The Work

Why Amazon Will Be the Good Guy

Let’s start with the concept of “bookishness“. The desire for reading, for making books universally available – the passion for the book itself (however “book” is defined).

Now let’s back up.

In the late 1990s, the American Booksellers Association sued Barnes & Noble and Borders over what they felt were unfair trade practices. Basically, B&N and Borders could command better terms from publishers than independent bookstores could; consequently, the chains could sell books at lower prices. B&N was the king of the discount. And for “bookish” folks, this was a source of friction – the cheapening of books made them seem commoditized, and our beloved independent bookstores were going out of business, diminishing the communities they were in.

Now Borders doesn’t exist at all, and B&N is seen in a much kinder light. A purveyor of massive numbers of books, some discounted, some not; host to community events, storytime, author signings. B&N is – when compared to other outlets such as Costco, Target, Wal-Mart, the drugstore – sufficiently “bookish”. Because their main business is books.

Amazon has been regarded as less than entirely “bookish” since its inception, when Bezos made it clear that books were just the beginning (and only because books were the easiest products to build a store around). The arguments over pricing are very similar to the ABA/chain arguments of the ’90s, and booksellers (Borders, specifically) are collapsing. (B&N is frantically searching the ice, looking for where the puck is going to be.)

But as the market evolves, Amazon is becoming a home for readers. There is so much for readers to do on Amazon – so much book-related content for them to peruse before buying. Yes, Amazon also sells lawn chairs. Yesterday, in fact, I received in a single shipment an order that really summed Amazon up for me: power adapters and underwear.

But we have to ask ourselves, with the collapse of physical retail for books, which company will book suppliers want to deal with most? Just as iTunes supplanted record stores, Amazon is supplanting bookstores. Of all the bookselling options out there, only the remaining indie bookstores and B&N are more “bookish”. Should they eventually collapse (or transform or get sold), Amazon will be the most bookish place for readers to go to buy books.

Which means that publishers will be even more highly dependent on it – Amazon will be where publishers are making the bulk of their sales.

And when any company is generating the bulk of sales for publishers, they are by definition “the good guys”.

It’ll happen.

16 thoughts on “Why Amazon Will Be the Good Guy

  1. Hi Linda. I like your thinking here but as I consider my own experience I have to say I disagree. I’ll admit that I eventually felt B&N were reasonably “good guys” but that’s only because Borders was right there giving them serious competition. For the most part, one kept the other honest. The difference today is that the market share Amazon has accumulated, especially with ebooks, has left them with no serious competitor. That situation concerns me much more than the superstore growth did back in the 90’s.

    I guess that shows I’m less concerned about a duopoly than a monopoly. 🙂

  2. Laura. Linda’s my evil twin. 😉

    I see what you’re saying – remember when B&N started publishing, as well, and acquired Sterling? The hue and cry was pretty extreme. Amazon definitely gives better terms to those authors/publishers who use CreateSpace over Lightning Source. The parallels are too stark not to notice.

    I guess what I could have appended (and maybe I still will) is that whoever DOES compete with Amazon is going to make B&N look like professors in tweed jackets. Amazon’s main competitors are not looking at the book industry at all. THAT is a bigger concern to me than a monopoly, even.

    1. Doh. Sorry about that, Laura. I was trying to do 3 different things at the same time when I wrote that reply. You’re right about the B&N/Sterling days. I almost forgot about that era, how those titles often got premium placement in the stores, etc. I guess since Borders always remained a strong #2 I never worried like I do today. There is no strong #2 in today’s ebook world.

      And again, a thousand apologies for making that stupid mistake with your name. Feel free to call me John instead. 🙂

      1. Everyone calls me Linda! So no worries – I am seriously considering changing my name.

        There isn’t a #2 in today’s ebook world…yet. I would not dismiss the possibility of that #2 coming from outside the US.

  3. Interesting point about a viable #2 coming from outside the U.S. Is there anyone in particular you feel has a good chance of becoming that #2 player?

  4. I don’t think an Amazon-only business model is feasible for anyone. What about the publishers who have sales reps who deal with independents, chains, B&N, Hastings, Follett, etc? Do they get laid off? What about the marketers who deal with hands on business? Needing to work with changes in the market is an obvious must, but competition is a good thing. It keeps people employed, the market lively, etc. Amazon is not the good guy if it’s the ONLY guy – those things aren’t the same thing.

    1. Yeah, not saying that Amazon is going to be the only guy. As per my comments to Joe Wikert, I think we need to look in unexpected places for their competition. And that competition will be uglier for the book industry than Amazon is.

      1. I seem to recall seeing somewhere that Amazon command 60% of ebook sales. I agree that there’s no strong number two yet, but I think we’re a long way from monopoly.

        Personally I think Amazon are ruthless, even brutal in their attempts to succeed. But they’re certainly no evil empire. And I’m sure most readers already think they’re the good guys!

  5. Hi Laura. I have a couple of quibbles…

    “…with the collapse of physical retail for books, which company will book suppliers want to deal with most?”. The traditional publishers won’t want to deal with Amazon, they will be forced.

    ‘And when any company is generating the bulk of sales for publishers, they are by definition “the good guys”.’ I don’t believe the publishers will ever view Amazon as the good guys. They will view them as a necessary evil. No business wants to in effect be held hostage by another, having no other viable distribution channel. That leaves them in a weak position, with little negotiating power. They may have no choice, but they will never view it as desirable.

    I do believe that Amazon are the good guys in all of this, because they improve the economic well-being of both the authors and the readers. But I don’t expect the traditional publishers to ever adopt this point of view.

  6. A very nicely nuanced reconsideration.

    As I’ve been putting most of my energy of late into the particular case of B&N it’s been very interesting to watch the particular transformation of Len Riggio from Dr. Evil to PW’s “Person” of the Year.

    Until B&N became “last man standing” in the rough seas of retail bookselling the company was routinely reviled year after year, starting in the 1980s.

    Barnes & Noble along with all other large chain store operations in the U.S. and abroad represented the disruptive force that changed bookselling from a dignified, effete, and, yes, quite snobbish trade, into a modern retail business, like most others. Indeed Riggio himself has frequently noted that if his first job had been in a hardware store rather than a bookstore he’d be Home Hardware today.

    Effete snobbishness is still very much part of the cultural of writing and publishing, and Amazon is slowly morphing its book operation into a more traditional style of publishing and retail. This bookish aspect deserves close consideration. We’ve got plenty of nasty things we can say about Amazon but must never forget the very positive and innovative moves the company has made. For better or worse, Amazon is this generation’s disruptive pioneer (as you note essentially without real competition online), just as B&N and Borders were in their day.

    I believe that the only reason we’re feeling a little torn in our hearts about Barnes and Noble these days is not their bookishness it’s their apparent imminent demise. If they were whupping Amazon’s ass by more rigorously practicing the same predatory business practices as the Warlords of Seattle we’d all feel a different sentiment for “America’s Favorite Bookseller” (as B. Dalton labeled itself before being swallowed whole by Barnes & Noble in 1986 using financing from Michael Milken’s junk bonds).

    1. One could argue that this is a normal state of affairs for indies. What makes Amazon’s precedence different to an indie than B&N’s was in the 90s?

      Which is interesting…I may have more thoughts on this tomorrow.

      1. Before Amazon I don’t think there was any indie publishing, except for vanity presses, and I don’t think B&N (or Borders or any other book stores) would carry any of them. Now that the self-pub genie is out of the bottle, I don’t think there’s any stuffing it back in. Especially with e-books, it’s simply too easy to set up a competitor.

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