Friday, December 18, 2009

Trade needs to 'speak out' over Amazon power play

17.12.09 Gayle Feldman in The Bookseller

"At the end of the day, people need to have the courage to speak out. The predatory pricing practice by Amazon has pulled the industry along, and the Federal Trade Commission should have paid attention. Ultimately the authors will pay out of their income. This is an attack on literature so Amazon can capture control of the industry. They think they will be the iTunes of literature. "It's a monopolistic play that has nothing to do with value for the consumer. It's an interesting scam by a very large corporation and I think we should wake up. It hasn't helped grow the market – it has concentrated the market in Amazon . . . It's been seventy years since people got away with [such actions] because the anti-trust laws used to be enforced, but we didn't have enforcement for eight years."

Thus spoke Bob Livolsi, founder of Books on Board, an "independent global ebook store," at a session focused on consumer buying patterns and demographics on the second day of Mediabistro's eBook Summit. He woke up every single soul in attendance.

Livolsi's fellow panelist, Andrew Weinstein, v-p of Ingram Digital Retail Solutions, was more nuanced, but made a similar point: "This is a power play for the long term . . . Amazon is doing it for the long term, but we haven't seen long-term actions from other stake holders, so the consumer doesn't truly understand the consequences."

With this panel – the highlight of the day at an otherwise lacklustre conference - many in the audience erupted into applause. At last, they seemed to be saying, somebody has the guts to remark on the emperor's distinctive lack of attire.

Although Livolsi and Weinstein's remaining remarks were far less incendiary, they were also worth noting. Most of Books on Board's customers are female, and most are middle class or lower middle class and read ebooks on their PCs or Macs, as opposed to the rather more upscale Kindle demographics. "For our customers, eInk is a red herring," Livolsi asserted. "They want a backlit screen, since they read in bed."

What they read, more than anything else, is romance fiction: it accounts for 57% of sales. And romance readers were early adopters of ebooks, Livolsi maintains, because "they didn't want people to see the covers." Mysteries come in second, but fantasy and paranormal fiction are also popular.

Weinstein, for his part, said that Ingram Digital Retail Solutions mainly services retailers like Books on Board and Fictionwise who have no bricks-and-mortar presence, although they do have relationships with the Indie-Bound stores, Powells, and others. They also "see a lot of interest from online retailers and wholesalers outside the US. We went from powering a dozen to powering five or six dozen websites, including quite a few for publishers."

Weinstein advised keeping eyes peeled to see what happens next month at the Consumer Electronics show. "We still haven't seen overt subsidization of devices to consumers. A lot of devices will be launched at the show; what types of deals will be launched with them?"

We also can't predict what effects on reading itself the use of any and all devices will engender. "It might be dangerous – people will break away from reading a book to do their email, to go on a social networking site – how will that affect book reading and book sales in the long term?" Livolsi asked.

Nobody knows the answers to such questions, but nobody doubted that they needed asking.

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