Is it a mad, bad, Amazon world?

Do you know, I really don’t mind that Amazon is being allowed to acquire the Book Depository* by the UK office of fair trading. Competition is a healthy thing, and it would have been better if the BD could have carried on in business independently. But as it couldn’t, the acquisition is not a bad thing – certainly not the horror some have portrayed it to be. Amazon has been around for a while now and as a reader I have benefitted from its presence immensely. (As have customers using or buying content from Amazon’s other partners, such as the Internet Movie Database, LoveFilm or Audible.)

Similarly, I don’t mind that Amazon is publishing books. As a reader, I can judge an Amazon book just as easily as any other kind of book. Existing publishers may see this as a threat just as booksellers have suffered at the hands of Amazon – through not acting quickly enough themselves to provide the service to their readers that Amazon came along and did instead.

Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t believe in monopolies and I would prefer it that Amazon’s competitors could equal or better its service. But so far, Amazon has done a pretty good job for readers. I might like it to do things a bit differently in some details, eg provide a translated fiction category, or ensure that independently published books are more clearly delineated from self-published books. But these are details. Amazon isn’t just about making vast amounts of money (its recent figures show just how much it has invested in e-readers at the expense of profits), it is about customer service. It has always encouraged customer rankings and comments on its website, long before most sales sites ever dreamed of it – and I, as a reader, also benefit from this, or I can ignore the social side of Amazon if I like, it is up to me. Buying books at Amazon is simple and pleasant, and if the price goes down between ordering and delivery, they drop it to the lower price (how many “street” booksellers would price-match an ordered book in this way? It has never happened to me).

Like many people, I love browsing in bookshops – an opportunity that is increasingly rare in many UK towns that have only a Waterstone’s branch or not even that. Yet I flinch at paying twice as much for a book today in a “real” bookshop that I know I can get on Amazon tomorrow. I like the fact that if one of my daughters wants an obscure, out-of-print book “The Last Years of Austria-Hungary: A Multi-national Experiment in Early Twentieth-century Europe (Exeter Studies in History)” I can get it next day from Amazon whereas if I email the publisher direct to enquire how to get hold of it I receive no response after an initial acknowledgement. I like the fact that I can obtain “The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism” the day after another daughter asks me about it one evening – another out of print book that is available for one-third of the list price, new, at Amazon via a third-party seller at no postage cost if you are in Amazon Prime. If I wanted this book and went to a real bookshop, I would not experience this service.

Amazon reminds me of our poor milkman, who tried to stop us cancelling our delivery 15 years ago, when we finally gave up on him. Despite his service promises, he regularly arrived after we had left for work in the morning, hence consigning us to discovering sour milk outside our door in the evenings as there was no method to stop late deliveries, leaving us milk-less (these were the days when all the shops in a 5-mile radius were closed by the time we got home in the evening). He charged twice the price of the supermarkets. He told us that if everyone cancelled their milk deliveries his industry would collapse and the supermarkets would up their prices to more than he was charging. This has not, yet, turned out to be true. Not only that, but we now have the choice of five supermarkets (four of them small ones) within walking distance that sell milk and stay open until quite or very late at night. I hope that I can have the same faith in Amazon. At any rate, excuse me for not joining in the general condemnation of the Amazon-Book Depository merger.

* From PaidContent: Despite industry organizations’ fears that Amazon’s acquisition of UK online bookseller The Book Depository will create a de facto monopoly, the Office of Fair Trading is approving the merger. In the OFT’s view, The Book Depository is so small that Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) is not buying a real competitor. The OFT found that “Amazon’s share of the UK online book market was strong,” but TBD’s accounted for only “between two and four percent of online retailing” of hardcover books in the UK. The OFT also said that most of TBD’s growth was taking place in overseas markets, not in the UK.

29 thoughts on “Is it a mad, bad, Amazon world?

  1. Agreed! As a reader, I have been delighted by Amazon’s customer service. However, I did find that as an author trying to change inaccurate details (provided by my publishers) things were not as satisfactory. They were difficult to contact, and failed to do what they had been asked for several weeks. I have also found that when I have written a review that wasn’t glowing (but neither was it harsh) on a Richard and Judy read it has also not appeared for weeks. Glowing ones, however, appeared very quickly. There may have been good reasons for these discrepancies of course, but at the time I did suspect a collusion.

    These are small things, though – and generally I am delighted with Amazon’s service.

    • hi Clare, I have occasionally entered details into a book’s information to correct small inaccuracies, which do take a while to come through, but they do eventually. The review posting is odd – sometimes they go up straight away and sometimes they take days, apparently randomly. I’ve noticed that reviews of translated books seem to take longer to go up than of non-translated ones, but that’s a subjective judgement.

  2. I have mixed views about Amazon. My husband works in Greece and I spend a fair time in that country and get books sent to me there. The postage is free, delivery is quick and if anything goes missing Amazon automatically sends out replacements. There’s no cheaper/quicker way of getting hard copies of the books I want to read and I know many expats rely on the Amazon service. In England I do visit my local book shop but I have to pay full price and I know I can get the books cheaper elsewhere, Unfortunately I need to balance supporting my local shop and the fact I buy a lot of books.

    My main gripe with Amazon is their Kindle. No problem buying downloads but my local library in England also allows you borrow e-books on a 21 day period. As Amazon does not support the DRM (digital rights management) on eBooks which is required by publishers who sell to libraries and other download providers I can’t download the books onto my Kindle but could to an ipad (which I don’t have). Very annoying as the list of e-books in the libary is very good (they have Jorn Leir Horst’s Dregs for example.)

    • That’s a very good point about the Kindle – Amazon has woken up to the idea that people who “buy” ebooks might want to legitimately lend them, but it is a pity they haven’t got the library system worked out. I think they don’t have the concept of the public lending “right” in the US that we have in the UK – but they do need to do something about this in their licensing model. (Eg the publication I work for allows people to buy/share a PDF a certain no of times as one of the options). I know that you can import a PDF into your Kindle (via email) and it converts to their format, so if you can borrow the book from the library into that format……

      I also buy a lot of books – it is interesting how Oxfam bookshops are now becoming quite a player in the “High St” market now that so many other booksellers have gone bust – of course this annoys booksellers as much as Amazon does, as it is another way that they think “their” profits are being eaten into because customers don’t behave the way bookshops would like them to.

      • Although I have a Nook, I have heard that at least here in the US library ebooks can now be downloaded onto Kindles as well as Nooks and other readers. I have a friend who just loaded her first library book onto her Kindle with no problems, though only a two week loan period. Hopefully this will be a trend that continues elsewhere abroad–it would certainly go a long way to making customers happy. With Nooks I can loan at least some of my ebooks to other Nook users, but again this is pretty restrictive. It would be nice to be able to share files across the spectrum–maybe that day will come sooner than we think?

      • I had heard that too, Danielle, and it is good to know. Amazon introduces new devices/services in the US first and the UK next, so let’s hope! Thanks for the update.

  3. Maxine – Such a thoughtful commentary on Amazon! Like you, I think that in general, competition is a good thing for consumers. So I, too, would like to see effective competition for my money. But the thing is, Amazon does do what it does quite well. It’s possible to get books one can’t get anywhere else. For authors, it allows one to do some promotion without making it tiresome for customers. And Amazon does provide solid customer service. Do I wish there were more and better competition? Sometimes. But Amazon fills an important niche that no-one else seems to be filling.

    • All good points, Margot, Amazon allows authors and small booksellers and individuals to reach a market they would have difficulty in finding otherwise. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a better world for authors and readers with Amazon in it, I think, even if not for High St booksellers.

  4. Hi Maxine,
    With the demise of most of the indie bookshops in Albuquerque, Tiina and I are dedicated Amazon users and order regularly from the US, UK, and German sites. (If they had one in Scandinavia we’d order from there too.) But we have had problems getting our names attached to our translations, particularly in the UK. It seems the process requires a reference to a Web page to confirm that we are indeed the translators. Curious that Amazon cannot simply walk into their warehouse and look inside a book, which I would consider a more reliable proof. And since many of our publishers never bother to list the translator’s name in their online catalogues or anywhere else but in the books themselves, once again we remain invisible. Rather daunting for anyone trying to search out our work on their sites.

    But we are excited about bringing back in ebook form on the Kindle and other platforms all the translations we published at Fjord Press from 1981 to 1998. Soon readers worldwide will be able to obtain a bunch of mostly Danish classics that are increasingly hard to find in book form (have you heard the term ‘p-book’ yet?) , as well as new titles we have planned, both translations and Tiina’s original novels. We were ahead of our time on the Nordic boom but hope that some readers will want to try out some of the cream of Danish literature that we rescued from oblivion in English – and sometimes from horrendous old translations – back in the 80s and 90s.

    • I think it is shocking when the translator is not mentioned on Amazon, Steve, and I try to remember always to point it out in my review when it happens. Sometimes you can’t find the name of the translator anywhere online, eg at the publisher’s website or other online retailers. I think this is down to the publisher, some are very good at this (and the translator is listed on Amazon as a co-author) some are terrible. I believe that Amazon “go with” the info the publisher provides, so we should start a consciousness-raising campaign among the publishers.
      No I had not heard about those Danish books but I am certainly looking forward to them!

      • Maxine and Steve, I recently adopted the format of putting book reviews in higher case, and also including the translator in the post title.
        I am also looking forward to those Danish books and Tiina’s original novels.

  5. I enjoyed reading your commentary Maxine and agree that Amazon has nailed down the consumer buying experience. I just don’t care for their closed system with their digital readers and their exclusives, etc. I use Amazon as a last resort sometimes for obscure titles and novels in the UK. But they do have some practices that I don’t care for. More recently their ad drenched digital readers for starters. I might be mistaken but I think Amazon influences other markets. Competition is good for the consumer and thanks for putting in perspective the market share for The Book Depository as I had no idea what share they had in online retail. Seems negligible.

    • Book Depository is/was better for overseas buyers on the whole because BD did not always seem to obey the international rights restrictions that Amazon was forced to do (they didn’t either at first, but they are such a big seller that the publishers & booksellers threatened court action). BD is widely praised for their free postage but I always found that Amazon + postage is the same price as BD – postage for the same book — in the UK. (May be different outside UK).
      Yes, Amazon is a good business organisation with its own e-format etc, I agree – but then other e-reading devices do this too. So far I have not seen an ad on my kindle (the old version) and i hope I never do. The obscure books you mention are often sold by little second hand bookshops or individual sellers, using Amazon marketplace – a win-win-win (for Amazon, seller and reader) in many ways, though the sellers don’t like the cut Amazon takes. I am sure you are right that Amazon influences other markets and the booksellers (in the UK certainly) really hate it.

      • Yes, Amazon is a good business organisation with its own e-format etc, I agree – but then other e-reading devices do this too.

        Well yeah but I have a Sony Reader that uses ePub and can shop at the Reader store and Kobo without any problems as with Kindle you can only really get agency books via Kindle bookstore via their chain latched DRM. If Amazon doesn’t have it then you’re SOL unless you have skills to break the DRM.

        That’s all I was getting at 😉 Amazon is the enemy! Kidding. Partially.

  6. I agree, Keishon, Amazon is definitely going for market domination of the e-reading format by staying “proprietory” – relying on its vast stock. I can’t approve of that as a reader, though I suppose it must make business sense to Amazon. (We don’t have the B&N Nook in the UK but I think that is similarly format-tied, in the US? Kobo is very new here, has only been out for a couple of weeks.)

    • Yes, they all are “proprietory” and the cheaper non-agency priced ebooks are with Amazon.

  7. I will always feel a little conflicted about Amazon as I have found their services to be good but some of their business practices worry me a bit. That said I don’t think Amazon is evil by any stretch of the imagination – they’re out to make money and that’s perfectly reasonable and they have taken advantage of new technologies in a way that others could have done but chose not to or didn’t have the foresight to experiment. Their acquisition of BD doesn’t worry me like it might once have done given I don’t buy nearly as many physical books any more (you’re right BD was always a much better option for those of us in Australia)

    Since I started railing against book pricing in Oz on my blog I’ve received all manner of comments and emails from industry people and some of the issues raised about Amazon are interesting, though largely not things you could complain about, just realities of the different kinds of business that they are, eg

    Amazon refuses to collect sales tax in the US which is something physical stores simply cannot do (they rely on customers reporting their own purchases), and almost always refuses to collect any other government taxes in other jurisdictions (VAT, GST etc), this is great for consumers but is an advantage that physical stores simply cannot compete with

    They’re fairly free to move wherever they want – and have done over the years – moving warehouses and other facilities to states with low taxes or incentives for business so they end up on very low rates of corporate tax – again this is something a physical store cannot compete with as they need to be where the shoppers are not in the back swamps of Alabama. They also look for states which have no minimum wage and there are some stories floating around online that their pay and conditions for warehousing staff are pretty abysmal. There were quite a few stories over the recent American summer (which saw massive heatwaves across much of the country) about the bad conditions in Amazon warehouses but of course I don’t have any personal knowledge of the accuracy of these – could just be disgruntled employees.

    I find some of Amazon’s “market domination/we’re the only ones that matter” mentality more of a worry. Their refusal to use ISBNs and creation of a new numbering system called ASIN is an example – doesn’t mean much to consumers but is highly annoying in library/information management fields as the ISBN has been the universally accepted book identifier for years now. But Amazon didn’t want to pay the fee so they chose not to use it (most books listed on Amazon will have an ISBN but the publisher will have paid for it not Amazon, Amazon’s own books including its vast Audible collection do not have ISBNs.

    The DRM on their eBook format has already been raised so I’ll just add that, again, this is to me evidence of a corporate mentality that is worrisome.

    I guess in the end it is my firm belief that we the people never do well when one entity – government, retailer, big pharmaceutical company – has a lot of power and it’s sensible to at least be aware of the pitfalls of such a situation.

    enough rambling

    • These are all good points, Bernadette, no system is ever perfect and agreed that Amazon ignores rules until they are forced to keep them (eg the e-books pricing and their ignoring of the infamous geo-restrictions until forced not to!). They’re a bit like Google in that respect. Certainly in the UK they have improved a lot on their customer service this year, I’ve sent them emails a couple of times about relatively trivial things and both times a nice man called me up (!!!) to discuss the issue and was v helpful in both cases. But of course I agree, too much power can’t be a good thing and l hope Amazon keeps its online channels open so its customers can debate these issues with it in the open, etc. I do sympathise in some ways with the booksellers but I think they have in the past indulged in restrictive practices whenever it has suited them, to the detriment of their customers. The people who support inde bookshops often do so because their local bookshop makes efforts in many ways to their customers, something you just did not get in many (most) instances before the internet and Amazon came along. So now they are all running around not knowing what to do — and the publishers are worried about the same thing now that Amazon is publishing as well.

  8. Just to enter in here as someone who uses Amazon in the States: First, they do charges sales tax. They have for a few years. I just checked my last order with them, and I was charged sales tax, and this has been true with my last several orders. Amazon has not always been easy to deal with, and there is sometimes a slippery slope when one is putting books in the cart for later purchase, and Amazon has already computed the order, billed, and it takes phone calls to straighten it out. (And here, the phone number is not readily available.)
    Book Depository was a money saver over Amazon on some books. It actually still is, depending on the title. But with Amazon, one can get remaindered copies after awhile and used copies, which even if adding the shipping charge, can be better than BD, but one has to wait for that.
    I used Alibris recently to purchase Outrage, as I couldn’t get it from BD and it cost a ransom to buy it from Amazon.
    I’ve never used Amazon UK, am not sure how the costs and delivery charges add up.
    Due to Dorte’s suggestion, I will use, which apparently does ship free to the U.S., if one buys two or more books. And they sell used books, too.
    There are no Oxfam shops here. Do people donate books to Oxfam, so they can sell books for their charitable purposes? What we have here is Housing Works, which has one bookstore in Soho, to which people donate books that they sell to help get housing for people with HIV/AIDS.
    I wish there were Oxfam shops here.

    • Hi Kathy, we have a lot of charity shops in the UK, which as you surmise sell donated items as well as their own products if they are that sort of charity. In a recession, they are increasingly popular. Oxfam is a very large, professional, longstanding charity which has pushed ahead with specialised bookshops over the past few years – often these shops are really good and as they sell donated books, always cheap. The one where I live for example has a crime fiction section to rival Waterstone’s or the library (my other two options locally). Oxfam is v unpopular with mainstream booksellers, but they are selling books that someone else has previously bought and read so it isn’t “all that bad” 😉 Oxfam also sells books via Amazon market place, I’ve bought several that way.

  9. I know what Oxfam does, get their mailings, and my mother donated to them. I wish they had shops here with a crime fiction section as you mention — and then I’d be so glad to buy books from them.
    There is one mystery bookstore about one mile or so from my house, and it charges bookstore non-discounted prices — but a reader wants to support this wonderful independent store, which is a fantastic place. So it’s always a toss-up, going there or ordering from Amazon or another online bookseller; the guilt is there if I bypass that terrific store.

    • I think several charities and “green” organisations sell via Amazon market place, so always worth checking out. Lucky you to have a mystery store near your house, they have all closed down here in London and environs (Murder One clung on the longest).

  10. Oh, that’s good to know and I’ll check that out.
    I hope that our mystery bookstore does not close down.
    (Also, on another point, I just started The End of the Wasp Season, and found a glaring editing mistake on page one — of the hardcover book. I corrected it as I usually do, but I don’t get it. An editor, copyeditor or proofreader should have caught that. It boggles the mind. Denise Mina is a very good and highly respected author, and she deserves better than that and so do readers.)

  11. Thanks for this interesting piece. There is one remark, though, which – with respect – I find a bit naive, and needs glossing:

    “Amazon isn’t just about making vast amounts of money (its recent figures show just how much it has invested in e-readers at the expense of profits)”

    – It’s well known that their huge investment in e-readers (the *devices* specifically) is a long game with the goal of dominating the ebook market (which is already working, but it’s something they want to seed deeply so that it lasts through the appearance of competitors which indeed now getting a move on). The fact that they’re using a loss leader shouldn’t make you think they are an innocent company not hungry for piles of cash! Call me a cynic, but most of what they do seems aimed at domination of one kind or another.

    Amazon may also be about customer service, but that is a vital element in a successful company – and a successful company, at the end of the day, is about profit. Of course people want to be liked, but some exec in Palo Alto does not want to satisfy me, say, as a customer because he knows or cares who I am; but so that his company will flourish, one customer at a time.

    • I certainly don’t think Amazon is an “innocent company not hungry for piles of cash”. Of course they want to dominate the market & make big profits, but unlike other sectors (eg banks) they are providing good customer service in the process. I don’t like the fact that Kindle is a proprietary format, but I can see why Amazon is doing it, and so far for me, the Kindle has meant I’ve read many books for a lot less money than I’d otherwise have had to pay (though I don’t like the e-format, as I look at screens all day and like to read a print book in the evenings). Of course Amazon is playing a long game in this respect – and like the milkman believed about supermarkets (see post), one day they might “smash” all the other e-readers and up their prices – but I can’t see it happening in this way (as, 15 years later, the milkman’s predictions have not only been shown not to be correct but now there is greater choice of nearby cheap milk than there was before!).

    • Ollie, Amazon is not in Palo Alto but in Seattle — home of a few other mega corporations interested in piles of cash, Microsoft, Starbucks, Boeing. Something about the weather there, I guess. (Steve, former Seattle resident)

  12. I’m entering rather late here, so I will miss the thread of some previous comments. I have a lot to say about Amazon:
    1. They are great for consumers, as mentioned above. They have built their business on good customer service. And yes, they communicate well with their customers
    2. They behave abominably with their suppliers, i.e. book publishers. I speak as a former publisher who has not been paid for books sold through Amazon. I can also say that they frustrate my current publisher no end (I am a published author now) . Updates for listings take forever, they are often inaccurate and there is no — I repeat no — interface with publishers on this issue. My publisher is the one of the largest in the UK. My commissioning editor, and her assistants, have never been able to speak to a single person at Amazon for over ten years. Amazon does not devote resources to anyone who is not buying something from them (and without suppliers, what have they got to sell?).
    I can also cite many cases where they have tried to manipulate the market. Most consumers are completely unaware of Amazon’s unprofessional trading practices.
    3. As an author, I don’t complain. Any sale is a good sale, so I know where Maxine is coming from (but your royalty is smaller with Amazon, Maxine, because of the reduced margin on Amazon’s discounts). I want readers to get my book easily. Amazon does that very well.

    I believe competition is healthy and the argument that BD was ‘too small to be significant’ is absurd. At one point Amazon was ‘too small to be significant’ but now dominates the market (and Apple was a tiny player once, lest we forget). Amazon has recently made the move into publishing. That’s total vertical integration in the book business, something akin to having Waterstone’s (like Barnes & Noble in the US) and WH Smith signing authors. If you think it through, that can’t be good for literature. But it’s good business for Amazon.

    • I don’t agree that it is bad for “literature” for Amazon to be publishing. Lots of publishers, including self-publishers, are taking advantage of the internet and opportunities like Amazon marketplace. I don’t see why it is bad for “literature” that Amazon is also doing this, when you look at the quality of most self-published books, for example (very poor, not only in terms of content but also of production) – one could argue with perhaps more force that this trend is “not good for literature” as it just overwhelms the poor potential reader with a load of dross. I can’t comment on the Amazon suppliers issues as I am not one, but I’ve heard similar before – however, my post is from the perspective of a reader and book purchaser.

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