Books are back because Amazon likes them
Do you guys read hardcopies still or more on iPad/Kindle? Good article in the FT:
Ten years ago, as Jeff Bezos launched the Kindle ereader in New York, he declared that “the book is so highly evolved and so suited to its task that it’s very hard to displace”. ’s founder was right: this spring, despite the digital upheaval unleashed by the Kindle, it will open a bookstore in Manhattan.
There are signs of the book’s renaissance all around. Waterstones, the UK book chain, returned to profit last year after suffering six years of losses. Sales of print books in the US rose by 3 per cent, while those of ebooks have fallen. Digital technology has not unleashed the same revolution in publishing that it has for music, television and news; we still like to read books.
The book’s enduring popularity is widely hailed as a heart-warming tale of traditional values triumphing over cold, hard technology. This is not the whole story, however. It can equally be read as the narrative of Amazon’s growth: if you cut prices, people buy more and if you raise prices, they buy less.
Customers enjoy the touch and feel of printed books: Americans read an average of 12 books a year, and most of those are physical. But they also prefer low prices, and do not like the fact that ebooks are comparatively expensive. Take The Whistler, John Grisham’s new blockbuster, which was selling on Amazon this week for $14.47 in hardback and $14.99 on Kindle.
That is the new reality: ebooks from publishers such as Penguin Random House and HarperCollins often cost more than hardbacks as well as paperbacks. Mr Bezos’s efforts a decade ago to promote mass adoption of the Kindle by discounting bestsellers to $9.99 and making ebooks cheaper than books has faded. It is now the other way round: Amazon favours print.
We are, in other words, witnessing not a bibliophile revolution against Amazon’s digital hegemony but Mr Bezos changing his tactics. Amazon sold 35m more print books in the US last year than in 2015, according to one analyst, taking even greaterfrom its old competitor Barnes & Noble. The 2m rise in sales at independent US book shops was a sideshow.
This is puzzling for anyone who witnessed the relentless struggles between Amazon and major publishers in the past decade, with Mr Bezos attempting to revolutionise the industry and publishers trying to restrain him. He even got the US government on his side with its antitrust suit in 2012 against Apple and large publishers for conspiring to fix the prices of ebooks.
But having fought for the right to set ebook prices in the same way as print book prices, Mr Bezos then backed off. Amazon signed fresh deals with publishers two years ago that limited ebook discounting and prices rose soon afterwards. Hardbacks and paperbacks are relatively cheap because Amazon discounts them; ebooks are expensive because it does so less.
The way to view this is as an industry reaching a competitive equilibrium after a decade of disruption, with the main forces — Amazon on one side and the big five publishers on the other — settling on a truce. They cannot formally agree one since it would provoke renewed antitrust action, but that is what it looks like, with the revival of the book as part of their detente.
It makes perfect sense for Amazon. The company invested in launching and developing the Kindle and now dominates the ebook market: B&N has retrenched with the Nook and iPhones are used for other activities than reading ebooks. To the degree that cheap ebooks were needed to promote Kindles, the urgency has passed and some profit-taking is rational.
The book, in digital or printed form, has been more stable than other kinds of media. Music has faced waves of disruption: first piracy, then people listening to single tracks, and finally the shift from buying to subscribing to services such as Spotify. Not so books: “We read books one at a time and each one takes us days,” says Douglas McCabe of Enders Analysis.
Amazon and others have dabbled with trying to alter consumption patterns, such as turning publishing into a Netflix-type service. Little has changed: Oyster, an ebook subscription service similar to Kindle Unlimited, closed in 2015. Most people still buy books individually and Amazon has no pressing need to demolish this, given that it is the world’s biggest bookseller.
The equilibrium also helps publishers, which profit from ebooks because they can digitise print titles and sell them at higher margins. Since Amazon eased discounts on their ebooks, the pressure has risen: one executive estimates that financing more marketing and discounting themselves could cost US publishers $100m a year.
They should not sit back and enjoy the truce: the big five’s share of the US ebook market fell from 46 per cent in 2012 to 34 per cent in 2015 as independent publishers and self-published authors undercut their prices.
But for now, the book’s renaissance suits Amazon, publishers, and readers. “It turns out people like paper if they are not penalised financially,” says Mike Shatzkin of the consultancy Idea Logical. A decade after the Kindle’s launch, Mr Bezos is rewarding them.