The New Publisher: Innovation and Incompetence

Yesterday, the Author’s Guild placed an ill-advised blog entry on their site. It’s such an obvious piece of fluff propaganda that it’s being picked apart around the internet. One of the better commentaries was penned by Passive Guy over on his blog.

I’ll agree with PG’s summary: the writer of said post was clueless.

PG hit the main points pretty well (and I recommend his article), but I want to expand on a couple of them.

Amazon’s first Kindle, released in November 2007, was certainly innovative, but its key breakthrough wasn’t any particular piece of technology. Sony had already commercialized e-ink display screens for handheld e-books in September 2006.  (E Ink, a Cambridge company co-founded by MIT Media Lab professor Joseph Jacobson developed the displays used by both companies.) Amazon’s leap was to marry e-ink displays to another existing technology, wireless connectivity, to bring e-book shopping and downloading right to the handheld device.

Amazon’s innovation, in other words, was to untether the Sony device and put a virtual store inside it.

Not even close.

Amazon produced a decent device, yes. But Amazon’s primary innovation was to create a better user experience on their web store than anyone else. It’s why they’ve succeeded as well in online retail as they have. Yes, lower prices is part of that user experience. But Amazon customers routinely shop there even for items which are the same price elsewhere.

Why?

Because Amazon has the best designed retail website in the world.

It’s not about the device. It’s about the user experience. 

 

Pricing – Predatory vs Smart

The article goes on to say:

But it was even worse than that. Amazon had deployed its buy-button removal weapon before, but never so publicly, never on such a massive scale, and never (to our knowledge) as a means of shielding its ability to use a separate anticompetitive tactic: its practice of routinely selling e-books at a loss. Such practices, commonly known as predatory pricing, are a means of using superior capital resources not to innovate nor to provide better service, but to weaken or eliminate competition.

Pricing your products lower to sell more is not an Amazon innovation. Local gas stations routinely battle each other to have the lowest price per gallon on gasoline. I worked at a convenience store, many years ago, which charged less for gallons of milk than any other store in the area. They lost money on the milk. They earned money on everything else customers bought when they came in for the milk.

Walmart is one of the best known examples of price reduction as a tool to build retail. Walmart routinely offers prices on most of their goods lower than other retailers in an area. They’ve built an enormous economy of scale to accomplish this, leveraging their ability to sell massive quantities of product to get that product at lower prices and sell it at lower margins.

Online sales use a different method to achieve lower prices. Economy of scale is less important than economy of expenses. Freed of physical stores, online retailers have dramatically reduced costs to do business. They convert those reduced expenses into an ability to price their goods at lower retail costs to the customer.

This is an advantage which brick and mortar retail cannot compete with. The prognosis for brick and mortar retail? Anything which CAN be sold effectively online, WILL be sold online. Some small retail establishments will be able to survive in niche markets, but brick and mortar chains cannot compete with online retail.

It’s not predatory pricing. It’s smart pricing. Amazon turned a profit last year. B&N did not. Amazon is not the company with issues about how it prices its products…

 

Who is REALLY locking customers in?

Predatory pricing could, in turn, help Amazon buttress its other critical barrier to entry into the e-book marketplace: its use of a proprietary e-book format, rather than the industry-standard epub format. Kindle owners would naturally be reluctant to switch to incompatible devices after they had sunk money into a personal e-library of Kindle editions. Viewed this way, Amazon’s costs incurred in selling e-books at a loss amounted to an investment in erecting walls around its young, booming e-book marketplace. The more Amazon succeeded in locking customers in to Kindle’s device and format, the less rewarding the market for any potential competitor. Amazon’s investment could pay off handsomely as the e-book market took off.

Again, no. A failure to think this through seems typical here, but let’s consider the issue of formats for a moment.

First, let’s look at this from a publishers’ perspective. Publishers want to sell books. They ought to want those books to be as easy for readers to use, and transport from device to device, as possible. Instead, major publishers are universally adding DRM to their ebooks.

Now, understand, the Amazon format is almost identical to the epub. Converting one to another is easy, and fast. There are free software packages which can convert your entire library at the touch of a button. Users know this – it’s one reason why DRM-free books are more popular with readers, and why indie publishers add the line “DRM free” in their product description.

By adding DRM, publishers are helping Amazon lock customers into the Amazon system. The DRM generates the customer lock. Without DRM, users could easily move the book over to their new Nook, or Kobo reader, or whatever. With DRM as a barrier to exit, however, customers are loathe to leave the Kindle system for a new device.

In other words, publishers are directly contributing to the strength of Amazon’s position by using a technology (DRM) already proven to have no effect in reducing piracy.

 

Imitating roadkill is not an effective business strategy.

A truly competitive, open market has no indispensable player that can call the shots. The book publishing industry has such a player, and Amazon is poised and by all appearances eager to use its muscle to rip up the remaining physical infrastructure of book retailing and the vital book-browsing ecosystem it supports.

Here’s the thing. Amazon isn’t so much ripping up competitors as it is stepping over them, while they lie carpet-like on the floor.

Imitating roadkill is not an effective business strategy.

For bookstores? We know the brick and mortar bookstore is dying fast. We know online bookstores are the new thing, for ebooks and print books. Already, most books are bought online in the US, and that percentage will only grow.

So why, then, are there so few decent online bookstores?

Comparing Kobo, iBookstore, B&N.com, and most other online bookstores with Amazon is like comparing my three year old’s tricycle with a Jaguar or Ferrari. The other sites all look decent, mind you. But they lack the power, tools, features, content, and overall *feel* of a good store. Amazon has probably the best online retail store in the world. All a competitor has to do is copy them, and they’d at least be in the ball game with a fighting chance. Instead, they’ve produced webstores which simply don’t do the job well. They’re frustrating to use. They don’t allow users to browse well. They are not good shopping experiences.

Let’s bring it back around to publishers a sec. It’s ironic that the Author’s Guild is complaining about an Amazon monopoly, when the folks actually being investigated in the US and EU are the Big Publishers and Apple, for allegedly colluding to fix prices through the agency system they introduced and then forced on Amazon.

But the agency system is a triple disaster for publishers. On the one hand, it set them up for a class action lawsuit – led by Amazon! – and Justice Dept. investigations. On the other hand, it allowed publishers to set fixed prices that Amazon could not discount, which has resulted in self published books (generally about 1/3 to 1/2 the price of those from major publishers) taking a majority of ebook sales in many types of ebooks (of the top 200 bestselling science fiction ebooks on Amazon, 152 were self published as of Feb 14th 2012; across all fiction genres, the top 25 list in each genre was 72-92% self published in January).

More insidiously, the agency system actually shored up Amazon’s market control.

How?

Because the agency system ensures that all ebooks are priced the same everywhere. Retailers cannot discount them, unless they find the book someplace elsewhere at a lower price. When all prices are the same everywhere on a product, what sells goods?

Service. Convenience. Ease of use. Powerful user tools, for an internet site.

All things Amazon has in spades, and all things none of their competitors have been able to manage. The result is predictable: Amazon has easily managed a majority share of ebook sales. They’ve had time to get popular now, so they’ll be harder to knock out of that seat than ever. But there’s no reason a new online bookstore couldn’t get some serious market share away from Amazon or (more likely) Amazon’s sleeping competitors. All the new store would have to do is provide as stellar a shopping experience as Amazon does. Ideally, an even more stellar one. When prices are the same everywhere, it all boils down to the user experience, and right now, no other store comes close to Amazon.

Honestly, I’d love to be in that field right now. I think the ebook world is ripe for a hot new company to come up and smack some heads around. More, I think Amazon would welcome some serious competition, even if it came from a small spitfire company. Remember, Amazon started as a small spitfire company, too. They know too well that companies which linger for long without serious competition begin to slow down and stop innovating, which is death when that next spitfire rolls up his sleeves and goes to work. And Amazon certainly isn’t getting any competition from other bookstores right now.

They’re not getting any real competition from major publishers in that business, either. You’d think, if a new publisher sprang up offering better royalty rates, better contract terms, and better marketing efforts, that big publishers would at least think about stepping up their game. Instead? No change. So big publishers are faced with three issues:

– Midlist writers leaving them to self publish.

– Bestsellers leaving to go publish with Amazon imprints.

– The sure and certain knowledge that most books they turn down will be sitting there for sale as competition soon afterward. Probably at 1/3 to 1/2 the price they sell books, too.

But like the other bookstores, publishers seem more inclined to play carpet than they are to step up and actually compete.

 

Folks, I don’t have time for people who refuse to compete, and then whine because someone else is doing better than them.

Publishers and bookstores alike can survive – and thrive – in this, if they look at the Amazon moves as challenges to be matched and surpassed, rather than unfair business practices. You want to win, get in the game. Otherwise, go home and stop whining.

1 Comment

  1. Kevin, you are that rare, clear thinker. Many good points. Thanks.

    Paul

    Reply

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