The Giant Flea-Market of Books called Amazon

Many will say that Amazon is the evil empire of publishing. They’re not. As I continue to mull over and discuss the industry here in order to refine my views on things, I am attempting to clarify, in my head at least, exactly where I stand on things and ultimately get a clearer understanding of the ever-changing landscape of the industry. Hopefully, I give readers here things to think about as well.

Amazon and particularly, Jeff Bezos, has a very definite view regarding publishing. This view is rather diametrically opposed to traditional publishing modes of business. They saw a future with digital reading that presented an opportunity. The key word here is reading, not publishing. They envisioned a future where readers consumed their literature digitally, and saw in themselves an ability to create in infrastructure that maximized this possibility.  They saw an industry that was closed off to the bulk of the producers (writers), and thus a virtually untapped resource for them to provide an avenue to produce. Of course, they desired to be the ones to give them this avenue.

Amazon had the tech and resources to create the new book experience for readers. It’s pretty simple in theory really. Create the infrastructure for producers and consumers to meet on a common field and be the one to capitalize on running this giant, open market. If you think how small, open markets work, like say a flea market, you have individual producers who sell their goods, competing against other individuals, and consumers are free to buy from whomever they choose. A larger company oversees the venue and charges the producer for the opportunity to sell their wares.

Amazon is the company overseeing the world’s largest book flea market. Their venue is the best space for writers to ply their wares and gives them the best opportunity to find success. Come one, come all. They’re open to everyone.  Publishers are welcome, but they get to pay more for the privilege of setting up shop. Publishers are the big companies that sweep up what they feel is the best product, offering less money to the producer but providing access to a broader market. Think of the flea marketer who sells their product to a company so that their product can be found in bigger, brand name stores. This obviously works for a few.

Using this analogy some more, Amazon is creating such a grand scale market,  that consumers are flocking to it over the name brand stores. The flea market vendors are seeing more and more opportunity to sell their wares and be successful. Brand name producers are seeing the fact that more and more consumers are shopping here, so they are setting up shop. Amazon wants to keep building on this strength of venue, so they’re going to keep making it more difficult for the big names to set up shop. Given unlimited space, they want to capitalize on getting the bulk of the producers to sell in their space. This doesn’t make them inherently evil. They have a vision and they’re smart and they have resources. I can complain about their tactics in relation to the company sellers, i.e. publishers, but it’s not wrong.

There are of course inherent problems with any system. From a consumer standpoint, the larger the store, the more difficult it is to find things. Products you might want are never found simply because you miss that part of the store. One only has so much time to browse the wares. The producers get lost in the aisles. High traffic areas garner the sales, much like any store. What makes Amazon feel so “sinister” in all of this is that none of this element really matters to them. They make money purely off consumers buying the product, and fortunately for them, this flea market sits in the middle of a much larger mall offer goods and services they make even more money from.

It’s a very enticing arrangement. All producers are welcome to set up their stall. They just want the commission from whatever you sell. Don’t sell? It’s ok too, because the space costs nothing for the producer. And consumers couldn’t be happier. Amazon gives them the biggest, cheapest possible selection, and a convenient method through which to purchase as much of it as they want. It’s up to them to find what they want, and Amazon will tell them what’s selling well, but otherwise, go find it. From a consumer standpoint, and this is who they are concerned with, it’s brilliant.

Like any industry that finds itself in the position of having all producers able to bring their goods to market, those who relied on being the ones to bring the product to market, are suddenly at a huge disadvantage.  It’s a system breakdown. They were in business because the producers could not before get their goods to the consumers in any meaningful, economical way. Their notion of business was to cull the best products and present them to the consumer base. The growth of digital has subverted this or is in the process of doing so and will get there in the near future. There is nothing wrong with this subversion process in and of itself. It’s up to the former businesses to figure out how to deal with the new mode of consumerism in relation to their industry.

So, what do you do as a business when someone comes up with a way to give the producers of the product you sell a method for selling direct and at a cost you can’t compete with? Well, you  can do what publishers have been trying to do, which is fight the new method and make it so your prices can’t be undercut, but this is a waste of resources and counter productive. It smacks in the face of consumer perception of how things should be, and you get problems like the DoJ suit. Or, you can take a more prudent, long term course of action, and see how you can improve on the method.

Publishers can’t fight the producers in this open market system. They have no viable method for undercutting their prices. Companies have lots of overhead and built-in costs. The flea-market stand has almost nothing. So, if you can’t fight the producers in that open market, you have two options. One is to offer the producer better terms for their product so that running the stand in the flea-market seems less prudent. The other is to build a better flea-market.

So, publishers, let’s get on this please. Better terms and conditions for my product or give me a better venue to sell it in. And don’t tell me there’s no way to do this, because in the end, there always is, even if it’s a painful one.

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5 responses to “The Giant Flea-Market of Books called Amazon

  1. It’s mind-boggling that the big publishers are so resistant to change. There are so many readers that love books from the big publishers, it would be easy for them to hire high-tech computer programmers to set up their own digital bookstores and run algorithms the way that Amazon does to find out what their customers want, offer them some sales and offer them things that Amazon doesn’t offer. The big publishing houses are resistant to change, but technology isn’t going to slow down for them to continue doing things the old-fashioned way. It just isn’t. Technology always moves forward.

    As a customer, once you get used to navigating Amazon’s bookstore, it’s very easy to find lots of incredible books at a wide variety of prices. The best part of the experience is being able to find well-written, award-winning indie and experimental books that don’t always adhere to cookie-cutter prescriptions on how books must be written. Young people have no difficulty whatsoever navigating the entire Internet to find popular web comics, blogs, videos, etc. Amazon is a much smaller marketplace than the entire web.

    As an author who’s been published many times by indie press and recently tried self-publishing a few novels and short stories through Amazon’s KDP Select program, I can tell you that my experience with Amazon has been nothing short of fantastic. :)

    • Oh, I agree with you on that end, Marilyn. It’s easy to publish there. Getting discovered is another issue of course, but that kind of goes without saying. I do hope they continue to refine how you find books. I think that still leaves something to be desired, as does their recommendation engine and review system. There are certainly ways publishers could go about handling the digital bookstore experience that could give them a leg up on Amazon. I’ll be curious to see how this Bookish thing is when they get that out there. If there’s one thing that could truly kill off Amazon’s market it would be if the big pubs all got together and created their own marketplace and refused to sell to Amazon. There’s still the issue of authors finding better terms on their own, which pubs will need to address too. Can’t publish books if authors aren’t submitting to you. Anyway, this all continues to fascinate me, and I’ll continue to blather on about it and refine/change my views. Like I always do. lol.

      • I’m finding all the discussions about Amazon on your blog fascinating! As things develop in the digital world, I think it’s important for writers to hold ongoing discussions about the sweeping changes. :)

  2. Right they’re not the evil empire… sure! I’ve been very happily buying books from bookdepository.com in the UK for a couple of years.. With shipping included it was always cheaper then Amazon here in the US. Amazon UK bought Bookdepository and now their prices including shipping are the same as Amazon in the US.

    You tell me that’s not the evil empire.

    • I did not know they’d bought out book depository. However, businesses buying out competing businesses or businesses to gain a position within another market, does make them evil per se. We can not like them doing things like this, and to be honest, I’m with ya there, I don’t like their business tactics with regard to their competition. Having craploads of cash is big bonus when trying to garner control of a market. And of course, long run, it all depends, for me anyway, on what their position with authors ends up being. If they gain market dominance and then start turning the tables on authors, then I’ll say what they’re doing is inherently wrong. If they’re smart though, and they seem to have been throughout, they’ll keep doing all they can to maintain their free, open market for writers, even with the problems that generates, because going into the future, I think that may be what dooms publishers the most.

      Anyway, my post here isn’t to present the idea that I love Amazon either. I don’t. I think they’re taking an idea for the future and blindly bulldozing everything in their path to get there. I hope publishers wise up and step out of the way and then figure out how to do it better.