I'm writing a fifth of a book and you can pre-order it now.
It's called A Little Light. It's a collection of essays, from me and four other journalists, on the positives we can draw from waves arms all this. It's not going to be saccharine (I hope): we all agree that a lot of awful thing are happening now, and the positives do little to offset that. But there are positives nonetheless. This is a time of great upheaval, and everything is changing. Things that were impossible aren't anymore. Some bad practices are being swept away. Some amazing achievements are being made in record time. We hope that this can bring some sanity to you all.
For obvious reasons, this is not a normal book. The publisher is doing an incredible job in turning it around rapidly – by book standards, as a journalist on a daily paper I'm still somewhat surprised at how leisurely it seems to be moving – and while the hardback won't be out by September, the ebook will be released by the end of June. I've included an Amazon link above (and here again) because most ebook readers are on Kindle; the Apple Book Store page is here, and the… Kobo Book Store? I think that's the third biggest e-reader? Well, the kobo book store page is here. If you want to buy the hardback, it'll be available at all good bookstores in September, by which time the contents will either be prescient or embarrassing.
Please do not let the below suppress your desire to buy my book on Kindle
One of my hopes for the internet is Shopify.
You probably haven't heard of the company, though depending on how much online shopping you do, you may may recognise its storefronts – or at least, its "order complete" screens, which tend to be uniform amongst all its users.
At a very nuts-and-bolts level, Shopify provides a plug-and-play e-commerce site. If you have things to sell on the internet, you can sign up for a Shopify account and have a working storefront in minutes.
At its simplest, the service is just that: a grid of items, a buy button, and some payment processing. But as its grown, it's become a fully-fledged platform in its own right. A plethora of plugins allows retailers to easily buy services from other companies, from fulfilment to inventory management, while an increasing amount of interconnection between customer accounts means that even a first time visitor to your website only has to enter their phone number to pull in payment information from the wider Shopify platform.
At the extreme end, it's possible to set up a Shopify website as a fully outsourced retailer. You can hook in a print-on-demand publisher, automate marketing through online adverts, bring in a fulfilment partner, and pay for the whole thing per sale. Sure, your cut will be wafer thin, but it's sort of cool that you can create the ecommerce equivalent of a perpetual motion machine.
But the company isn't important because of the bevy of add-ons, it's important because of that ease of entry at the start. It sounds dull but honestly, it's a big deal. One of the primary reasons for the dominance of first eBay, then later Amazon Marketplace, was that the two sites were some of the only places that a small business could easily set up a storefront on the net. The sites brought other advantages, of course – principally in the form of a much larger potential market through their search functions – but for many businesses, it was the ease of entry that was the reason they signed up in the first place. You run a comic shop, you already offer mail order, why not throw some of your inventory on eBay at moderately inflated prices? What's the worst that could happen?
Of course, we now know the worst that could happen: as Amazon Marketplace was becoming the de facto online storefront for a growing number of small retailers, Amazon Retail was also furthering its ambition to become "the everything store" in as many sectors as possible. Fast-forward to 2020, and the default shopping behaviour for many of the most valuable consumers in western markets – young, rich, tech-savvy and with a tonne of disposable income – is just to head straight to Amazon at the very beginning of the shopping process.
I don't want to understate the benefits of this. One of the traps that opponents of the big tech companies often fall into is to pretend – or convince themselves – that their success has come entirely through hostile acts, trickery or subterfuge. In practice, the reasons why everyone goes straight to Amazon are because it usually has what you want, usually for less money than other places, and usually with a shorter shipping time. That may have deleterious effects on the wider economy, and it may come at the cost of the broken bodies of Amazon's warehouse workers, but it is dishonest to pretend that consumers don't like and seek out those benefits anyway.
It's equally true, of course, that Amazon is currently self-sabotaging some of those benefits. The company's much vaunted focus on the customer has started to slip in recent years, as the sheer power of the retail storefront as a money-making machine has proven too powerful to resist. Sponsored listings take up an increasing amount of the search results, appearing well above the product the user is actually looking for:
The relentless focus on price and shipping speed, combined with an inability to monitor quality save through easily-gamed customer reviews, means that commodity items are increasingly risky purchases, even if they have the "Amazon Choice" label. You can try to stick to branded goods, but even there, the company has a less-than-perfect track record of dissuading counterfeiters. If you buy a motorcycle helmet from Amazon, it might not protect you in a crash. If you buy an "FDA-approved" product from Amazon, the Agency might never have seen it. If you buy an infant's sleeping mat from Amazon, it might suffocate your child.
In a way, these are the standard problems of the platform era: just as Facebook can't keep every bad actor off its platform, neither can Amazon. But there's two crucial differences. One is that it's harder for a Facebook moderation error to kill someone. And the other is that Facebook posts do not carry, for most users, the tacit approval of Facebook, but Amazon purchases very much do carry the tacit approval of Amazon. The company has successfully given a loose collection of hawkers at a street market the ambience of an upscale – well, midscale – department store.
So I have hope that Amazon's dominance might be faltering. But for it to come to an end requires competition, and if that competition is just more of the same, it doesn't really improve things, but rather shifts the problem. Now you have two Amazons. Great.
Which takes us back to Shopify. The company does a lot differently to Amazon, but most importantly for me is the fact that the retailer's brands sit front and centre. When I bought a ridiculous Habanero spirit, I bought it from Empirical, not from Shopify. When I bought some coffee sriracha, I bought it from Catalyst Cafe, not Shopify. When I buy my favourite shoes, I buy them from Atheist, not Shopify. (Those are all recommendations fwiw, especially the sriracha, my god).
My hope is that, if Amazon represents the Tesco or Wal-Mart of the internet, then Shopify can reverse-engineer the high-street – or, at least, the boutique shopping district. It will never be the best place to buy a £3 lightning cable, and will struggle to enable a company that can get you the latest bestseller novel for half of RRP in 24 hours, but it might let the small brands that could stand alone do so.
There's one minor coda to the story, which is why I wrote about Shopify today: the company has brought out a new app, Shop, trying for the first time to link together its growing network of businesses in one place. To extend the metaphor above, the app is aiming to be a shopping centre. A very clear destination in its own right, but one that ultimately subsumes its own brand to those of the tenants inside. In theory, it provides a single home to track all your purchases, to keep up with what your favourite shops are selling, and to find new retailers near you, or of interest to you.
Unfortunately, at least in the UK, it's sort of crap. The parcel tracking feature doesn't work, because it automatically parses tracking numbers with an American bias – no, Canada Post hasn't shipped anything to me, that's a Hermes number – and the only real discovery options are geographic, which doesn't seem to suit London. Though I have learned that if I want to get a diamond and white gold grill for my teeth, there's a great local provider.