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.