Yesterday, I heard some news that I initially found quite interesting, and then began to wonder why it wasn’t being talked up very much in my tweet stream of publishing folks. When the DoJ news came out, Twitter went all explodey on me, with articles and opinions all over the place. It has certainly made for some lively and interesting discussion. Personally, I’m still processing all of the information and what it does and could mean down the road for publishing. Yesterday, however, came the quiet by comparison news that Amazon had purchased the rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, to sell them in U.S. for the next ten years.
While this doesn’t seem like crazy news on the scale of the DoJ settlement, it instantly had me wondering, “how did this happen?” Was there a bidding war? Was Amazon’s publishing arm talking with the rights holders behind the scenes? Did publishers not believe Amazon could/would do this and just ignored the possibility? I’d be very curious to hear how this whole deal played out. It’s not the first time Amazon has done this nor will it be the last. They recently purchased the rights to crime writer Ed McBain’s work (35 of his novels anyway). So, I expect that Amazon will continue to go after reprint rights for many authors in the years to come.
Why would the bother doing this? The books are already for sale in their store. To me, at least, this seems pretty simple. Here are books with a built-in audience base, and in the case of Fleming’s work, they have been selling for $9.99 on the kindle. By today’s standards, kind of pricey for a reprint title, but Bond is popular, and likely commands a premium price. I don’t know what McBain titles sold for prior to being purchased, but they sell for $5.99 now. You can expect the Bond titles to do the same. That money all goes to Amazon. Smart move.
Amazon is gathering up titles they can undercut the previous publisher’s prices without being discounted at all. While this only encompasses a handful of books, it is a brilliant move with regard to buyer perception. If you see/believe one book is now priced lower than previously available by publishers, there could be others. I think I’ll keep shopping here because I might find more.
There are those who will likely see this as another move by Amazon to usurp publishing away from publishers, to destroy their ability to make money from long-standing titles, cut into profitability, etc. The more I’ve mulled over this whole publishing “war” the more I’m beginning to believe (subject to change of course) that Amazon just doesn’t really think in those terms at all.
Amazon’s bookselling has been and always will be about building a consumer base. Books are a wonderful gateway product to get buyers into the store, where they will buy a book and then other things that Amazon has a better margin on. In order to be the best at this and bring in the most loyal consumers, buyer perception rules the land, and the perception must be that Amazon sells books for the lowest price around, bar none. As a retailer, being able to minimize/avoid markup in prices is key. So, you build an environment that allows producers to sell directly to consumers. Internal competition between them within the store will keep prices at their lowest. Taking the middleman out of the equation makes business sense. All businesses work this way.
So, buying up the Bond/McBain titles is yet another way to sidestep the middleman in the business cycle and offer the consumer a cheaper product. It’s Amazon’s simple mantra of success, do whatever it takes to offer the lowest possible price or at the very least, instill the perception in buyer’s minds that this is true. They aren’t trying to destroy the publishing industry, not on purpose anyway. They just don’t care how the rest of the industry handles their ability to make smart business decisions. One could certainly fault them for this, and I do, just as much as I fault the publisher’s mishandling the changes that Amazon is bringing about.
There are likely scenarios where things could have been different and pubs/retailers could have worked together to sell cheaper books and maximize profits. It could have been a transition, painful to be sure, but a transition nonetheless. It’s getting close to the point now, I believe, where the industry is going to not just change but basically get burned to the ground and rebuilt. It didn’t have to happen that way, but when one side is intransigent and the other has the power to just kind of shrug and carry on without caring what happens to everyone else, it seems almost inevitable. Amazon has a plan, guided not by books, what they are or mean or what value they have, but by securing the most customers. It’s a pretty smart plan, even if they do some rather shitty things like locking buyers into the kindle, but I expect that will change in the near future. It’s getting to the point where consumers will be loyal enough to the Amazon experience that they’ll go there simply because they perceive that they can get what they want at the cheapest price. Looking elsewhere won’t be worth the effort.
This Fleming sale may not seem like much, but it should be a pretty clear sign to people that Amazon’s march to securing their kingdom of buyer percpeption is going to keep getting stronger regardless of what the rest of the industry does.