Statement of Purpose

Why and how I'm starting this brand-new newsletter on Amazon.

Amazon is an elephant by design, and we’re all blind men. It may not even be an elephant; it could be five. — Paul Ford

I decided to start a newsletter about Amazon first and foremost because I wanted to read a newsletter about Amazon.

I love Casey Newton’s The Interface. The Interface is about “the intersection of social media and democracy,” but when it started, it was primarily a newsletter about Facebook. I’ve loved its evolution—the idea that when you pay particularly close attention to a particular company, all of its emanations and penumbras, all of the fields and subfields it touches and pulls into its gravitational well, have to be covered as well.

And I thought, “why isn’t someone doing something like this for Amazon?”

There’s no shortage of good Amazon stories, and good Amazon coverage. I loved Kashmir Hill’s story for Gizmodo about trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to block Amazon from her life. I loved John Herrman’s exposé on Vine reviewers. I think stories like this are just as important and just as interesting (more so, actually) as the latest on Jeff Bezos’s sex life or speculation about Amazon’s earnings and stock price. I like stories that help me see how a company like Amazon, with its tangled web of services and products, entwines itself into our lives, both consumer and commercial.

But who is going to gather stories like these and help put them into context? Who, really, is able to take the time to get the big picture when it comes to what’s intermittently the biggest and most influential company in the world?

Also—it’s been a while, so I’ll forgive you if you don’t remember—I was a damned good Amazon reporter. At Wired and The Verge, I wrote stories about Amazon, its reach, and its ambition before it was clear to everyone that Amazon was going to be AMAZON. I’m proud of those stories. It was my favorite beat. I missed it, and wanted to find a way to cover it again.

I talked to some media companies about the idea of doing a column or newsletter about Amazon. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s not a great time for media companies right now. They’re not especially interested in adding head count or taking on new standing freelance projects, especially ones that were as… nonconforming, as experimental, as uncompromising as I wanted this to be.

So I decided to take a second look at Substack. I’d first heard of Substack when I interviewed Daniel Ortberg more than a year ago, shortly before he launched his newsletter, The Shatner Chatner. Hamish McKenzie, one of Substack’s founders, was after me to start a paid newsletter of my own, but I always resisted. I had a good thing going writing the Kottke.org newsletter, Noticing, and I strongly felt that free newsletters would always beat paid ones. I even wrote a long essay about it, called “Unlocking the Commons,” where I made this argument:

The most economically powerful thing you can do is to buy something for your own enjoyment that also improves the world. This has always been the value proposition of journalism and art. It’s a nonexclusive good that’s best enjoyed nonexclusively.

Anyways. This is a prediction for 2018 and beyond. The most powerful and interesting media model will remain raising money from members who don’t just permit but insist that the product be given away for free. The value comes not just what they’re buying, but who they’re buying it from and who gets to enjoy it.

The bigger those two pools get — the bigger the membership, and the bigger the audience — the better it gets for everyone. This is why we need more tools, so more people can try to do it. PBS as a service.

Have I changed my mind? No I have not. But I think I’ve found a different way to skin the same cat, and experiment with unlocking the commons in the process.

So, here’s the deal. This newsletter—which I’m calling The Amazon Chronicles—will sell paid memberships. These will be $5/month, or $50/year. It will also offer free subscriptions. These will cost nothing.

As long as I get at least 200 paid subscribers (let’s call them “members”), free subscribers will get all the same newsletters members get (give or take housekeeping emails that will only make sense to folks who are paying money).

Essentially, the whole site will be free to anyone who signs up. That will be a newsletter a week, rounding up the biggest and best Amazon coverage, plus original reporting and analysis. The same newsletter, for everybody.

If I can get 400 members, I’ll move the newsletter publication rate up to twice a week. And again, free subscribers will get virtually all the same newsletters that paid ones get. (Paid members get some other benefits, like the ability to comment on stories, but nothing will be behind a paywall.)

If I can get 1000 members, I’ll write the newsletter every weekday, Monday through Thursday. (I still have to do Noticing on Fridays.) That’s close to a full-time job. And the $5/month members are paying, which was costing you about $1 a newsletter, turns into something closer to 25 cents a newsletter. The more friends you can convince to sign on, the better your rate gets. What a deal!

So that’s the way the incentives align. The more members/patrons I can gather, the more you can help me to gather, the more benefits everyone gets. This is how we’re going to unlock the commons, on this site at least.

My first proper post will be Thursday, January 31st, after Amazon posts its quarterly earnings. That feels like as good a time as any to jump back in with an overview about where the company is and where it’s headed. That post will be available for everyone to read, and give you a chance to see if you like how I do what I do, and if it’s right for you.

I’m still continuing my newsletter at Noticing. I’m still continuing my Tinyletter, which will be where I post about freelance stories and other work I’m up to. I’m still keeping my Patreon, where if you want to support the entire range of work I do directly, is still the best place to go. This is just a new thing I’m trying, for people who are interested in Amazon and how it’s changing the world.

I’m excited to try this experiment. I’m excited to write about Amazon again, and all the industries, from publishing to web development, that it touches. I feel like I’m in a unique position, and with a unique set of experiences, to do this well. And whether as a free or a paid subscriber, I hope you’ll join me to see where it goes. I hope you’ll send me ideas about what to cover, what’s caught your attention, what’s going unnoticed. I hope you’ll tell me what I’m doing right, and what I could be doing better.

It’s not a blog. It’s a dialogue.

One way or another, Amazon’s still out there. It’s still changing everything about the way the entire media, technology, and commerce industries operate. Someone’s got to keep an eye on what they’re up to. It may as well be us.