Two questions that loom over the trade publishing business
A lot of people in publishing would pay a lot of money to get a reliable answer to these two questions:
When will the growth in Amazon’s share of the consumer book business stop?
Who will be left standing when it does?
I won’t attempt to answer those two questions in this post. In fact, the purpose here is to begin to generate agreement that those are, indeed, the way the industry’s existential strategic questions should be framed going forward. In my consulting work, it is often my role to provide “synthesis and articulation.” This post will begin to document the synthesis that led to articulating the questions, which are actually implicit statements, above. The catalyst for these ruminations was the news last week about Amazon’s dust-up with Independent Publishers Group (IPG), a demonstration of its power and willingness to exercise it that recalls an incident almost exactly two years ago when they were unsuccessful at bullying Macmillan (or the other big publishers) into giving up their notion of implementing agency pricing.
Amazon was not the first online bookseller. But they appear to have had several distinctions from all others from the beginning. One is that they always saw bookselling as a springboard to a much larger business. That meant that bookselling was, perhaps primarily, a customer acquisition tool, not an end in itself. A second is that they saw, long before it was accepted general wisdom, that perfecting the “customer experience” online was the core requirement for success. And the combination of those two things, in concert with the ubiquitious availability of capital for promising Internet propositions that characterized the late 1990s, fueled growth powered by aggressive pricing that has had their trading partners and competitors agape for nearly two decades.
Any discussion of Amazon’s success must acknowledge that the other key component, aside from the strategic components of long-term vision, smart use of capitalization, and customer-centricity, has been the quality of their execution. This has been true from the beginning and it is still true today. Some of this is subjective, but it still looks to me like they offer a better print searching-and-buying experience than BN.com and a better overall ebook ecosystem than Nook or Kobo. I read on an iPhone and use all the ebook purchasing systems from time to time, but I use Kindle the most because it is the best. I am close to somebody who prefers to buy from BN.com because (she says; I don’t do this research…) they give money to Democrats and Amazon gives money to Republicans, but she still does her searching at Amazon because it works better before she hops over to BN.com to make her purchase.
[An update on that last point since the original posting of this piece. I was challenged on the “Amazon is red” statement by a couple of people whose opinions I trust, so I asked my favorite Democrat for citations and I got two. You’ll see (if you care and if you look) that both of the analyses that delivered this characterization are squarely within the Bush presidency, so they could constitute a company hedging bets rather than expressing political conviction. On the other hand, B&N was blue throughout the Bush Administration. And the point about the search engines, which was the one germane to this piece, remains true.]
Some of these advantages have become structural; having more customers means more having more customer reviews, more consumer knowledge, more product to sell, and, of course, higher rankings for many searches. There isn’t much their competitors can do about that. But they also keep innovating, most recently announcing an X-Ray feature for Kindle books that does outlining and annotating that could add value for readers of immersive fiction and non-fiction that it will take a while for other ebooks to match.
That’s the good news: good for consumers and good for producers of books that want consumers to buy and appreciate them.
This post is not all about good news.
Amazon’s relentless customer focus doesn’t prevent them from keeping a close eye on threats to their business, whether they come from obvious competitors or whether they are more tacit challenges that spring from trading partners.
This goes back to 1997. Ingram, well aware that Amazon had started its business by simply using Ingram to supply most of the books its customers wanted (Bezos put his business in Seattle because Ingram’s Roseburg, OR warehouse was within a day’s trucking distance), decided they could put many retailers in business the same way. So they announced the formation of I2S2: Ingram Internet Support Services. I2S2 would provide the tools to allow any bookstore to start selling online. Prominent industry thinkers saw I2S2 as the way all booksellers could start to reap the opportunities of the Internet as a sales channel.
Had Amazon not quickly reacted to this threat, they could have gone away so fast that we’d have trouble remembering their name now. But they did. They promptly cut their sale prices so deeply on most of what they sold that the other retailers, focused as they were on their stores, saw no point to expanding into unprofitable web business. Almost as quickly as I2S2 was announced, it was dead.
I2S2 was the first instance of Amazon successfully using price as a weapon but it has been an important part of their arsenal ever since. It has been a powerful one. It works for them commercially because they aren’t just a bookseller; they use book pricing to acquire customers and nurture their loyalty. They lock in that loyalty with their Prime program, by which the customer pays a fixed price annually for benefits that include expedited shipping, thereby making an investment which pays off in direct proportion to how much they buy from Amazon. The more they buy from Amazon, the better deal Prime is for them.
But using price as a weapon has another benefit; it puts the customer on your side. Even when Amazon’s lower prices are subsidized by their being excused from sales tax responsibilities that fund state and local governments and disadvantage local retailers who could be their friends and neighbors, consumers want it and defend it.
Amazon opened its virtual doors in 1995. Soon after they fended off the I2S2 challenge, they discouraged their first really well-financed competitor. They competed with BN.com (in which Bertelsmann, owner of Random House, bought a half-interest in 1998 to become partners with B&N) by extending their anti-I2S2 strategy and discounting so deeply that the online book channel hardly made any margin for the retailer. From Amazon’s perspective, acquiring customers for a long haul that was going to include selling many other things besides books, this made sense. From Bertelsmann’s, a company that made money selling content, owned book clubs that made money, and with no interest in being a multi-product online retailer, it made none. They sold back their half to Barnes & Noble in 2003.
And B&N faced the complications of not wanting to cannibalize their own store business with cheaper prices online. They also didn’t want to invest in the site and the search engine for it the way Amazon did. By the middle of the last decade, it was pretty clear that Amazon would be the dominant online bookseller for the foreseeable future and that those sales efforts would be subsidized by margins earned on other products.
Until the Kindle debuted in November 2007, however, publishers didn’t need to see Amazon as anything but their principal online channel and, for trade publishers, that was still ancillary to their principal channels to the consumer. Barnes & Noble was still growing its store presence. Borders was not doing as well (and still recovering from the mistake of handing Amazon its online business earlier in the decade), but was still a robust brick-and-mortar bookseller. The online share of total sales was rising, but even the bookstore component of sales was still a growing business. And expectations that ebooks would change any of that were limited to True Believers (like me) who had been predicting a change from paper- to screen-reading that had not yet gained any traction.
I recall in the late 1990s the suggestion was made by some pundits (but definitely not this one) that publishers should combine to compete with Amazon. If they had, they almost certainly would have failed as ignominiously as I2S2 and the Bertelsmann-B&N combination did. Publishers wouldn’t have gone into online bookselling to lose money and it would have taken vision and guts to use books the way Bezos did, as a springboard to create a global online Walmart. The point I want to emphasize is that it was not a failure on the publishers’ part to have “allowed” Amazon to grow their online hegemony. It was not in their power to have changed it. And, in the meantime, Amazon was making all their books available and selling much more than they would have if they had been trying to produce more margin on book sales. (Of course, store sales would have atrophied more slowly if the publishers had managed to keep online prices higher, but it wasn’t the publishers’ or booksellers’ choice to make even if they had full cognizance of what was to come.)
Of course, since 2007, ebook sales have doubled or more every year, print sales are declining, print sales in stores are declining even more rapidly, Borders has gone away and closed hundreds of stores, independents and small chains keep disappearing, and even B&N is drastically reducing the shelf space it devotes to books. eBooks have enabled commercially viable self-publishing in ways never before anticipated, giving authors leverage in their negotiations with publishers they never had before. And agents now have to share the concern of the publishers and retailers that Amazon could disintermediate them as well by providing their publishing and distribution services to authors directly.
Aside from the pricing pressure and the arm-twisting of Macmillan and now IPG, Amazon has shown in other situations that they will use power when they have it. A few years ago, they tried to pressure publishers who wanted to sell print-on-demand titles to do that printing for Amazon with CreateSpace, not with Lightning. Recently they have instituted charging publishers for posting supporting material for books online that a few years ago they would have begged them to make available at all. There are now reports that they are pressuring for more margin and more coop (Amazon has apparently recently “invented” ebook coop).
This kind of pressure is not surprising. Retailers who account for a large percentage of a manufacturer’s business apply it routinely. What is new and unprecedented is that Amazon sales now constitute 30% or more of many large publishers’ business, between print and digital, and that number is rising.
This would all be difficult enough if there weren’t a huge cultural gap between Amazon and the rest of the publishing industry. But there is. More and more, people who have been in publishing for years see Amazon as “in” the book business, but not “of” the book business. That attitude is exacerbated because the answer to the second question above (“who is left standing?”) for many is “perhaps not me.”
In fact, what we know is that Amazon’s share of the trade book business has done nothing but grow since the company began in 1995. And however direct or indirect the connection, we’ve lost a lot of players in the business since then, and we continue to.
(Of course, if Amazon had failed in 1997 and I2S2 had succeeded, we would have had a different online and digital history, but there still would have been a digital change and brick-and-mortar would still have declined over time.)
The cultural gap will be covered in an upcoming post that analyzes the impact of Amazon’s growth in each segment of the publishing value chain. Then we’ll start trying to tackle the questions at the top. I expect to get a lot of help with that from the comment strings of this post and the next one on the big questions. From what I can tell, every player thinking about their own future in a world where Amazon just gets more and more important is looking for some help answering those questions as well.