Around 1998, David Streitfeld gave Jeff Bezos a quick tour of The Washington Post. It really wasn’t a big deal.
“It was a newspaper,” Streitfeld told Poynter. “There wasn’t much to see.”
After he ushered Bezos around the newsroom, the two attended a lunch with editors of the Post.
“The editors there thought Amazon was cute, interesting, a frill — not something transformative,” Streitfeld said. “The notion that the Post would one day be owned by the guy with the goofy laugh sitting in front of them was literally inconceivable.”
Streitfeld, though, already knew that Amazon had that potential to be transformative, at least for the publishing industry. He covered the book beat for the Post at the time (in that role, he identified Joe Klein as the author of “Primary Colors”) and discovered Amazon early in his reporting. Then, Streitfeld, who is now a New York Times technology reporter as well as a book lover and collector, saw possibility in a company taking the selling of books into a digital space.
“I was so immersed in that world I saw larger consequences,” he said.
Sixteen years later, Streitfeld broke news about that once-cute company and its negotiation tactics on a major publisher, its authors and their books. Here’s the lead to Streitfeld’s May 8 story.
Amazon has begun discouraging customers from buying books by Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Colbert, J. D. Salinger and other popular writers, a flexing of its muscle as a battle with a publisher spills into the open.
The Internet retailer, which controls more than a third of the book trade in the United States, is marking many books published by Hachette Book Group as not available for at least two or three weeks.
A Hachette spokeswoman said on Thursday that the publisher was striving to keep Amazon supplied but that the Internet giant was delaying shipments “for reasons of their own.” Hachette is one of the largest New York houses, publishing under the Little, Brown and Grand Central imprints, among many others.
The regular thud
Streitfeld loves books. He writes about them, he collects them, he reads them, and he’s writing one of his own — about a book collector and a friend who was murdered by his wife. He also owns about 10,000 books. Those books come from traditional old bookstores in the Bay Area, where Streitfeld lives with his family, but also Amazon, Amazon UK, Ebay and book dealers.
“Rare is the day when we don’t get a book delivered to our door,” Streitfeld’s wife, Phuong Ly, told Poynter. (Ly is the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Journalism, where I was a fellow in 2012.) “I work from home, so I hear the regular thud of packages hitting our front stoop.”
If Amazon ever starts offering drone delivery, she said, their home will look like something out of a sci-fi movie. His collection isn’t just physical, though. Streitfeld remembers most of what he has read, and it informs how he writes, adding literary and historic references to tech and business stories, Ly said. She doesn’t have to search online when she has questions about Western literature or history.
“The other day, I was reading, ‘In the Garden of Beasts,’ a nonfiction book about Germany in 1933,” Ly said. “There was a reference to novelist Joseph Roth, and I didn’t have my laptop handy. So I asked David, ‘Who is Joseph Roth?’ He recited a short synopsis on Roth’s life and work and added, ‘We have a box of his books downstairs.’”
‘Amazon is not one of them’
Like millions of other people, Streitfeld is an Amazon customer. But he’s also the reporter who broke the story about Amazon’s fight with Hachette. What surprised him about the story, he said, was that no reporters picked up on it for weeks, maybe even months.
“Authors are not exactly shy, especially when it comes to their own books being taken off sale,” he said. “But somehow it stayed under the radar. Then we got a tip and went with it.”
He’s continued that reporting.
“David is a tenacious reporter who has long been interested in the changes — technological and otherwise — sweeping the book industry,” Suzanne Spector, technology editor at the Times, told Poynter (Streitfeld was also a member of the Times team that won a Pulitzer in 2013 for its investigation of the “iEconomy“). “Amazon is a tough company to cover because, as we and others have written many times, its comment is ordinarily ‘no comment.’”
And that was the comment for the early life of this story.
On May 9: “Writers Feel an Amazon-Hachette Spat”
On May 22: “One Woman’s Lonely Boycott of Amazon”
On May 23: “As Publishers Fight Amazon, Books Vanish”
“Some tech companies have a missionary zeal to tell everyone how smart they are. Amazon is not one of them,” Streitfeld said. “They don’t care if they’re liked, or even if they’re understood. That makes them challenging to write about.”
But on May 28, Amazon finally did issue a statement — on its site. Streitfeld wrote a piece entitled “Amazon Defends Itself in Dispute, Suggests Hachette Customers Go Elsewhere”.
“For the first time that I can remember,” Streitfeld said, “they really had to explain themselves.”
Streitfeld is not pro-Amazon, he said, or as some readers have complained, anti-Amazon. Amazon feels that there’s nothing to see and people should stop talking about this, he said. Hachette feels that something important is happening and people should be talking about it.
“Without taking sides, it interests people, it’s affected people because the questions that it brings up are very real and very personal to a lot of people, to readers, to writers, to anyone who consumes this material,” he said. “The question of where it comes from, how it gets to them, is a really important one, and I guess it should be an important one.”
As he continues covering this story, he plans to include perspectives from those people who think the story is overblown. His goal, he said, is to explain both sides. If he’s successful in that, people can make up their own minds about what’s going on.
The stories of our time
Taped to Streitfeld’s desk hangs a quote from novelist James Salter.
“Man was very fortunate to have invented the book. Without it the past would completely vanish, and we would be left with nothing, we would be naked on earth.”
“He said that in 1993, just before the Internet as we know it was invented,” Streitfeld said. “How is the essential record of our existence being changed by the digital age? What will replace the physical book as a memory device, and what will be its advantages and disadvantages? It is one of the great stories of our time.”
The questions the Amazon-Hachette stories bring up are important ones, Streitfeld thinks. “It does go back to the Salter quote. How should information be presented, passed down, transmitted from one reader to the next? I think people do have real worries about one company controlling too much of that, whether it’s Amazon or someone else. I think it’s incumbent upon Amazon or another company to address those worries.”
When he first wrote about Amazon, Streitfeld thought the young new company could change book retailing and American culture. He was partly right.
“I thought that the universal availability of all books, of all knowledge might usher in a golden age,” Streitfeld said. “Still waiting on that one, I guess.”