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End game

We all do things without really thinking through the long-term implications. It’s called the Law of Unforeseen Consequences, a concept popularised by sociologist Robert K Merton. History is littered with examples, and the Law of Unforeseen Consequences has been whipping through the UK book market ever since the collapse of the Net Book Agreement (NBA) in 1995.

As we all know, since 1995 the previously “cloistered” book industry has been space-invaded by larger and more aggressive retailers, including supermarkets. Coincidentally, at around the same time, the internet age was born—and now we have a large, growing and increasingly wilful teenager called Amazon trying to dictate the shape of the publishing landscape.

Publishers’ reactions have been predictable. They have striven to create their own websites and e-commerce engines to try to redress the balance. But if you think about this from a reader’s perspective, all the creation of hundreds of individual publisher sites has achieved is to actually help Amazon.

Let’s say a reader hears about a book from a friend and searches for the title on Google. If the publisher has some incredibly powerful content and the site has been made “super” search engine-friendly, the reader may see a listing in the first page of results. More than likely, however, this will never happen, as the publisher’s site is too small and will never have the “authority” and “ranking scores” needed to get on the first page of results.

But let’s continue with the scenario. Readers click the link and find a book site they like—and even add it to their cherished list of favourites. Then a couple of months later, when they are looking for another book, they revisit the site, realise they buy books by genres not by publisher, get cross and delete the site from their favourites. They quickly go back to using Amazon.

There is a solution to this. If publishers are serious about creating an online presence that has some real effect, they should work together to get closer to readers.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if readers could come to book websites and get all the incredibly rich content that most publisher sites have, together with genuine range? That way they’d know they could keep coming back to the site, confident that they would be spoilt for choice.

And wouldn’t it be even better if this site was connected to a reader’s local bookshop? It wouldn’t be easy to build this—but the best things never are.

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Absolutely. And if the strategy was a success then that would give small publishers a possibility of simply opting out of Amazon's stranglehold rather than reasoning (as we have always done so far): we'll get so many more sales if we supply Amazon that it is worth agreeing to whatever discount they dictate. So one publisher at least agrees with your analysis. Amazon's recent arm-twisting tactics might be just the stimulus we need to do something great together!

Connecting to a local bookstore would be marvelous, but it's bucking a trend that people now expect to buy online. What's really needed is a single one-stop online bookstore that's a cooperative, selling titles by all their member publishers and working for them.

Once established, it could also have alternative storefronts that'd resemble specialized neighborhood bookstores. A fan of 1950 sci-fi, for instance, could run a store that specialized in just those books. He'd attract readers with similar tastes and get a slice of the sales, something roughly similar to Amazon's Associates program.

I might add that, since this cooperative is run of by and for publishers, it could also track purchases by local bookstores. A store that stocks a particular book or books by a particular publisher could be listed as one way to get the book. Later, the cooperative could link to the inventory of local bookstores. The pull could be, "Why wait for it to come in the mail when you can find a copy two miles away?"

It would have a major advantage. For a publishers' cooperative, what matters is making the sale and not how that sale was made.

Absolutely. And if the strategy was a success then that would give small publishers a possibility of simply opting out of Amazon's stranglehold rather than reasoning (as we have always done so far): we'll get so many more sales if we supply Amazon that it is worth agreeing to whatever discount they dictate. So one publisher at least agrees with your analysis. Amazon's recent arm-twisting tactics might be just the stimulus we need to do something great together!

Connecting to a local bookstore would be marvelous, but it's bucking a trend that people now expect to buy online. What's really needed is a single one-stop online bookstore that's a cooperative, selling titles by all their member publishers and working for them.

Once established, it could also have alternative storefronts that'd resemble specialized neighborhood bookstores. A fan of 1950 sci-fi, for instance, could run a store that specialized in just those books. He'd attract readers with similar tastes and get a slice of the sales, something roughly similar to Amazon's Associates program.

I might add that, since this cooperative is run of by and for publishers, it could also track purchases by local bookstores. A store that stocks a particular book or books by a particular publisher could be listed as one way to get the book. Later, the cooperative could link to the inventory of local bookstores. The pull could be, "Why wait for it to come in the mail when you can find a copy two miles away?"

It would have a major advantage. For a publishers' cooperative, what matters is making the sale and not how that sale was made.