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Discovered another pair of posts with interesting, almost complementary things to say today about Amazon, from opposite sides of the fence. It’s interesting and instructive to look at them both together.

If Barnes & Noble fails, so will Amazon

Is that the heady aroma of sour grapes I catch wafting over from Salon Magazine? Salon hasn’t made any attempts to hide its pro-publisher tilt lately. The last major story about Amazon I saw out of them was a marvelously revisionist little piece claiming to be “Everything you need to know about the great e-book price war” and explaining how Amazon was pricing all its e-books below wholesale in an attempt to drive everyone else out of business. (False.)

Salon hasn’t switched sides since the verdict came out, either. Today we got a gleeful little dose of doom and gloom cheerfully positing that Amazon will be a victim of its own success. This piece does carefully give Amazon its due, invariably followed by phrases like “The problem is…” or “that’s just the trouble.”

The thinking goes that if Amazon does kill off the major bookstores, it will also cut the legs out from under consumers’ ability to showroom and discover new titles, because according to a study the article quotes, over three times as many people discover new books through examining bookstores as find them online. And, of course, if the bookstores go out of business, the publishers Amazon relies on for content take a hit, too.

I have to say, after years of complaining about people “showrooming”—browsing bookstores and then ordering the books through Amazon—it seems a little disingenuous for the anti-Amazon resistance to switch tracks and say, “But if they go under, people won’t be able to showroom and then where will you be?” Get your story straight, people—do you want shoppers showrooming or not?

The article also tends to assume that consumers just need some gentle reminding that they like having bookstores around and suddenly they’ll be delighted to pay full hardcover price for books they could get at Amazon much cheaper in paper or even cheaper yet as e-books. How’s the view through those rose-colored glasses, Salon?

The whole thing comes off like some kid who just got mugged by a bully for all his Halloween candy gleefully reassuring himself that the bully is going to get one hell of an upset stomach when he eats all of it. Right, guys, I’m totally sure it will happen that way.

If the Kindle fails, so will e-books

On the other side, we have Baldur Bjarnason of Studio Tendra wondering what anti-Amazon people expect to happen when they browbeat authors into removing Amazon links from their websites.

People go to Amazon, they aren’t sent there.

Pointing people anywhere else will only result in lower affiliate fees for the author or publisher as people follow the link, close the tab, and then go to Amazon directly to buy it there anyway.

And if Amazon did collapse (perhaps because of driving all the bookstores out of business, eh Salon?), it would send considerable shockwaves through the industry. Just look at what happened when Borders went under, and they hardly had any of the market as it was.

And, Bjarnason says, he believes the fate of e-books in general is intertwined with that of the Kindle.

The problem is that ebooks are the Kindle and Amazon as far as most buyers are concerned. Most of those buyers have non-book alternatives competing for their entertainment dollars as well. If Amazon had a major misstep, that would be more likely to result in the ebook market contracting than in somebody else taking over.

Put another way, where do you think the average Kindle owner is going to want to buy his books? Anyone who has a Kindle is pretty much an Amazon customer for life. Not just because of the walled garden, either. Give someone with a Kindle a choice between a DRM-free e-book on Amazon and the same DRM-free e-book elsewhere, and he’ll probably take the one from Amazon. He can buy it from his device, and it also has those little perks like annotations and Whispersync that only come with a genuine dyed-in-the-wool Amazon product.

And it’s just so much easier than going somewhere else and trying to figure out how to load the book on. (I work tech support for a major retailer’s house brand of TVs, and I’ve learned from experience: a huge number of people have trouble figuring out how to do even the very simplest technical thing. Amazon was made for that kind of shopper.)

Just look at what Baen did. Baen had been selling and giving away e-books for over ten years, building up a dedicated fan following—but Baen kept getting emails asking why their books “aren’t available for Kindle.” Never mind that they were perfectly Kindle compatible and a bargain to boot—if they weren’t on Amazon.com, they might as well not exist to the average Kindle user.  And while some Baen Barflies were inclined to scoff at their stupidity, their money spent just as well as anyone else’s and there were a lot more of them.

So last December, Baen made some wrenching changes to its e-book program for the sake of getting onto Amazon (and various other e-book stores, but Amazon was the first and most important), annoying and aggravating some Barflies, but undoubtedly increasing its e-book sales considerably.

And if publishers think that Amazon is winning just because it “predatorily” prices bestselling e-books, they’re fooling themselves. Amazon is the frontrunner due to a deadly combination of business savvy, e-commerce expertise earned through nineteen years of operation (remember, it was one of the first e-commerce companies, and it survived the dot-com bust that sent most others down the toilet), a willingness to operate on razor-thin margins and put off profit for another day, and a focus on world-class customer service. Even the Salon piece acknowledges that. The book-buying public loves Amazon, low prices and all (the dozens of comments on the Salon piece run in Amazon’s favor by a considerable margin), and authors and publishers who complain loudly about that fact nonetheless ignore it at their peril.

Frankly, I wonder why the publishers never (that I know of) attempted to file any complaints with the FTC over Amazon’s pricing practices. They certainly talked a good game about “predatory pricing” being an antitrust violation, but I never heard about even a rebuffed attempt from any major publisher to call the government’s attention to this. (Though maybe Bob Kohn did and they just ignored him, who knows?)

Instead, they got together and conspired to do something they knew darned well at the time was illegal (you don’t write things like “double delete this email” if you think you’re on the up-and-up)—and, ironically, Amazon ended up reporting them to the FTC and kicking off the government’s antitrust investigation. Could it be that they knew they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on regarding Amazon’s pricing practices?

The only thing I would really quibble with Bjarnason over is the way he closes the piece:

So, how do you beat Amazon? You don’t. You can’t beat a tiger at being a tiger. If you are afraid of a tiger, the only sensible strategy is to avoid it.

Stop selling books through Amazon. Raise your prices and sell direct, making sure to provide a world class service. But you’d have to make damn sure that your books are interesting because otherwise none of your readers will bother.

Fundamentally, I don’t think it would matter how interesting those books are. You’d still lose many or most of your potential audience, even if the books were dirt cheap and DRM-free. (Baen proved that.) For many or most Kindle owners, if you can’t push a button on your Kindle and buy it just like that, it doesn’t exist.

 
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