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George Packer on his new Amazon story in the New Yorker

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Amazon is good for online shoppers, but is it good for books?

That's what George Packer asks in this week's New Yorker, in a long article that looks at the online retailer as disruptor.

Amazon can be difficult to write about -- the company would not confirm to the New Yorker facts as simple as how many employees it has in Seattle or how many Kindles it has sold. Packer, the author of the books "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America" (2013) and "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq" (2005) talked to me about what it was like to report his story.

"Compared to Iraq or the recession in rural North Carolina, I thought it would be relatively straightforward," Packer said. It wasn't.

Initially, Amazon was going to give Packer access to report about the company from the inside, then things changed. "It took Amazon a little while to decide they weren't going to cooperate with me," he said.

When he came back from book leave in mid-2013, Packer's New Yorker editors suggested the idea to him. "They originally thought of it as a [Jeff] Bezos piece," he said.

While he was working on the article, Brad Stone's book "The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon" was published -- a book Packer said he found to be excellent. But it made focusing on the company's chief executive redundant.

The article, Packer said, "kept eluding me. What am I writing about here?"

What he came up with, he explained, is "Amazon's relation to the world of culture -- especially books."

Interesting facts in his article: When a buyer searches for a book on Amazon.com, the results are partly determined by the fees paid by publishers; publishers pay Amazon a percentage of the profits they make through the online store each year; those percentages have gone up; although publishers may be squeezed by Amazon, they remain dependent on the company for as much as 30% of their sales, a number that's still growing.

He also wrote about payments Amazon gets from publishers, often in the form of discounts -- information that is rarely shared. "You have to be very high up to know about it," he said.

"Peeling back all the ways Amazon and publishing are entangled," Packer said, "took forever."

Although Packer shines a critical light on Amazon, he said he believes that the company has provided a seductive level of customer satisfaction; he himself is a customer. "I try not to use it for books more than I have to," he said, "because I see a real value in walking into a bookstore and seeing things jump off the shelves."

His article looks at the public face of Amazon as publisher, as warehouse manager, as e-reader innovator and as the apparent victor in the Department of Justice lawsuit that charged Apple and publishers with collusion. All of these are public stories that are familiar to those who follow Amazon's moves in the publishing world; what Packer does it put them all in one place and make them comprehensible to a general audience. 

One of the things Packer mentions is the Gazelle Project, referencing Stone's book. The Gazelle Project targeted small independent publishers to extract better terms for Amazon -- as a cheetah would target a gazelle. "The Gazelle Project -- that was me," Melville House's Dennis Johnson told Packer. Johnson, one of the publishing industry's rare Amazon critics, pushed back against Amazon's predatory practices. The company's lawyers weren't happy either, with the name at least, compelling the project to be called "the Small Publisher Negotiation Program."

Packer also included a suggestion from super-agent Andrew Wylie that publishers stop selling their books to Amazon altogether. Does Packer think that's viable? "It's a pretty radical solution, if you think about what it would do to their sales" he said. "I don't know enough to agree or disagree."

But in terms of telling the story, it was helpful. "It seemed like a way to jolt the picture productively. When you're been an industry for a long time, you can't imagine things differently. Maybe publishers need to think disruptively and not be victims."

"Maybe," he added, "they should think a little more like predators."

[For the Record, 1:15 p.m. PST Feb. 10: An earlier version of this post misquoted author George Packer as saying, "Maybe publishers need to think destructively and not be victims." He used the word "disruptively," not "destructively."]

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