Seattle Week in Review: Amazon, Indy Bookstores, and Serendipity

Amazon, the behemoth of digital and physical commerce, started out as an independent bookseller, albeit an online one, based in a home in Bellevue, WA. Now that it’s doing everything else—this week it deployed artificial intelligence to judge your fashion choices—how’s that online bookstore business shaping up? It’s something to contemplate on Independent Bookstore Day, April 29.

Read on for that, plus the local philanthropic impact of Microsoft’s co-founders—including a new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation health research institute in the works in Seattle and Boston; federal funding worries at the University of Washington; and funding news for WiBotic, a UW spinout.

—Tara Sparling, a writer based in Ireland, recently “attempted to browse Amazon as though it were a good old-fashioned, bricks-and-mortar bookshop.” (And, of course, Amazon has its own bricks-and-mortar bookshops now. Whether they’re good is a subjective question. They’re certainly not old fashioned.)

Sparling writes about her efforts to make a serendipitous literary discovery on Amazon, the way she used to 10 or 15 years ago in a physical bookstore. She found this difficult, as her search for even a list of fiction bestsellers led her to increasingly specialized subcategories.

“The Amazon era,” she writes, “is the era when readers are no longer allowed to browse aimlessly and come across something unusual. We are no longer allowed to not know what we want, and get a nice surprise. Now we have to know at least the class of thing we want, in order to get some sort of lame and derivative version of it.”

To Sparling, the algorithms of Amazon seem to “actively discourage” serendipitous discovery, and this has implications for writers. The need to fit into one of the Amazon-defined literary categories—and thereby be discovered—is changing how authors write, and not for the better, Sparling argues: “I’ve seen so many books lately which appear to have been changed at some stage of the writing process into something they’re not. It’s ruined them.”

Meanwhile, Seattle with a still-healthy collection of physical, independent bookstores, celebrates them this weekend. For more on serendipitous discoveries of books—and people—check out dispatches from several of the region’s finest book retailers by The Stranger’s Christopher Frizzelle.

—Speaking of Amazon’s roots in bookstores and in Bellevue, GeekWire takes an in-depth look at the company’s plans to set up shop on the Eastside of Lake Washington, again, positioning it to poach talent from the likes of Microsoft and Expedia.

—We covered Paul Allen’s $30 million donation to build a new housing complex for homeless families in Seattle, and the tax debate swirling around the city and the mayoral race.

—Elsewhere in Allen’s multifaceted portfolio, he calls for the entertainment industry to produce more strong narratives that inspire action on environmental crises. Allen, whose company produces environmental documentaries, co-authored an essay in Variety with Peter Kareiva, director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “With epidemics on the rise, massive ice shelves breaking off Antarctica, coral reefs dying and stubborn droughts driving millions of refugees to risk everything for a better future, we need to engage a much broader cross-section of people in solving today’s environmental challenges—not sometime in the future, but now,” they write.

—In other Microsoft co-founder news, the globally focused Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released a report on its economic impact in the Seattle area. In 2015, the foundation made $341 million in local grants—mostly out of its Global Health division, helping bolster a thriving global health cluster in the region, but also through its U.S. Programs division to groups addressing homelessness and other regional equity issues.

The foundation supported 9,100 jobs, including some 1,200 full-time foundation employees based in Seattle, and another 700 contingent staff.

The report, from research firm Community Attributes, estimated its total local economic impact at $1.5 billion—counting direct, indirect, and induced spending by employees, vendors, and grant recipients. Grant recipients include the University of Washington, PATH, the Seattle Foundation, and Northwest Harvest.

That local impact would grow with a planned nonprofit research institute focusing on diseases that impact the developing world. In a news release this week, the foundation announced that the medical research institute would focus on translational science aimed at enhancing the product pipeline for combatting “malaria, tuberculosis, and enteric, and diarrheal diseases.” Details are still scant, but the institute would be headed by Penny Heaton and co-located in the Seattle and Boston areas.

—Gates Foundation funding to the University of Washington looks more important than ever as the institution that perennially attracts more federal research funding than any of its peers braces for major funding cuts. The Seattle Times’ Katherine Long covers the implications for the UW’s recent life-sciences focused building boom, a significant portion of which is funded through National Institutes of Health grants earmarked to cover indirect costs, or overhead, such as buildings, assistants’ salaries, and other necessary supports to research.

WiBotic, a University of Washington startup working on autonomous, wireless power systems for robots, drones, and undersea vehicles, announced a $2.5 million seed funding round. The investment was led by China-based Tsing Capital, joined by Comet Labs and Digi Labs, with earlier investors the W Fund, WRF Capital, and Wisemont Capital also participating.

Photo credit: Magus Books by Flickr user brewbooks, cropped and used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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