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Salmon: Is Amazon Bad for Publishers?

NEW YORK (Reuters Blogs) -- Duff McDonald has a wonderful review of Brad Stone's new book on Amazon --in the New York Times; he's a fantastic nonfiction book reviewer. There is one part of the review, however, which could do with a bit more explanation:

[CEO Jeff] Bezos does appear to revel in outwitting even his best partners. The publishing industry, for example, still doesn't quite know how it willingly gave him the sword with which he would slice off its head...

Publishers were shocked when he sandbagged them with $9.99 e-book pricing in 2007. Where had they been?

It's something of an article of faith, in book-publishing circles, that Amazon has been a Bad Thing for the book publishing industry. And certainly it is an article of faith in this review. (Authors, by contrast seem to have gotten more upset at Google than at Amazon.)

What I can't ever recall seeing, however, is a clear and concise encapsulation of the publishing industry's beef with Amazon. How is Bezos supposed to have sliced off their head?

I come at this from what might be an overly naive position. Firstly, and most obviously, Amazon has made it vastly easier to buy and to read books. Anybody with a smartphone, anybody with an internet connection, can now order any book in print, and get it delivered straight to their door, in any moment of enthusiasm. If they're even more impatient, or prefer e-books to physical books, they can even buy the book and start reading it in seconds. I can't see how that can possibly be anything but great news for the publishing industry.

McDonald makes it seem -- and I think he's right about this -- that the industry's main problem with Amazon is the fact that it discounts aggressively, and sometimes sells books (both physical and electronic) for less than the amount that it's charged by the publishers. In other words, it subsidizes book purchases, something any industry ought to embrace with open arms. And this industry thinks it some kind of mortal threat?

When e-books started being a real mass-market phenomenon, I do recall a reasonably recondite debate about consumer expectations. Amazon was selling those books at $9.99 apiece, which meant that it took a loss on every purchase, but which also meant that more people were buying them -- and, of course, were buying the devices on which to read them. This might have been nefarious if Amazon were making money on selling kindles, but it wasn't, it was selling those, too, at a loss. It just wanted to bring e-books to as many people as possible -- and was willing to make a substantial investment to do so.

The nay-sayers argued that once the public was conditioned into expecting e-books to be priced at $9.99, they would never pay more than that. The publishers didn't particularly want the first e-books to be sold at such a low price, but Amazon went ahead and implemented its loss-making policy anyway. Remember that Amazon's ultimate goal was to sell the maximum number of e-books, and, eventually, make lots of money by doing so. So this was just a dispute about short-term tactics: over the long term, the interests of Amazon and the publishers were aligned. (And frankly, Amazon is likely to always get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to "which company has the better sales tactics" questions.)

So here's my question: What's the argument that says Amazon has proved itself to be a mortal, existential threat to the publishing industry? It's not like Amazon has disintermediated publishers, allowing readers to buy millions of books directly from authors. There's a very small business along those lines, but I don't think that's what publishers are worried about.

The only argument I can think of is the one surrounding physical bookstores. The small, friendly, neighborhood bookstore lives on, romantically, in the minds of most authors, and indeed publishers as well. But customers didn't love them as much as book types did: that's why they ended up going to Barnes & Noble instead. And as a result, the number of booksellers declined significantly. Then, just as B&N stomped on the small booksellers, Amazon ended up stomping on B&N. Customers value convenience more than they do any real-world book-buying experience -- and while B&N was more convenient than the small stores, Amazon was more convenient than B&N.

The result is that there are fewer real-world triggers which remind us about how wonderful books can be. In a world with lots of small bookshops, you pass such things regularly, and even if you don't go in and buy something most of those times, at least you're reminded of their existence, and you nearly always have a good feeling about the store and its ambience. Just about every book reader thinks that bookstores are wonderful, magical places -- and, of course, that their contents are wonderful, magical things. As such, small booksellers were the best marketing devices that the publishing industry had. Not through anything they particularly did, so much as just by dint of their simple existence.

It's a bit like the secret to the continued success of The Economist: It puts a lot of effort into its covers, and those covers are featured prominently on pretty much every newsstand in the world. Even if you're a subscriber and never buy the magazine at a newsstand, seeing it so regularly in the real world is a great way of reminding you how much you like it. As a result, the next time you pick up your iPad, you're more likely to read The Economist, and therefore more likely to renew your subscription, when that time comes around. If the number of newsstands in the world fell substantially, that would hurt The Economist much more than its newsstand sales alone might suggest.

Similarly, a world where you'd see a Barnes & Noble in every shopping mall, where you'd see these monster bookstores by the side of every urban highway, was a world which was constantly reminding you of how many books there are, and of how popular those books are. After all, those bookstores were kept in business by a steady stream of book lovers coming in to buy books. In their own way, B&N stores were just as good an advertisement for books in general as were the small booksellers they replaced.

So while there are just as many media-based book discussions as there always were -- book reviews, book excerpts, talk shows, radio interviews, that kind of thing -- the real-world reminders of the book industry as a whole have definitely shrunk. There are still lots of ways we can find out about individual books that we might want to read -- and, thanks to Amazon, it has never been easier to order and read those books. But Amazon's size and reach isn't nearly as obvious as the networks of physical stores were -- especially since Amazon sells so many different types of things, the sight of an empty Amazon box doesn't make you think "books" any more. (Although, for historical reasons, the Amazon bookmark in my web browser still says "Amazon.com Books! Earth's Biggest Bookstore.")

Still, I don't think it's really fair for publishers to blame Amazon for the fact that people like to do their shopping online, and that easily digitizable content is going to exist mainly in a virtual world rather than the real world. Indeed, there's an argument that Amazon has saved the publishing industry from going the way of the record labels -- that it's made buying e-books so easy that the number of free pirated versions out there is still tiny. (Amazon has made it easier to find second-hand books, which publishers don't directly benefit from, but at the same time it's at the forefront of pushing e-books, which can't be resold after you've bought them. Net-net, let's call that one a wash.)

Publishers have always been conservative, and Amazon represents a massive change in their industry. What's more, the move from small booksellers to B&N to Amazon has been a move where the booksellers have ever-increasing amounts of leverage over the publishers. It's understandable that the publishers don't like that. But I just can't believe that Amazon is, or would ever want to be, an existential threat to the publishing industry.

-- Written by Felix Salmon in New York.

Read more of Felix's blogs at Reuters.

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