Amazon on a mission

First, a bit of background. It’s an issue relating to the USA, but with implications for the UK longer term. The issue is discounting, book discounting, changing the perception of what e-books and books are  worth.

Take dear old Tesco as a starting-point. Selling broccoli, not books. Selling broccoli as a loss reader damages the grower if he finds grower prices squeezed, but in time Tesco will move on to another product.  Amazon over in the USA, looking to build brand and sales for the Kindle e-reader (still not fully available in the UK), have a policy of discounting e-book prices ($9.95 max for bestsellers) which is intended for the long term, an attempt to establish a different price expectation for books among its audience, from which some serious implications follow.

It’s part of that wider argument about ‘free’, a world where content is offloaded on to the internet , with little or no money exchanging hands and no attempt to discriminate regarding the quality or value of the content.

There’s a test case at the moment. Amazon are at odds with US publisher Macmillan over Macmillan’s insistence on a $12.99 or $14.99 cover price for e-books, as opposed to Amazon’s loss-leading $9.99. Amazon’s immediate  response (from which it has now relented) was to withdraw all Macmillan e-books, and books, from the Amazon site. Amazon ended a letter to customers explaining why Macmillan books were not available as follows:  ‘Kindle is a business for Amazon, and it is also a mission. We never expected it to be easy! Thank you for being a customer.’ 

Now, tell me, why on earth should Amazon be on a mission? They imagine themselves, arrogating powers to themselves that no distributor should enjoy, as providing a direct link from author to publisher, downgrading the traditional selection and editorial functions, which have ensured the quality of books since the time of Gutenberg. If you assume the publisher as intermediary adds little by way of value, then indeed you can justify a price of $9.99. Because Amazon is selling books as loss leaders, below cost, the publisher still in the short term is making money, because his percentage is based on a notional higher retail price. But in the longer term a new lower price point will be established for books, which publishers won’t be able to budge. That clearly is Amazon’s aim, and a consequence also of Walmart’s discounting books at similar levels through its stores. 

The consequence: whether or not there’s an argument for the continuation of the publisher’s middleman role there won’t be enough money out of each transaction to support that role, and publishers as we know them will struggle to survive. What will we be left with? Authors scrabbling to get noticed, good and bad and mediocre pitched in against each other, with those shouting loudest getting the most attention. A few discerning blogs will probably pick up on good writing, but it will be by chance, because there will be no structure to ensure that it is the good writing that gets noticed. 

The recent Digital Book World conference began with a speech by Shiv Singh, ‘Global Social Media Lead for Razorfish’. Shiv thinks in terms of brands and social networks and authors linking directly with their public. To quote from his PowerPoint presentation: ‘They [authors] don’t need you [publishers] as much as they once did. Why? – They can connect to readers directly and build their own brands…’ 

Indeed, many authors now have their own websites and encourage reader responses, which they in turn respond to. Sounds good? No, it’s a pretty worrying scenario. Do we want authors who write what they think their readers want to read? There are a few internet savvy authors like Cory Doctorow who know how to play the internet, but that shouldn’t be a pre-requisite of an author. Good writers write because they have something to communicate, not to build a brand or reputation. No harm in a reputation, but it should be based on quality and integrity, not in an easy pleasing of the public.

What we’re talking about is a steady reduction of book content down to the level of the web: good, bad, ugly, mediocre all indiscriminately mixed in. Even if we imagine a few taste arbiters setting themselves up, and somehow managing to recognise quality in the mass of material out there, they can’t have an editorial role. Books will appear as raw, as unedited, as unverified, as shoddy as a typical blog. If culture is media then this doesn’t matter much. (And there’s a place for this kind of mass-market culture.) But if culture is what we aspire to, what educates and inspires us, allows us to fulfil ourselves as human beings, then it does matter, hugely.

One plus out of all this. Publishers will need to justify themselves, sharpen up, put their case, pare back the intellectual arrogance. Good writing, the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge itself are often seen as the perquisite of the few, and they don’t need to be. But nor should they be reduced to a lowest common denominator level as an easy way to a large audience. Leave that role to the internet, to blogs and posts and websites all clamouring for Google notice, and doing it very well. Books need to stand apart, and publishers to resist Amazon’s blandishments.

All power to Macmillan. Happily I hear today that Rupert Murdoch has also come out against Amazon’s pricing. No action yet from his publishing company, HarperCollins, but maybe that will come.

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