduciary as well."

Tim and Jeff Bezos ended up going together to Washington, D.C. to lobby the Congress for patent reform.

So, no, I didn't just pull Tim's name out of a hat.

This morning when I opened my Publishers Lunch email, I was thrilled to find the following:

One persistent topic at the London Book Fair was Amazon's aggression towards publishers selling books directly from their own web sites at modest discounts. In a blog post, Tim O'Reilly expresses his own larger concern: "As Amazon's market power increases, it needs to be mindful of whether its moves, even those that may be good for the company in the short term, are ultimately destructive of the ecosystem on which they depend. I believe that they are heading in that direction, and if they succeed with some of their initiatives, they will wake up one day to discover that they've sown the seeds of their own destruction, just as Microsoft did in the 1990s."

Go here to read Tim's post titled "Publishers Beware: Amazon Has You In Their Sights."


Nathan Bransford said...

Go Maya go!

You are on a serious role lately with your blog. Hot damn.

Nathan Bransford said...

Um. That's "roll" for those without homonym problems.

Maya Reynolds said...

Nathan: Tim O'Reilly is my Internet god. I have no evidence he even read my email, but I thought if anyone could make Jeff Bezos sit up and pay attention, it was O'Reilly.

Now we wait and see.

paula said...


I mentioned on a small publishing discussion list that I thought Bezos was in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg. One person responded that it's a perfectly valid strategy for businesses to get rid of their least profitable clients, which he felt Amazon was doing.

While I can see his point, I also feel that good will plays a huge part in any business' success, and alienating even the most annoying customers can damage that. I agree with you that Amazon is thinking very short term and has for a long time. Their practices and their attitude are significantly harming the book industry, including readers, who may be paying less for books now but who will pay in dearer ways in the long run.

At any rate, I am very glad to know that I'm not a lone voice crying in the wilderness on this "golden goose" issue.


The Writing Show

Maya Reynolds said...

Paula: I think this is less about Amazon wanting to drive clients away than it is about (1) Wanting to advantage their proprietary POD press BookSurge and (2) Wanting to disadvantage Ingram's POD press, Lightning Source, Amazon's chief competitor.

But it really is short-term thinking on the part of writers everywhere not to realize that allowing Amazon to have a chokehold on online retail means they will continue to demand better terms, which will--in turn--force prices up. THAT's what Tim means about ruining the ecosystem.

Be sure to read the comment Tim made in the comment thread on his own blog. It's excellent.

Anonymous said...

Maya, thanks for continuing the dialog and to Nathan for the referals when more emerges.

As someone [me] who made it to the semis in the ABNA and received my 'prize' to print a layed [laid?] out copy of my novel, since this has all erupted there is no way I'm going to even use their 'free' offer. And at this point, wouldn't consider BookSurge. There are other options.

So I believe there is a long term damage from this change in Amazon policy toward listing or charging for listing POD other than BS. [see, even the initials are descriptive] This is similar to Angus and Robertson bookstores in Australia refusing to carry the last Miles Franklin winner because it was from a small publishing house! Dumb business decision.