You’re in a bookstore, looking for a copy of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. You ask the bookseller, and she checks stock levels. They’re currently out of stock, as this book isn’t a perennial bestseller. Do you;
a) Get the bookseller to order it in for you. Delivery time: 2-3 weeks.
b) Have the bookseller get it sent to you directly from the publisher. Delivery time: 48hrs.
c) Buy the book online in digital format. Delivery time: seconds.
Imagine the recent incursion of Amazon.com.au as a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Who is the villain? Is it Amazon, the giant tax-dodging retailer from the US, moving into Australian territory with disintermediation and predatory business practice? The big publishers, only concerned about profit? Perhaps it’s bricks and mortar booksellers, unwilling to adapt to the new digital regime. Or is it someone else? Have you abandoned the old faithful community hub of the local bookstore for cheaper, more convenient books in the digital realm? Perhaps you, dear reader, are the villain.
If you chose option b, you’re quite the savvy consumer. Thorpe Bowker has only recently introduced a service to circumvent the consumer’s flight to the convenience of online shopping, allowing Australian bookstores to have books delivered from the publisher’s warehouse directly to the consumer within 48 hours.
During the keynote address at the recent Independent Publishers Conference, publishing insider Michael Webster expressed amazement that students who want a career in the local book industry buy books from Amazon. “A company about which I have a view,” Webster said, smiling wryly and letting his words hang in the air, provoking laughter from the assembled book industry folk.
To the average consumer, the news that amazon.com.au launched last week is good, if insignificant. Amazon is merely one of the countless digital benefits of modern life – one-click convenient entertainment. But to the book industry establishment, the new incursion by the retail monopsony feels like another nail in the coffin of the local publishing scene.
Webster’s and indeed most of the traditional book industry’s views on Amazon are coloured by the ideological shift that Amazon represents. It is not merely about changing content delivery systems, but about the evolution of reading and book culture.
Amazon is the largest online retailer globally, and it got to be that way because of books. Jeff Bezos started Amazon in 1994 after identifying a market that was poorly managed by traditional stakeholders, and made it more convenient for consumers to access the products they wanted. Early investment in the Kindle platform, consisting of ereading devices, tablets, and apps, took foresight that was lacking in the traditional book industry and helped Amazon come to dominate the ebook market worldwide. In Australia, it currently represents an estimated 65% of ebooks sold.
There are whispers that Amazon are also working on bringing in many services previously unavailable to Australian consumers, like access to audiobook service Audible, and with it Whispersync for Voice (you know how you can sync your ebook reading between your Kindle and the Kindle app on your phone? This allows you to do it between an ebook and the audiobook) and Amazon Prime to the Australian store within the next year.
Amazon is good for book publishing because it is good for readers. “Amazon isn’t bad. Amazon is good because the customer likes them,” said Malcolm Neil, Australian representative for rival online bookseller Kobo, during a discussion on the problem Amazon poses for the local book industry. It makes it as easy as possible to find and buy books, whether through algorithmic recommendation or by simply having the book a reader is searching for available to buy whenever and wherever.
The book industry needs to stop complaining about Amazon and follow their lead.
Anne Treasure is a recent survivor of the book industry.