Amazon hegemony • 14 October 2011 • The SnowBlog

Amazon hegemony


not a scary picture

I think the e-book debate is over. All those who said that paper books smelled better and were safer to read in the bath turned out to have underestimated the appeal of the new technology. Of course paper books will never die (nor would I want them too) and they won't even seriously wane in lots of areas until e-book technology greatly improves. But in the meantime e-books are taking whopping great slices of the text-only publishing pie (and that's at a time when they're still doing lots wrong and everything else badly. See my previous post.) The ease with which it's now possible to buy a book is incredible. In fact I think I would characterise my most recent purchases as 'blithe'. You see an Amazon link to a book. Click once to go to Amazon. Click twice to select the Kindle version. Click thrice to 'Buy now with 1-Click'. Now open your Kindle (either the app or the device) and wait for the book to load. It's rare for that whole process to take more than a minute - and despite what the reactionaries say, not only can you read e-books in the bath, it's pretty easy to buy them when you're there too. I speak from experience. There's just one thing wrong in all of this: it's all Amazon. I thought the Kindle app was horrible until I tried the Kobo offering. It's perversely bad (I kept activating confusing features by accident and when I clicked on a footnote I lost my place in the book). Though it wouldn't make any difference if it were brilliant. Everyone has an Amazon account and when you think e-books, you probably think 'Kindle'. I saw on a friend's Twitter feed that WHSmiths are just about to start selling Kobo readers. Does anyone think this amounts to hitching your wagon to a star? I mean if WHSmiths are partnering with Kobo I take that as a bad omen for Kobo. (My personal belief is that WHSmiths are so badly run they're sometimes a danger to their suppliers.) 'Positive feedback' is that phenomenon where the more you have the more you can get and it applies to Amazon in the book arena. It's about things like economies of scale, critical mass, being the six-hundred pound gorilla at the table. Put it like this: as a reader, why wouldn't you buy your e-books from Amazon? It's the obvious - and I would say the best - choice. But pretty soon Amazon will completely dominate the e-book market - and the e-book market will dominate much of publishing (Amazon can also look forward to a rising share of the paper book market each time a conventional book chain goes bust). And that won't be good because Amazon have a history of playing rough and fighting dirty. If they achieve effective monopoly, they'll want to take the lion's share of the profits available to the book supply chain. Prepare to be squeezed. I don't know what can be done about it because we've left it extremely late to start fighting back. Maybe Apple could do it if they got serious about their not-very-impressive iBooks platform (though, interestingly, Newsstand may well make them a force to be reckoned with in periodicals). Maybe Google could do it if they had a compelling reason to (book vending is not really where anyone's dreams of avarice lead them). But I don't know what the rest of us can achieve. Sorry to be gloomy about this, but I don't currently see a solution. Publishers refusing to sell to Amazon, or collectively negotiating terms, would only make a dent if most of us did it (and that sort of feels like fighting anti-competitive ends with anti-competitive means), plus we'd really need to get started on that in about 2006. Anyone got any differing views on whether that's where we're headed or what we might be able to do about it?


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