I will admit that I have long been among those who believe that Amazon has what amounts to an enduring stranglehold on the book business. They have achieved a market share — which could be in the neighborhood of half the trade books sold if you combine print and digital versions — that is unprecedented in book business history. This is a smaller share than the two giant bookstore chains — Barnes & Noble and the now-defunct Borders — had combined at the peak of their marketplace power.
Lately, I have seen that point of view challenged. Jake Kerr wrote a very thoughtful piece making the point that Amazon’s desire to take margin out of the ebook business is a good defensive move that diminishes the appetite of their mega-company ebook competitors — Apple, Google, and, less so, Microsoft — to invest in beating them back. Suw Charman-Anderson picked up on the theme that Amazon is being defensive, “looking tired”, and found others who seemed to think the same way. Both of them express doubts about Amazon’s continuing hegemony without even using one powerful argument I think is important. Amazon is protected from ebook competition by the inability of competitors to put DRMed content onto dedicated Kindle ereader devices. (Another barrier is that so many early ebook adopters did so via a Kindle account, so their content and login credentials are in the Amazon platform along with a lot of other shopping data that raises the switching hurdle.) But the share controlled by dedicated devices is diminishing and anybody reading on a multi-function device can choose from a range of ebook retailers. (And that’s not to mention that somebody might invent a way to place protected content on Kindles without Amazon’s help; rumors have it that somebody already has!)
Contemplating Amazon’s weaknesses is new thinking for me. What I see is Amazon’s power over the book business, which is great. Amazon has achieved this position through smart and efficient operations and brilliant tactics like Amazon Prime that build customer loyalty, as well as being beneficiaries of the natural migration of sales from brick stores to online. But, most of all, Amazon benefits from its broad business base. They don’t have to support their business exclusively, or even substantially, from their book sales margin. And, on top of that, they don’t have to finance the building and maintenance of a global operation strictly from what they earn in the United States.
So they trump everybody. Barnes & Noble, their only competitor selling both print and digital books, seems to have stalled in its bid to build a rival global empire with the Nook device as the leading edge. Their lack of stores outside the US robs them of the main tool they used to build Nook from a standing start to what seemed for a while to be a serious threat to Kindle and the consequent lack of global scale is hobbling their Nook business. The US stores are still profitable as print-sellers, but very few are those who maintain that print-in-stores is anything but a declining market. (As for BN.com, the less said the better. Of the four principal components of B&N’s business: bookstores, college stores, Nook ebooks, and their online retailing operation, the most dramatic and persistent failure has been BN.com.)
Kobo, Apple, and Google are all ebook purveyors only with no print book complement. Kobo has nominally tried to deliver a combined offering, and claimed some store support to sell their devices, by making alliances with leading local booksellers in many markets. Apple, a company primarily interested in selling its hardware and the ecosystems it builds around them, has no apparent interest in print. Google appears to have hit on a broader variation of the Kobo strategy, making alliances with physical retailers by offering a combination of its power in search and a same-day delivery capability called Google Shopping Express — competing with Amazon Prime — that retailers in a single vertical couldn’t deliver for themselves.
Under that rubric, Google is now allied with Barnes & Noble. But I see this as an initiative with the accent on the wrong syllable. The combined companies’ offering is only of real value applied to the small number of book purchases for which same day delivery adds substantial utility (and for which the digital version — always delivered instantly — doesn’t constitute an adequate solution for the need for speed). They are further limited by the books available in the particular B&N store plugged into the program in each locality and each store carries far fewer titles than the chain does as a whole. So the number of books customers will need delivered with that alacrity will be further reduced by the imperfect match between the demand and what’s available. Even if this program steals a high percentage of the same-day demand sales from Amazon, I’m not sure how much it would shift market shares. And with Amazon also offering rapid delivery and probably around a greater number of titles, it is not a given that the new offering from Google and B&N will steal much market share at all.
That doesn’t make it a bad move. The sales and visibility are incremental pluses for Barnes & Noble. Google’s new Google Shopping Express has a business model into which B&N fits very nicely. Books are a nice-to-have additional product line to offer within that service, designed to compete with Amazon’s growing same-day goods delivery. This is a fight between two behemoths that is much larger than the book business (as it has to be to interest them). B&N has a role to play, but it is a supporting position, not a lead.
From where I sit, this offering from Google and B&N doesn’t look like a game-charger for the book business. Nothing about it would seem to threaten Amazon’s overall (and still growing) hegemony in book retail. The migration of sales from print to digital and from stores to online has clearly slowed down, perhaps even plateaued, in the past year or two but few are those who believe those trends are permanently over.
Google is on a right track with Google Shopping Express; people who buy physical goods use Google search to find them and see Google ads when they do. But going after the smallest corner of the print book business — those books on which 6-hour delivery presents a very big advantage over 24-hour delivery — is not going to bend the curve much on Amazon’s future, even if it provides some marginal benefit to B&N and Google.
But there is a different combination that could give Amazon a real headache. There are two companies that together could deliver print and digital, just about anywhere in the world with competitive delivery speed, with discovery capability that would rival Amazon’s as well. Between them, they really have almost all the capabilities and infrastructure required already in place.
One of those companies is, of course, Google.
The other is Ingram, the book business’s biggest US wholesaler and, through its present activities already providing global digital and print distribution as well as print-on-demand. Ingram is positioned to deliver any book in any form anywhere extremely efficiently. They also have a robust and accurate database of book metadata which, if combined with Google’s data and search mastery (and capabilities that match Amazon’s “Search Inside” offering as well), could challenge Amazon effectively as a “best first place to look” for any information about books.
What Google needs to take on board to make the strategic leap to explore a partnership like this is that most book consumers read both print and digital and probably will for some time to come. It will get harder and harder to compete with Amazon without a print-and-digital offering; you can’t be fully effective with either one unless you do both.
And it would help if Google saw the book business as distinctly different from the other media businesses that with books constitute Google Play. The differences play to and can enhance Google’s core strength. Book marketing is almost infinitely granular, because the number of possible motivations to buy a book are so great in number. Rarely do you buy music or video because of where your next vacation will be or because you want to put a new roof on your house or change careers. Associating specific book suggestions to discerned interests and motivations is the key to effective book marketing in the digital environment. And the insights about any individual by analyzing their book search also can tell you what else they may be looking for. Nobody does those things better than Google. They have limited impact on the ability to suggest music or movies, but enormous value in selecting what books to feature to any particular customer at any particular time and what else they can be sold after they’ve bought a book.
A Google-Ingram partnership would not only start with every capability necessary to compete with Amazon as a global bookseller, they would have some additional Secret Sauce as well. Google and Ingram wouldn’t actually have to make money on the combined retailing component because they make money other ways that are associated with it. Google would be adding incremental search and ad placement opportunities. Ingram would be benefiting as a wholesaler providing all the print books and many of the ebooks the new “store” sells. They could make nearly nothing from the new retailing operation, just like Amazon does with its book retailing operation, and still have the enterprise return a profit for their engagement.
A joint digital retailing enterprise to sell books and ebooks from Google and Ingram is the only possibility I can see on the horizon that would save the legacy publishing business from being entirely subject to Amazon’s inexorably growing marketplace power. It is almost certain that Ingram — part of the book business Amazon is so successfully disrupting — sees this very clearly. (Full disclosure seldom necessary in this space: Ingram has been a client of The Idea Logical Company for many years.) Being a hero to the book business may be a less immediate objective for Google, but making life a bit more difficult for Amazon almost certainly is. Nothing they could do would create more challenges for Amazon than a partnership with Ingram to create an all-media store that sells both physical and digital versions of everything, including and especially books.
Since I posted my last piece, triggered by Amazon’s invoking of Orwell and Streitfeld’s accusation that they got him wrong, two conflicting posts have arisen. I’m indebted to Hugh Howey for pointing out that apparently Orwell really did want to destroy cheap paperbacks but Orwell’s estate takes a different view. In fact, I don’t think which side got it right is particularly germane to the arguments I was making. The Orwell connection made a cute hook, but it is not really an essential part of either side’s story.