On the occasion of its 20th birthday, The Bookseller would like to wish Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos many happy returns. Amazon is a remarkable business led by a remarkable visionary. He may not acknowledge it but Bezos is the natural heir to people such as Sir Allen Lane and Tim Waterstone, who revolutionised the business of reading. Yet unlike Lane or Waterstone, Bezos has done it twice: for that, he is unparalleled.
The Bookseller last interviewed Bezos back in 1997, when the publisher Gwyn Headley met him. Bezos predicted then that the internet would create a global market, leading to the advent of a large number of small players and then a small number of large players, led, he said, by Amazon. Bezos also explained how the internet would enhance our ability to know customers: “In the future we’re going to have books finding readers rather than readers finding books. The great retailers have always been able to understand their stock, but have not been able to understand their customers’ needs—until now.”
One day, we will realise that Amazon has been a victim of its own success: even in 1997 Bezos admitted that it was using shareholder/investor cash to fund customer acquisition—a strategy that Amazon is still hooked on.“We’re funding the customer’s purchasing power,” Bezos told us. The trick he has pulled off again and again is to convince investors to go along with this, a pyramid scheme that can last only as long as the cash is piled back in. Back in the day Bezos said the company was sowing seeds.“It would be short-sighted to harvest now.” If investors realise this time can never come, it may prove to be the company’s fatal flaw.
Of course, part of the extraordinary story of Amazon is the extraordinary antipathy it generates within the indigenous communities it came into. The UK Booksellers Association has compiled a dossier of practices it regards as abuses that follow from the company’s undeniable market dominance; the European Commission is investigating its e-book business; in the US, the Authors United group has allied itself with the American Booksellers Association, the Authors Guild and Association of Authors’ Representatives to call for a Department of Justice investigation. Some excuse what are legitimate concerns about the way Amazon has developed as a story of disruption, a line of thought they pursue with distasteful relish. But a trade that can nurture books such as Go Set a Watchman and turn them into To Kill a Mockingbird is not so easily made obsolete.
Twenty years is too soon to judge Amazon, but a toast on its birthday should take into account those who make Bezos’ vision real, as well as those who resist it.