As things evolve in an era of rapid change, it is human nature to assign credit or blame for any drastic alterations in circumstances. And so we have the book business, with its last remaining chain store behemoth, Barnes & Noble, in a period of obvious decline and presenting the clear possibility that the book publishers’ single biggest brick-and-mortar account might suddenly disappear.
This is a very unpleasant notion to contemplate for all publishers and, perhaps surprisingly, to Barnes & Noble’s erstwhile competitors among independent bookstores. Today, the head of the trade association that represents bookstores (mostly independents), Oren Teicher of the American Booksellers Association, is quoted in The New York Times saying, “It’s in the interest of the book business for Barnes & Noble not just to survive but to thrive.”
The op-ed in which Teicher’s quote appears is a piece by columnist David Leonhardt basically blaming the US Department of Justice for Amazon’s growth and the consequent reduction of market share available to all other retailing competitors. There is a lot of history and context not discussed in this piece but I have a nominee for the single most glaring omission. At just about the turn of the century, Barnes & Noble made a deal to buy Ingram, the biggest book wholesaler and distributor in the world, which was shot down by an activist Department of Justice. This is not mentioned.
And, in 1998, when the purchase was announced and B&N specifically cited its need to strengthen its ability to sell online as part of the reason for the purchase, the American Booksellers Association was vigorously opposed!
It is often hard to foresee the future when things are changing fast.
It has long appeared from here (here’s a piece from 2012) that the existential issue in the book business in the 21st century has been “when does Amazon’s share growth stop, and who will be left standing when it does?”
Although definitional and data ambiguities make this an imprecise statement, it is likely that we’ve reached a day when more than half of the printed books sold through retailers are sold online, not in stores. Ebooks added into the mix for the narrative reading portion of the published material constitute a further erosion of the brick-and-mortar store sales base.
The shift of habits from buying in stores to buying online is not restricted to books, of course. Because of Amazon, it largely started with books. But books also have other characteristics that make them better than most things for online purchase, from a consumer point of view.
Many times a person knows exactly what they want but, because there are hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of books a store might carry and what they’ll actually have in stock is a small fraction of that, all inveterate book consumers know the odds of finding any particular book that is not either a bestseller right now or the most ubiquitous backlist classic are slim. And the times when it matters much to a consumer whether they get the book today, tomorrow, or soon (as long as they know when) are also rare.
In addition to that, you don’t have to try a book on or see it under different lights from several angles to know whether you want it or not.
So buying a specific book that you know you want online just makes sense to most people. Of course, Barnes & Noble has had its own online bookstore operation since the 1990s. They have steadily lost online purchasing share to Amazon for decades.
It is true that Amazon cut prices below what many brick retailers charge. And I even think I identified the moment when that strategy kicked in. See the same piece linked above. If I’m right, then they did it specifically to discourage independent stores from using the same Ingram capabilities they used to launch an online sales effort. (In fact, discussing the “low price” challenge that exists for publishers in 2018 without mentioning the self-publishing world which is the primary price restraint mechanism in the market, assuming no disingenuousness, displays serious ignorance of the marketplace realities.)
But the way things looked in then 1990s, with online retail in its infancy, was that it didn’t constitute a threat to brick-and-mortar. Many physical retailers ignored the opportunities and threats of online competitors. Borders, at about the same time that the Department of Justice was killing the deal by which B&N bought Ingram, was partnering with Amazon to deliver its online offering!
With those realities, does it make sense to be blaming the DOJ for not seeing the threat?
Much is made of Amazon’s pricing practices and the possible fallacy inherent in looking at consumer prices as the be-all and end-all indicator of whether a marketplace is working right. But even that argument is just not so simple. More than a decade before Amazon was launched, the retailing chain Crown Books (not to be confused with the then-indie publisher now an imprint of PRH) was aggressively discounting bestsellers. They grew fast in the 1980s. Until the superstore era began in the late 1980s, and the massive selection in the big Borders and B&N stores became the “killer” consumer attraction, this variation of the Amazon strategy (using bestselling books as loss leaders to pull in customers, to whom Crown sold remainders and bargain books to generate the margin to operate) was upsetting the old order.
Meanwhile, at least some of Amazon’s discounting reflects economies of scale or, as is suggested in the Leonhardt piece, the bundling of books into a larger retail strategy, which is an option not open to a books-only (or even a media-only) retailer.
It is not hard to support Leonhardt’s idea that Internet monopolies, even if they result at least partly from the natural power law forces of Internet economics, will have to be regulated, as I suggested in another forum recently. (I publish the stuff that is not mostly about books in other places.) Perhaps the first step with Amazon is to ban them from the publishing function. And because they are a vital path to the consumer for all publishers, it would be helpful for the government to be sure that their sales terms are fair among the publishers competing for their customers (a concept that wll get increasingly tricky as Amazon’s physical store footprint expands). Similarly, all the big online behemoths that control consumer data, which includes Facebook and Google and many others, should be regulated by the government, not left to figure out what is fair and appropriate on their own.
So while it is absolutely true that Amazon is gaining a level of market share, and therefore a level of power and control, over the book business that is frightening for those of us in it and not a good thing for society, this does not make them evil or make everybody who failed to stop them stupid. Through a remarkable series of brilliant moves — the first ones putting books online with a huge master catalog and providing “promise dates” for each individual title so the customer knew when to expect delivery but then continuing onto Prime and Kindle and harnessing their own print-on-demand and, most of all, enabling self-publishing by individual authors that delivered meaningful revenue — they have achieved what sometimes looks like imminent hegemony.
Amazon’s reward for all this brilliance should, indeed, be regulation that they might not like. But whatever happens, it is not likely to put the genie back in the bottle. We’re buying too many books online to have a thriving retail network too. That’s nature, not a conspiracy and not primarily because of regulatory failure.