The questions over what the industry can do, or not do about Amazon’s dominance, were raised yet again last week. It was first sparked first by Barnes and Noble's declining interest and funding of its Nook venture, then we had Sony shutting up it US store and handing the keys to Kobo as it battles with many greater corporate issues, then came Kobo itself filing objections to a Competition Bureau agreement impelling four of the biggest publishers operating in Canada to renegotiate their contracts with ebook retailers and finally by an article by Jane Friedman in which she raises the new Amazon policy to drop its escalating royalty rate of 50%-90% on ACX titles sold exclusively to a non-escalating 40% and audiobooks distributed non-exclusively to a non-escalating rate of 25%.
The Kobo filing claims that prior to the Canadian adoption of the agency model it had been ‘losing millions of dollars per year” under wholesale terms and also that when, ‘In the U.S., when Agency Lite was brought into existence, Kobo saw its net revenues steadily decline. Kobo has since stopped investing in marketing in the U.S., closed its office in Chicago and is focusing on other markets. Its market share and revenues are now negligible there.’
The result of these announcements was to further fuel the debate on Amazon and its dominance of the marketplace in both ebooks, audio and the huge US market. It would be wrong to believe that they can be beaten on discounts, as the only winner in a discount war is the consumer and the one with the strongest nerve and deepest pockets. Wishing for a white knight may have been feasible ten years ago, but today it isn’t going to happen and no start-up is going to suddenly change that. Apple is tied to its own Appleworld and will never venture out into Android land, Google, well they may have scanned everything that has been printed, but please be careful what you wish for. Amazon has effectively woven itself into the publishing DNA and is not just at the consumer end but right across the value chain.
We have harped on about books being different till the cows have come home, been milked and gone back to pasture. Yes, books are different, but interestingly ebooks aren’t that different and maybe that’s where we often loose the thread. We have now to accept that we don’t live in a book centric world and that the larger media and home entertainment umbrella has several component strands. Books is the baby among several stronger digital sectors and the networks today are the gorillas.
We are fast becoming the one sector that still is DRM obsessed, sell through orientated and like King Cunute think we can stop the digital tide sweeping over us. Only last week it was widely reported that the majority of books on our shelves are unread and a recent US poll suggests that some 25% of US citizens didn't read a book in 2013. We continue to think ebooks are just books in a digital container and in doing so we kid ourselves, confuse many and potentially miss the opportunities.
Amazon watches, learns, then acts and changes consumer behaviour in ways that many in the book industry have failed to grasp. At a basic level they offer, used books, marketplace, KDP, Goodreads, Book Depository, publishing, audiobooks, self publishing, on-demand and that is without its other media and technology arms. Just think it was just a little old internet shop in 1995, which right up to the turn of the century many predicted it would not survive. This last week they started to roll out their fresh food delivery service in the US and it is widely predicted it will soon come to Europe and some are already trying to protect the giant supermarkets, who ironically, have been often demonised for their destruction of the High Street.
The Amazon is a huge river that is fed by many large tributaries and supports many ecosystems and is very important to the ecology of the world. Amazon the business is now no different.
We have to analyse and think differently just punching the biggest kid in the schoolyard is futile and you just get hurt. Amazon’s weakness and its strength maybe is that it acts as a lone wolf. Some would suggest that It often buys to take out the competitive threat, or like with its audio market purchases, sets out to quietly corner the market.
Yes publishers need to develop their own direct business,but apart from the few this isn’t going to be a major channel to market, is only aimed at the consumer end and some would suggest is too little too late. Niche players may carve out a healthy living but the minute they get on the radar they are themselves vulnerable.
So where is the answer? It is almost certainly not within the book market by itself. Amazon crosses other media sectors and is competing for a strong position in many but it is a lone wolf. It rarely hunts in packs. It may have a federal approach to those it owns, but it retains a tight strategy grip over them. Perhaps its strength is its weakness? Perhaps a joint ventures that cut across current boundaries and create something that is not easily replicated is the answer. Last week we wrote about Nubico and although that is not necessarily the answer it starts to point in the right direction. People belong to very large subscription bases who all face threats and an everchanging power struggle. Lining up the ducks may appear hard today but if they create something of real value then maybe, just maybe there is an alternative.