June 3, 2014

Amazon has lost Malcolm Gladwell


Malcolm Gladwell and Jeff Bezos just broke up.

Malcolm Gladwell and Jeff Bezos just broke up.

It’s been almost a month since we first learned that Amazon and Hachette were in the midst of brutal contract negotiations. Neither side has said that much about the dispute—though Amazon did release a laughable statement last week—but many Hachette authors, including Sherman Alexie and James Patterson, have excoriated the tax-avoiding, warehouse-worker-mistreating, loss-leader pricing retailer.

Over the weekend, bestselling author and human TED Talk Malcolm Gladwell became the latest Hachette author to come out against Amazon. In an interview published with the New York TimesDavid Streitfeld—who first broke the Amazon-Hachette story—Gladwell appears angry, hurt, and more than a little confused by the megacorporation’s tactics. Gladwell frames his relationship with Amazon as a partnership. He’s almost certainly talking about a business partnership, but it’s hard to read his statement and not think of a different kind of partnership: Gladwell sounds like a spurned lover; it’s as if he and Amazon had just broken up.

It’s sort of heartbreaking when your partner turns on you. Over the past 15 years, I have sold millions of dollars’ worth of books on Amazon, which means I have made millions of dollars for Amazon. I would have thought I was one of their best assets. I thought we were partners in a business that has done well. This seems an odd way to treat someone who has made you millions of dollars.

Later in the interview, Gladwell builds on those themes:

That strategy is too counterintuitive even for me. I don’t think human beings reward those who hurt them. If Amazon wanted me to do something in their interest, I imagine they would do something in my interest. This isn’t.

Finally, Streitfeld does the inevitable and asks Gladwell how Malcolm Gladwell would see the Amazon-Hachette dispute:

Most people think Amazon is the Goliath here, although some argue that this is Goliath vs. Goliath.

There’s no question who is more powerful here: Amazon.

So is there a way for the underdog to triumph here, like the cases you recount in David and Goliath?

I don’t think the appropriate framework here is a battle between two people. It’s a partnership. My publishers, Amazon and I have been in business together, an extremely successful business. We should all be celebrating together instead of fighting.

Amazon’s critics would say you were naïve about this being a true partnership.

I don’t think it was destined to blow up. And I don’t think it’s entirely impossible to fix. We need Amazon and Amazon needs us. That’s a classic partnership.

There are a few things to consider here. First, if Malcolm Gladwell is singling you out for being counterintuitive, you’re in trouble. It’s fascinating, moreover, to watch Malcolm Gladwell attempt to think through Amazon’s strategy as only Malcolm Gladwell can—desperately searching for narratives and hidden motivations—and failing. Gladwell is the King of Simplification (or Oversimplification, depending on your point-of-view), but he has nothing to work with here. Amazon is waging a scorched earth campaign against Hachette. This isn’t elegant, this isn’t logical. This is medieval warfare.

Second, I think the main thread of this interview—Gladwell’s sense that a partnership has ended—is notable for a number of reasons. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen a number of notable defections from Amazon: book critic Laura Miller, tech journalist Farhad Manjoo, and media reporter Jack Shafer being three notable examples. This isn’t quite another defection—the “We need Amazon and Amazon needs us” comment is as mopey and break-upy as it gets—-but it appears that Gladwell (who was being naïve, by the way) is seeing Amazon for what it is for the first time. Amazon is not your partner, no matter how much money you make it. It’s a ruthless, relentless company and it’s not here to make friends.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.