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18/04/07

Why doesn’t the publishing industry take on Amazon?

Here’s the second (unedited) article I wrote for the London Book Fair daily for the Bookseller Magazine today.

The great thing about any fair (or marketplace) is that it brings so many people together and that is a fantastic starting point from which to do business. The idea and value in such a meeting is not a new one, but it is one that is shared by the successes in the new media economy as well as the old.

In current business speak, “leveraging the long tail is all about aggregation”. Come again? What it means is that if you can attract enough people to your market, you’ll sell lots of different products. And, suddenly, publishers are realizing the future of selling books lies in the web.

Precipitated either by Google’s scanning plans, the changes in the film, music, TV and advertising businesses, the growth of MySpace and YouTube (and their subsequent acquisitions by figureheads of old and new media), the entropy on the high street, or for whatever reason, publishers have gone web crazy.

This is a good thing. Publishing, as with film, music and indeed advertising before it, has been slow to adopt the web as a serious and integrated part of its development. They have left it to others to demonstrate and exploit the massive opportunities of the web, and now remain firmly in catch-up mode.

For the last ten years, Amazon’s growth and revenue has clearly demonstrated the unstoppable desires of consumers to buy products, and books in particular, online. It is debatable whether Amazon’s aggressively simple original customer acquisition strategy be cheaper than everyone else has led us to the difficult, price-led state of the high street, but it’s doubtless a factor. But the facts are clear: you can sell lots of books online. Amazon does this by being the one-stop for online shoppers. By aggregating.

Publishing, and traditional bookselling, on the other hand, is in a pretty tight mutual spot. Need I go into details? Maybe high street retailing isn’t quite dead, but whether there is enough life in it to sustain a healthy book industry must now be a serious topic of debate. It is hard to see how things will get any easier, but not difficult to imagine them getting worse. Suffice to say, this is a bad thing.

I have often wondered what is stopping the industry (in the form of the most powerful houses in the UK including a delegation from the Independent Alliance) getting together and taking on Amazon.

The creation of an ‘aggregating’ internet channel through which to sell ‘books’ be it physical books, eBooks, audio, articles, POD or whatever is the logical response to this current climate. Yes, it would be expensive, difficult, and require some bitter pills to be swallowed. But is it so different to what the airline industry created with Opodo in the face of the new business model brought on by Lastminute.com?

A consortium of publishers could doubtless create a channel that could add significant value to the consumer – enough to attract customers without attracting the attentions of the Competition Commission.

Access to content would be the key differentiator over Amazon, as well as the ability to do new and exciting things with the content in the site things that could not be done without the say-so of the copyright holders.

Why else would customers come? Well, looking back to how Amazon gained customers, the rival could easily compete on price, range and service. Such a service could, and would have to be, advertised and marketed successfully. Loyalty could be bought through perfect execution.

We can see from the activity at the fair that sourcing titles is not the problem facing publishers it is getting them to market at a fair price. This idea may be radical but radical thinking is surely what the book trade needs to evolve for the 21st century.

Posted by Peter Collingridge in Apt Studio work, Bookseller, Publishing.

Links, April 2007 // So this is a nice site

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