Nico Vreeland’s earlier post, which Teleread reprinted earlier, was one of many articles I have lately seen which explore the issue of the publishers versus Amazon. Is Amazon evil? Are their business practices ‘predatory’ and should publishers be trying to disable them? More and more, I am thinking the answer to these questions is no. Amazon is not evil. They have just figured out what the customers want better than anybody else has so far, and they are giving it to them. Vreeland points out, correctly, that customers don’t buy ‘Random House books’ or ‘Penguin Books.’ They buy Stephen King books or James Patterson books or whomever. If Patterson moved publishers, his loyal readers would follow him and most of them probably wouldn’t even know the difference.
Most of us understand that. Most of us recognize that while publishers can and do gain share when they cross-promote a new author to the fans of another, similar one. But for the most part, the author is more of a brand than the publisher is. But here is the missing link—the author is more of a brand than the STORE is too! When Amazon first launched in Canada, I remember how our national chain, Indigo, pitched an epic fit and tried to use protectionist Canadian laws to block them from doing business. What they failed to realize was that people didn’t want Amazon because they liked American companies better. They liked it because it was just a better website! Even now, years later, it STILL is a better website. It has more reviews than the Indigo main site, it has a better experience for casual browsers, it has emails and promotions, it has a bigger catalogue and so on. People wanted those features. If Indigo had provided them, people would have been just as happy to shop there.
It’s the same with ebooks. Amazon is just creating a better experience right now. I am a veteran of three other ebook stores, and I shop nearly exclusively at Amazon because I had needs, and these other stores failed to meet them. For example:
– I bought a book from eBookwise once when I had their device. Their DRM scheme was unusually restrictive though and once I learned that any book I bought could never be read on another device again, even one I might buy from them, that one book became the only book I bought. Contrast that to Amazon, who has software that lets me read across my computer, my iPad, my Kindle and my iPod and synchronize my notes and bookmarks between them. It’s just a better experience. If eBookwise could offer that experience, I might have stayed there.
– Fictionwise was my next bookstore. I liked their website interface, I liked their coupons and sales, I liked that I could filter by format, pay using loyalty points and maintain a wishlist. But the eReader format is clunky and not easily compatible with my current devices, and after agency pricing kicked in, their catalogue shrunk unconscionably. They do have (and continue to have) a wide selection of indie books, but since they do not allow sampling, it makes weeding out the bad ones near impossible. I spent too much money on books which were only so-so. Now, I buy from Amazon instead so I can sample first—and once I make my decision, it is one click to buy at once easily synchronize across my devices without side-loading.
– I bought from Kobo after Fictionwise went to the dogs. I liked their prices, and I liked their focus on Canadian content. I think they have made a very smart play by partnering with local chains and promoting local authors, and their software does allow cross-platform synccing like Amazon does. But their continued reluctance to implement oft-requested wishlist and shopping cart features makes shopping their website a little pokey, their search function is terrible, and their sampling is often limited to just the copyright page and table of contents. They don’t have reviews or a recommendation engine, their customer service has been outsourced and now is terrible, and they just can’t compete with Amazon on sheer website usability.
So, Amazon for me is not the evil overlord out to ruin us all. It’s the store that has—for now—earned my business by providing me with features that other vendors failed to provide for me. In all cases, these other stores could have kept my business if they had. For me, the decision to jump ship was not about name brand of the store or about liking Canadian businesses better than American ones, or wanting the publishers or authors to be out of business. And in the examples I cite above, it wasn’t even about price and who is undercutting whom. It was about the features, the useability and the customer experience. The way to beat Amazon is not to complain about how evil they are. It’s to build a better website. If you want to compete, compete! Build a better website. Nobody is stopping you.