Remember, if you can, the dark world we lived in around fifteen years ago. Web companies like Pets.com flared like a fireworks display on the Nasdaq, only to vanish just as quickly. Search engines crawled the digital superhighway in squads, each with its own extra-special method, and you never knew whether AltaVista or Lycos, Excite or Yahoo! would provide the guidance you needed. Websites like Slate and Salon, Feed and Suck offered innovative commentary on politics and culture. It was a new world, and if you weren’t logged on, you might as well have been dead. So, at least, magazines like Wired kept insisting. Looking backward as we cradle our Androids and balance our iPads on our laps, the first thing we see is the quaintness of a world of computer users squinting at their PC screens. It’s practically steampunk. Yet it’s also recognizably the world that led to the one we inhabit now—the one in which some of Wired’s predictions of the day, less about the death of Luddites than of the dead-tree media, seem to be coming true.
A harder look back reveals something else. The media world of the 1990s—even its most novel and exciting sectors—was a mosaic, not a fresco. Magazines still provoked excited gossip: Remember the “hot books,” or the Stephen Glass affair? Books themselves also seemed to have gathered new momentum. Barnes & Noble had been spreading across the country since the 1980s, erecting temples to dark wood, fragrant coffee and the Muses of publishing on smart city blocks as well as in what seemed to be every shopping mall in America. Borders, once acquired by Kmart in 1992, hustled in its wake, offering lighter-colored shelves and more magazines. Bestselling authors like Donna Tartt became media personalities, prettily packaged and profiled and sent across the country to sell their work. Even university presses felt the breeze. As the serious book market expanded, or seemed to, rumors flew: previously hardheaded editors were ordering print runs in four figures for monographs.
Nothing did more to make all of this happen, nothing transformed our ways of searching for information more rapidly, than the appearance of Amazon.com, which was founded in 1994 and began to sell books in 1995. In the same years that Netscape first led us onto the World Wide Web and our virtual lives became one long march from one link to another, we could suddenly buy books—any book, it seemed, however small its print run—wherever we were and whatever time of the day or night. Amazon did more than just make books available: it presented them appealingly, images of their dust jackets glowing on the screen, flanked by detailed and intelligent accounts of their contents, customer reviews and indispensable sales rank. Like the superstores, Amazon seemed to show that we had entered a new age of the book. And not only bestsellers profited—there was also the new model of the “long tail.” In the past, if a subject suddenly gained interest, a book about it that had been published a few years before would no longer have been on the shelves, and special orders took weeks or even months to fill. Thanks to Amazon’s huge warehouses and ubiquitous website, old books had the chance for a new lease on commercial life. Bliss it was in that dawn to be a live author—and even, in my case, to have one book, a heavily annotated monograph about astrology in the Renaissance—featured for a day on Amazon’s front page. Friends e-mailed to tell me they had seen it; then to ask if bodily fluids had been swapped to gain this position; and then, in much bigger numbers, to tell me how much they enjoyed watching my book fall, precipitously, from its brief perch at number one to a more reasonable position down in the many, many thousands.
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The glory soon faded, because the high print orders shrank when the returns came in. Only a few of the remaining superstores—alas for the Borders that once graced Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, a monument of civilization—still offer recondite books, as opposed to their 100,000 usual suspects. But Amazon survived, and evolved, and so did our ways of working with it. From the start, it transformed one ancient and tedious task: finding and ordering books for college and university courses. For decades, university teachers had compiled their reading lists from the massive, closely printed volumes of Books in Print. These tools of the teacher’s trade were as infuriating as they were indispensable. Publishers exist—or so every university teacher secretly thinks—mostly to take books out of print immediately after you have cast them to play a central role in your next term’s courses. Printed catalogs necessarily came out with far too long a lead time to keep abreast of these decisions, publisher by publisher. You could check your syllabus as often as you liked against the most recent Books in Print and still find yourself hung out to dry when, two weeks before the term started, the university bookstore sent notice that your most important texts were out of print or out of stock. After the 1979 Thor Power decision, which prevented publishers from writing down the value of their inventories for tax purposes, cancellation notices carpeted the floors of faculty mailrooms every August and January like autumn leaves in Vallombrosa. Amazon, by contrast, provided information about a book’s availability as current as the publishers themselves could keep it. A new distribution system couldn’t solve the underlying problems: publishers still took good books out of print when they stopped selling and ratcheted up the price of serious paperbacks until students couldn’t afford them. Still, by the late 1990s, even if you never bought a single book from Amazon, you found yourself relying on the information that this public-spirited firm made freely available.