I’ve received dozens of congratulatory emails in response to my message headlined “Berkshire is moving west!” I also received dozens of emails asking how I could sell out to Amazon.
One close friend was particularly brief: “WTF?!”
Quite a few people asked if I was moving with my company. (Clearly some of you think Berkshire Publishing is a much larger enterprise than it is.)
That message was sent on April 1st. I dashed it off, just a short note (you can read it here), without the slightest notion that anyone would believe it. I’d just landed in Seattle and my team was setting up at the Association of Asian Studies conference. Seattle was in full bloom, the sun was shining, and I was a little jetlagged. Berkshire has a tradition of sending April Fools stories, and this very simple joke – that Berkshire Publishing is moving to Seattle to be closer to Amazon – popped into my head. I wrote it, did a quick edit, and sent it on its way.
I then spent the next two weeks reassuring people by email and in person that neither I nor Berkshire Publishing would, in fact, be moving at all. Some people thought it was funny, but many did not. One friend wrote, “I’m glad to know it was supposed to be a joke.”
I admit that I’m dismayed that so many colleagues didn’t get the irony in my comment that, “Amazon is a major internet company that uses books as its public brand and has prospered for over 20 years without making a profit. . . . we have concluded that Amazon offers the best possible leadership model for a truly 21st-century publisher.”
I haven’t changed my tune about Amazon. I continue to resent the fact that Amazon uses books as its public brand while exploiting authors and extorting publishers. Its profits come not from the book business but from its cloud services so we are, in effect, the bait.
And Amazon is not a model for anyone. Existing presses and entrepreneurs should be able to build profitable, sustainable businesses by commissioning books that fill real needs, that educate and enlighten, and help teachers and scholars and students all over the world. Publishing in 2016 is a tough business but it’s not impossible. Our sluggish industry does need to move into the 21st century and I’m 100% with Jeff Bezos that publishing needed to be disrupted, but what he has done has been destructive when there was a real opportunity to do something positive when he began.
Berkshire Publishing remains centered in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the center of the Ivy League as you can see from this map, and increasingly far-flung in terms of our staff (a couple of weeks ago we were working from New York, London, Heidelberg, Germany, and Kabul, Afghanistan). New projects will weave our team more closely with colleagues in China.
Most of my April Fools stories have been about technology or China, about which people will believe just about anything. Google had an algorithm that would write personalized letters, I claimed one year, and a world-renowned expert on technology asked for a link to the beta version. Another year I claimed that China was making the Fourth of July an official holiday, and a startling number of people believed it. I think that was because of the brilliant graphics that went with the story, which you can see here at our archive page.
The only thing that worries me is that one of my past April Fools jokes seems a little too close to reality. In 2012, I wrote about a “Friendship Wall” between the United States and Mexico. We’ve heard a lot from The Donald about his Great Wall in 2016, but of course he wouldn’t dream of letting a Chinese company build it. What’s not to love about the Northeastern Friendship Construction and Heavy Industry Transportation and Advertising Company, a division of National Pacific Patriotic People’s Southern Construction, Investing, Securities, and Commercial Services Group?