Bookshops VS Amazon


A Kindle is like a toaster; it only does one thing. And its sales seem to have hit the buffers. This is not because readers don’t like onscreen reading, but because multipurpose devices have taken over; we now read on phones and tablets too, and we listen on audio. The Kindle did what the iPod did for iTunes; it locked the product to the supplier. With multiple devices, we no longer wish to do that.

In the UK publishing hasn’t suffered the fate of other arts. Music and movies have moved to digital, but publishers have fought back to make physical books popular again. They’re attractive and offer value for money.

However, the business has suffered the same hollowing out as the rest. The big-hitters sell in volume, the great swathe of midlist authors has all but vanished, and the independents are keeping a niche market share beside self-published authors.

The villain here is Amazon, which is essentially an online Woolworths. It doesn’t care whether it sells books or shaving foam so long as it shifts a lot of units.

UK ebooks are cheaper than their US counterparts. Amazon has an explicit interest in pushing readers to low priced books where publishers can’t compete. It is (in a purely business sense) the enemy of the publisher and would suit them to have the publishers vanish so that self-published writers could supply their own product without a middleman. But there’s the problem; the majority of self-published books are of poor quality.

The book market is highly idiosyncratic. It’s resisted moves to subscription models and is often neglected in terms of media coverage, but earns around £3.5 billion p.a. – that’s four times more than the music trade. But a midlist decline due to discounting is limiting choice to safe, guaranteed bestsellers. Amazon has increased the competition using low prices, but has found that it’s impossible to have the kind of breakout hits that physical booksellers get. They like self-publishers because those authors have to pay for their own publicity.

In a physical bookstore we generate our own recommendations; we touch, open and decide on new books in a way that’s not happening on Amazon. Half of all bookshop purchases are first-time discoveries. But publishers can’t compete with cheap e-book prices because they’re making a physical product.

Can the 99p book from an amateur beat established authors?  They can make more money and get more control, but what does the reader get? Bookshops are a clearing house for quality, and most self-published authors don’t meet the criteria. Interestingly, romance, fantasy and SF authors benefit most from e-book only editions because some will write four books a year and establish a rudimentary fanbase. Not that Amazon has its own way all the time; its biggest expense is delivery, which remains a headache.

How do publishers keep their edge against a global giant? They need to form closer bonds with bookshops. Some have adapted to new technology while others still feel trapped in the distant past. They must rebuild the idea of reader loyalty and not go to war with self-publishing but learn from their world, creating more interesting spaces for books, getting books to shops quickly and easily. The book market is no longer just about reading but augmenting the experience. Print and digital are just delivery systems. It’s the words entering readers’ minds that matter.

And with Amazon now facing problems after Trump took to Twitter to accuse them of paying ‘little or no taxes to state and local governments’, there’s time for publishers to raise their game.

16 comments on “Bookshops VS Amazon”

  1. J. Folgard says:

    A bit off-topic here, but I just came back home with my paperback copy of Wild Chamber -I get them all in this format as my first B&M came in this form, and I still order them, a decade later, from a brick & mortar bookshop. Here’s to the upcoming ones and thanks for all those hours and years of brilliant reading, admin!

  2. Jan says:

    Here Mr. F don’t you use one of the Woolworths of the web tablets? I do

  3. Brooke says:

    While I enjoy a good rant, this post is sad. To Jan’s point, Amazon let’s me know that Hall of Mirrors will not be available in the US until late December 2018, although I can purchase it now through Amazon UK or re-sellers in Germany. That’s on you, your publisher and your agent–not Amazon.

    Amazon is not a “publisher.” It’s a global supply chain/distribution/mechanism– its profit comes from technology sales, e.g. cloud applications. Sensible publishers know how to use Amazon’s platform for sectors where they make real money–like text book publishing and distribution.

    Fact check– Amazon pays sales taxes in US states where sales tax is required. And Amazon uses the US Postal Service — which Mr. Trump claims Amazon has damaged.

    Big bad Amazon, providing low-cost convenient services, providing email, music streaming, audio books, access to BBC and local stations whenever and where ever I am through one little portable device. Of all the nerve, they let me sample text before I buy. And what’s really annoying? I can find and buy rare books that local bookstores can’t afford to carry in inventory–e.g. The Soho Devil.

  4. SteveB says:

    Just some random thoughts

    The question is, will books go the way of music, where you get a few big winners (pretty much at random) and everyone else struggles along, ‘commoditised’ at 99p. The record labels and the publishers have similar challenges. Can a band or an author find an audience and cut the publisher out? But maybe, without an editor the books or music would be less good.

    The media became a bit like an ocean of omnipresent sound and vision, where random blips in social networks create a few big winners.

    Actually, the only hardback fiction I still regularly buy are Chris’s books. Almost all other fiction I buy as ebooks, it’s once or twice a year I really like a book and decide I want a ‘real’ copy on my shelf. I find with nonfiction it can be more hard to concentrate on an ebook because I need to read non-fiction more non-linearly.

    I must admit use physical bookshops mainly to browse and I check the price which nearly always means I buy online.

    And for ebooks, I have a Kobo Aura One. I very much prefer the eink screen for reading than a glowing tablet screen. I mean, I can read on a tablet or my phone, but the eink is very much easier for long term reading.

  5. Tony Walker says:

    I use an iPad to read ebooks, simply because, when I travel, I like to have plenty of reading material. As a speed reader, I used to have to take at least three books on a transatlantic flight.

    Still prefer the look, feels, and smell of a real book, though.

  6. Jan says:

    The only thing I can say (because believe it or not i have never in my life made an online purchase I know – dinosaur) I have been told Amazon r pretty awful to work for. Dire in fact. Scant respect for their employees + contractors.

    But I would imagine this will be one of the first big concerns where humans disappear completely from the loop. Apart from van driving till they employ flying and van driving drones I suppose!

    Incidentally Amazon and similar gigantic warehouses have moved at some speed into the massive transport hub growing around the Mancheser Ship canal in Barton greater Manchester – or more specifically Salford. This canal was busy all the time when I was a little kid. You used to be able to see the boats at the end of our street just on the other side of the Liverpool Road. Lying in bed at night when it was foggy (This was Manchester remember it was often foggy!) I could hear the deep reverberations of the horns on the cargo ships. Then as the 1970s began the canal was practically defunct. In the late 1990s early 2000s some genius at a university somewhere twigged it was actually cheaper to move goods via the Ship Canal than by road. Now my hometown and the Manchester mosses that surround it on three sides – the 4th side being the Canal – are on the edge of deep and profound change. A massive container port is planned. New roads and rail connections are going in. This will be apparent tourney most “connected” part of the UK.

    I suppose that’s the thing that it’s easy to forget as the Industrial revolution morphs into another phase is that it is by no means over.

    Steve B wots an eink screen?

  7. Jan says:

    Sorry should read this will apparently be the most “connected ” part of the UK.

    Ruddy spellchecker arse thing

  8. Peter Tromans says:

    LOML and I use Amazon. We buy things from them that we can’t find elsewhere. We have an Amazon Fire stick as it is the best way we’ve found for streaming TV. We watch a little Amazon Prime TV.

    Our priorities for buying books go in the order Blackwell’s, Waterstones (especially Torrington Pl.), Oxfam, Foyles, … others … Abe, and last resort Amazon.

    Quite often, Blackwell’s are cheaper than Amazon (especially if you qualify for a discount, for which there are several possibilities such as you happen to have graduated from or worked for one of our leading universities). The bookshop on the Broad in Oxford has a wonderful atmosphere, the most helpful staff, an excellent stock and a very good Caffe Nero. What more could I ask for?

    And we read books only when they are printed on paper. Due to lack of space, we are very disciplined about waiting for paperback versions – which can be quite a painful wait.

  9. diana says:

    I live in South Africa where bookstores simply do not carry as many books as I have seen book shops in the UK do. We also pay tax on books adding to the cost. If I did not have a kindle and access to Amazon I could not read a fraction of the books I am lucky enough to read. Oh I would prefer the physical book and still own shelves and shelves of those but there you go! If wishes….

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Steve B:I hope you won’t bemoan the loss of bricks and mortar bookstores when they go under due to “customers” browsing, checking prices and shopping on line. Stores have building rent – on the high street, not in the industrial area – higher staff salaries per sale, and all the associated expenses connected with an actual business. On-line is able to reduce those costs considerably, hence the lower prices.
    Never thought I’d be defending Amazon, but that’s where I get my “real” B&M within a couple of weeks of release date. Once I realized the American version is not identical to the UK I determined to order from there solely. I should speak to the local shops, though, and see what would happen if I ordered that way.

  11. admin says:

    An interesting thread – I have no personal issue with Amazon (as I pointed out, they’re seen as villains in a purely business sense) but having had meetings with them I know what they’re trying to do, which is remove publishers from their business model. They’re a distributor, nothing more.
    But by cutting deals with amateurs to replace professionals and only promoting surefire hits they’ve hollowed out the middle ground; it’s a well-documented problem created by Amazon. My research for the article was taken from an extensive, impartial and insanely complex data survey which I analysed over a number of weeks.

  12. Jo W says:

    My name is Jo and I use Amazon! There I’ve said it. I am not ashamed though. I make use of their services to source books of ‘forgotten’ authors,long out of print and most unlikely ever to be found in charity shops(only ones of the airport size books). I have had books come to me from Seattle, Wells (Maine), Weymouth and Margate.
    I have also found many of your books this way,Christopher. 😉

  13. Jan says:

    Weird thing is about Amazon (4 all its faults) is that I know quite a few people writing about stuff in the Earth Mysteries field who self publish. Well to say it politely some of its stuff is …..well extremely eccentric. Amazon has sort of opened things up for them. Made it far easier to widen their audience of fellow nutters. Strange that this behemoth of a firm has actually given much greater access to very niche stuff. This must be happening in all fields. Strange isn’t it that every technical step onward has totally unexpected side effects.

  14. Peter Tromans says:

    You do all know that many of the bricks and mortar book shops also have online operations. You can have all the convenience of the interweb and still support real shops!

  15. Eliz Amber says:

    I’ve simply run out of space for physical books, and while there are many I might read and donate, others I like to keep for future reference. (Of course, that future is dependent upon Amazon remaining in business – if it’s a classic, I’ll often buy both the e-book and the physical book.) I also like the ability to open the book on my PC and copy and paste a quote – I’m active in Tolkien communities, and the ability to highlight and search the text is terribly useful. Most of the History of Middle Earth is not on Kindle yet, and I’ve spent ages looking for that one reference I need. (Plus, they are literally falling apart. Half of ‘Morgoth’s Ring’ keeps ending up in ‘The Peoples of Middle Earth’. Arthur’s got nothing on me when it comes to Tolkien.)

    I’ve got to the point that I hate to read a print book – it’s hard to hold on the train or read while I’m eating lunch. (On the other hand, my cats can’t turn the pages of a real book.) And I know I’ve read more since I got my Kindle than I did before – a lot more, actually. (If I’d read 700 physical books since 2012, you wouldn’t be able to get in my doorway.) I found Bryant and May when I was looking for fiction set during the Blitz. Of course, I could have searched at home on my computer, but then I’d have to hope the Tattered Cover had it, and if not, wait for them to order it. Only when it finally arrived would I be able to read the first chapter and decide whether I wanted to read the book. In that case, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Instead, I threw in search terms ‘London’ and ‘Blitz’ and narrowed the category to mysteries, read the sample, and fell in love with a new (to me) author.

  16. John Griffin says:

    I have a simple rule, fiction on Kindle unless collected (as Mr Fowler’s non-horror oeuvre is), non-fiction in book form unless trivia.

Comments are closed.