Building a Better Amazon
What would your ideal e-book store look like?
By Chris Kubica
groups, each one devising an e-book store
concept that could solve as many of the
pain points as possible. We pitched our
ideas. We voted on the concept we
thought had the most potential. As it
turns out, my team’s scheme for a site
resembled the Kindle Cloud Reader. Our
store would offer zero-click reading; inte-
grated purchasing/library checkouts;
buy-once, read-anywhere openness; a
direct reader-author-publisher commu-
nity built in; and an API through which
anyone could create an embeddable
e-book store widget with just a few clicks.
Day two of the e-book store dream-team exercise was supposed to be devoted
to clarifying our idea and further developing the key features our dream store would
have, as well as the features that would set
it apart from other startups. Then a
strange thing happened: we pulled back.
We second-guessed. We found ourselves
in a dark wood. How can we compete with
the Amazons of the world? The challenge
I’d hoped that by the end of the day,
we’d be able to draw up an actionable
specification that we could fund and
build. But instead, we found ourselves
focused on finding one thing—just
one—that Amazon’s walled garden
doesn’t do really, really well.
Someone quipped that we needed a
hook, a jazzy one-sentence summation of
our clever idea, like, “Uber, where everyone’s
a taxicab”; or “Airbnb, where everyone’s a
microhotel”; or “Square, where everyone’s
a cash register.” Our dream e-book store
thingy needed to turn everyone into...
something. But what? A bookstore?
We set out with a desire to design and
build something that could compete with
Amazon’s massive scale. But, ultimately,
we found that perhaps the best way to get
traction against a dominant player like
Amazon is not to build something equally
titanic, but to build something wee,
something human. Grassroots. Peer-to-peer. Something simple. Distributed.
Democratic. Something that will turn the
focus back to art and away from commerce and shareholders. Connection.
Emotion. Humanity. Maybe each one of
us should be a bookstore?
We didn’t arrive at a spec, but we started a worthy journey. We opened a dialogue that
asked, “What shall we do next?” Amazon
may dominate now, but nothing stays on
top for long these days. Look at MySpace,
Napster, Microsoft Windows, and Blackberry. Apple is post-Jobs. Google Glass
isn’t a hit.
Maybe I’m a little naïve, but I choose
to dream grandly. And I’m glad I’m not
alone. The Internet and the future of electronic books and electronic thoughts
belong to all of us, not just one or two
gatekeepers. So we beat on, e-books
against the current. The denouement of
our gathering is the rising action of the
future. We’ll build our perfect e-book
store yet. And you can help. Tell me: what
is your dream e-book store like? ■
Amazon, Amazon, Amazon. I’m tired of
hearing about Amazon, aren’t you? I
know—I’m not helping. The word
“Amazon” is sprinkled liberally throughout this article. And I’m one of Amazon’s
best customers. I can’t bring myself to
bash it. Its customer service is second to
none, as are its prices and selection. I love
Prime. But in light of recent events, I am
of the opinion that it is time for the world
to rise up and form a Rebel Book-Lover’s
Alliance, to storm the Amazon Death
Star, to use collective force to take back
the e-book galaxy.
So, over two days last week, I convened
a meeting in New York of some of the
brightest minds in publishing to tackle
the topic of creating the “perfect” e-book
store. The premise was simple: if we—as
readers, writers, publishers, agents,
librarians, and booksellers—were given
unlimited time and resources to build
our own vision of e-book nirvana, what
features would it have that are either
lacking at Amazon or that exist only in
bits and pieces across a disconnected
On the first day, we were exceed- ingly ambitious: I invoked Aaron Swartz and his dream that
all books, knowledge, and academic
research be freely available and readily
accessible to everyone on Earth. We then
brainstormed, discussed, argued. We
wrote “pain points” on yellow sticky-notes and arranged them into groups on
the wall: discoverability, search, economics, user experience.
We then divided into four small
Chris Kubica is the editor of Letters to J.D.
Salinger and an associate producer of the
documentary film Salinger. He lives in
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Above: A group of
thinkers gathered in
New York last week to
brainstorm the ideal
e-book store. Right: