Oops. As Amazon makes its move from retailer to publisher, it has stumbled clumsily, but not surprisingly. Amazon is fundamentally a bookseller, a bookseller that knocked out the walls in the adjoining online mall to sell everything from KLH sound equipment to Kingston digital gadgets K'NEX toys to now its very product, The Kindle.
The Kindle has convinced Jeff Bezos that he is no longer just a major merchant, but now a publisher. First, books, then newspapers and magazines and, as of last week, "Kindle Publishing for Blogs." No sooner had the program launched last week that people figured out at Twitter speed that anyone could register any blog, and get in the pipeline to get 30% of the subscription price any Kindle customer decided to pay for that block of content.
Tech Crunch's Erick Schonfeld broke the news of the flimsiness of the Amazon's vetting process on Thursday. He showed how easy it was for anyone to claim and register anyone's else content, doing so with NYTimes.com's Bits Blog. Good post. It hit directly on the easy invitation to copyright theft that the Kindle's blog non-process openly invited, though it didn't note that both profit-seekers and Amazon-folly-pointers were merrily posting porn blogs, always a good digital moneymaker.
Now, Amazon has responded and says it has taken down the offending blogs. On Sunday, though, Kindle readers tell me that porn sites are still available through the new blog service. It's not clear what vetting process it will use going forward.
Overall, we can see a couple of things in Amazon's cluelessness about how to incorporate blogs into news products. First, just because massive retailers can be publishers, that doesn't confer on them any of them judgments that real publishers -- Old Media and New -- have running in their bloodstreams. Everybody of course makes mistakes, but the truism in this case is true: everyone makes the same mistakes in editing, so make small ones as you learn the trade. Amazon just hasn't had time. Its pretense that it is a publisher, when it is really a super-aggregator of books-plus, shows through in cases like this blog program.
We saw another indication of Amazon's inflated sense of itself in the last week's Senate hearings on the state of the newspaper industry. Jim Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, was one of those who testified. Moroney talked about his negotiations with Amazon. Yes, he'd taken umbrage at Amazon's non-negotiable demand for 70% of revenue from subscriptions sold -- even Steve Jobs always takes only 30% at Apple for iTunes apps -- but he would have even swallowed hard and accepted that. What Moroney found unacceptable -- and well, he should -- is that Amazon wanted rights to distribute Belo content to "any wireless device", without further permission of the publisher.
If this is the case -- and I haven't been able to yet verify it -- then it shows a new publisher's overreaching. Sure Jeff Bezos wants to get repaid for all that promotional space on Amazon's home page -- building buzz, offering Millennial solutions to newspaper woes -- but trying to usurp wireless distribution rights is simply over the top. We will soon live in a wireless news and information bubble; asking vendors to turn over their futures really takes hubris. Hubris, always, takes its lumps, eventually.
We can see these learning publisher steps in craigslist's behevior around "erotic services" ads. Yes, we are all quite clear that federal law -- well-intended to enable the Web to become a free-flowing source of information in our democracy -- allows common carriers such as craigslist to flow through ads without checking each one. The right is fairly clear, and it's worked well to the original intention.
The right to publish, though, shouldn't be confused with the necessity to publish. That's a responsibility that all traditional publishers understand deeply over time. craigslist, a relatively new publisher, is still learning it. Yes, maybe, it's had the the right to act as a digital pimp for long time, but it didn't mean that it had to. An apparent ad-related murder, and the hot breath of prosecutors, brought home that point. craigslist didn't have to wait for that pressure. Amazon shouldn't have to wait for people to point out that it is allowing porn sites, or non-owned content to be added to the Kindle, to do the right thing.
Certainly, publishers make mistakes, but rookie publishers make bigger ones.
That's one big lesson about our Pro-Am world in which everyone can indeed be a publisher.
I also wonder about the the Kindle Blog initiative -- it was labeled "Kindle Publishing for Blogs Beta" prominently in its acknowledgment of its blunder, though not "Beta" on its promotional page -- in terms of its blog selection process.
While it makes selective decisions about the books, newspapers and magazines that it accepts for the Kindle, it is opening up the blog program for all. That idea reinforces the democratic nature of the blogosphere, but gives up on the "qualified by Amazon" notion. It could have licensed directly or through blog aggregators the top end of the blogosphere, paralleling its books/newspapers/magazines approach. That, too, has often been the role of a publisher -- deciding what content to include and not to include. Maybe, that just seemed too daunting with blogs, or maybe Amazon just has another strategy in mind, including the usage of its prodigious recommendation engine to the world of current content.
We'll have to wait to find out more about that strategy, as Amazon becomes more comfortable in that publisher role, and the implicit obligation that has long accompanied it: Participating in the media discussion itself.