Plenty more to come from Amazon
08.08.08 | Neill Denny
Abebooks, Audible and the Kindle: Amazon is on a roll. But as this bookselling superpower emerges, should we praise its success or fear its power?
The first and obvious point is that Amazon looks different depending on where you stand. For publishers, it has been a mixed blessing. On the plus side, it has been a prime mover in the emergence of the long tail: the deep, full-price backlist that is proving a slow-burn goldmine. For another, it has offered speed and flexibility to break authors and track customer demand. The ability to judge what readers will buy next based on previous purchases must have expanded the overall market. The logistical advantages of dealing with Amazon, dispatching all books to a single central point, are also not to be underestimated.
Yet the downside to publishers grows proportionately as Amazon expands. As it sells more books, it drives harder on terms. Every year it goes back to publishers for a little bit more: this year Hachette has pushed back, and a stand-off is under way. In some ways this is the normal warp and weft of commercial life, but there is an underlying fear that Amazon is a new type of retailer, that its demands for special treatment and favourable terms will never end. There is a sense of invincibility about Amazon, about how hard it is to compete against, about how history is on its side because it embodies the internet, and that makes publishers nervous.
For retailers, Amazon is undoubtedly a dangerous competitor. No bookshop can match its range and no retailer can match its customer knowledge. Indies, chains, supermarkets: in different ways, all have failed to compete effectively against Amazon for many years. Borders, Tesco, Blackwell, Waterstone all are now making strenuous efforts to compete online, but Amazon has defined the game and remains a country mile ahead. Perhaps only Play.com and The Book Depository are anywhere near Amazon in terms of cracking the web to sell books.
But for readers, more important ultimately than either publisher or retailer, Amazon has been an undoubted boon. Any home with a computer can potentially now have access to millions of books—it represents a broadening of intellectual horizons in just 10 years that is unprecedented. The web, if not Amazon, can’t be uninvented: retailers and publishers need to find ways to make it work for them or they will face an increasingly difficult future.