Most people who like their books and reading will probably have heard about an article in Forbes attacking libraries. I thought I’d present the article and a few rebuttals here, because I like libraries and books and how badly the author of the piece fared.
Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money
Amazon should open their own bookstores in all local communities. They can replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock.
There was a time local libraries offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money. They would bring books, magazines, and journals to the masses through a borrowing system. Residents could borrow any book they wanted, read it, and return it for someone else to read.
They also provided residents with a comfortable place they could enjoy their books. They provided people with a place they could do their research in peace with the help of friendly librarians. Libraries served as a place where residents could hold their community events, but this was a function they shared with school auditoriums. There’s no shortage of places to hold community events.
Libraries slowly began to service the local community more. Libraries introduced video rentals and free internet access. The modern local library still provides these services, but they don’t have the same value they used to. The reasons why are obvious.
One such reason is the rise of “third places” such as Starbucks. They provide residents with a comfortable place to read, surf the web, meet their friends and associates, and enjoy a great drink. This is why some people have started using their loyalty card at Starbucks more than they use their library card.
On top of this, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have replaced video rentals. They provide TV and movie content to the masses at an affordable rate. Actual video rental services like Blockbuster have gone completely out of business.
Then there’s the rise of digital technology. Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services.
Of course, there’s Amazon Books to consider. Amazon have created their own online library that has made it easy for the masses to access both physical and digital copies of books. Amazon Books is a chain of bookstores that does what Amazon originally intended to do; replace the local bookstore. It improves on the bookstore model by adding online searches and coffee shops. Amazon Go basically combines a library with a Starbucks.
At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees. This is why Amazon should replace local libraries. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.
As you can see, this article was terrible. The arguments are the sort you hear from the “let’s privatise everything” and the “what do you mean you won’t pay for the privilege of working in my asbestos mine?” crowd. They don’t believe in public goods, public benefits, nor that poor people are people.
Needless to say, the author of the piece proceeded to be mocked and ridiculed.
I hope he didn’t go to a public hospital for treatment of that burn.
To spell it out, Panos’ argument forgets that Amazon is a company whose goal isn’t to provide books to people, instead their goal is to make money. A library, however, is there to provide a community benefit of knowledge, education, and entertainment. Libraries are a key tool in creating a literate populous who are better able to contribute to our society. Plus, they have books. Books are awesome. Anywhere with books is awesome.
Panos, of course, couldn’t admit he might have made a mistake.
I have no idea how he became a professor.
The desperate and nonsense defence he used for the cost of libraries was immediately debunked by the librarians at EveryLibrary:
There are, of course, many problems with this idea. First of all, libraries cost the average American taxpayer over 18 years old just $4.50 per month. An Amazon Prime subscription alone is nearly double that price and you get very little for free with that subscription because you still have to buy books or pay more to gain access to premium goods or services. Source.
Amazingly enough, Panos was correct in claiming that our taxes pay for libraries… This is the sort of insight I think only a Professor of Economics could give us. But he has rather overstated the cost of libraries (unless he has 10x the average property portfolio) and failed to understand how much buying books costs.
The USA does things a little differently to what we do here in Australia. The USA ties library funding to levies and property taxes, so richer areas get nicer better-resourced libraries, whilst poorer areas get about what they always do. In Australia, our libraries are funded out of the state government budget.
Do us Aussies get good value for money just throwing our regular tax dollars at libraries? Let’s look at the Western Australian State Library, which has a 2016-17 budget of $9.8 million, or $3.38 per person. Now, even if we account for only the third of people (2009-2010 ABS data) who go to libraries as paying for them, then it is $9.95 per person. In Australia that wouldn’t even buy one discounted paperback. And this doesn’t even account for all of the other things libraries do with that budget, like the reading programs, book launches, archiving, history preservation, and maintaining that fleet of Ferraris they drive to work. Seems like a good investment to me.
Fortunately, Forbes pulled the article, despite its popularity, because of the backlash. They realised, far too late, that Panos didn’t have a clue and his arguments were rubbish. Interestingly, that hasn’t stopped them from publishing climate change denial articles. At least we love libraries, if not the planet we live on.
Every now and then I like to look back through older posts on my blog. It’s a form of masochism built upon equal parts fascination with forgotten ideas and revulsion at missed typos and awkwardly phrased run on sentences that really don’t know when to end, that should have ended sooner, and aren’t something I do anymore. One snarky post caught my eye and I thought I should retread that ground.
The post was based upon an article in The Guardian, one of the last bastions of book snobbery that manages to not trip over its own superiority complex – sometimes. The article had decided that all of these new-fangled e-readers weren’t filled with the right kinds of books.
Kindle-owning bibliophiles are furtive beasts. Their shelves still boast classics and Booker winners. But inside that plastic case, other things lurk. Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls.
Ahh, good, they’ve figured out what people actually enjoy reading. Do go on.
The ebook world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliche is left unturned, no adjective underplayed.
“So-called” genre fiction categories of horror and romance… This article was published by a so-called newspaper.
At this point, you can see why I originally wrote about this article. Like many of these worthiness arguments, the article is quick to deride any genre book, particularly e-books in this case, as not having “classic” potential. You know, classics like The Godfather (crime), Lord of the Rings (fantasy), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (science fiction), Frankenstein (horror), or Pride and Prejudice (romance). Why would anyone ever read dreck like genre fiction?
As I’ve said before, I could easily write a post-a-week pulling apart one of these articles. They are very common and rely on the same handful of bad arguments. In my original response to the article, I wrote that literary fiction – the preferred genre of the authors of these sorts of articles – and biography markets have been kept afloat by this sort of snobbery. People like to be seen reading high-brow stuff, and people like to give worthy books to friends and family. Not one person has ever bought a political memoir to read, they are always a Father’s Day gift. And as the article states, e-book readers don’t have to let people see what they are reading, so they don’t have to pretend any longer.
The reading public in private is lazy and smutty. E-readers hide the material. Erotica sells well. My own downmarket literary fetish is male-oriented historical fiction (histfic). Swords and sails stuff. I’m happier reading it on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.
Well, maybe people will pretend just a bit longer…
Since this was an article from 2012, the talk of e-books was as they were ascending in popularity. Growth in the e-book market has since slowed, with the market being 20% of the total sales for the major publishers, down from a high of 28% five years ago. Of course, in the fiction market e-books are more like 50% of sales for the Big 5 publishers. And those publishers are having trouble with new fiction titles, as they haven’t had any “big titles” selling well, instead relying on genre fiction backlists and the sudden interest in political books… Wait, what?
It puzzles me why the author of this article insisted that e-readers are filled with garbage, particularly since the arguments supporting the claim lack evidence. A large chunk of book sales from major publishers are e-books, so it can’t all be the dreck titles, can it? What proof do we have that e-readers only contain Twilight fan-fiction and Dan Brown* novels? The proof we are offered is that anything genre is garbage: checkmate person who reads books! So maybe these article writers at The Guardian are onto something, maybe e-readers like the Kindle are filled with garbage.
*Sorry Dan**, you and James Paterson are my go-to punching bags here. If I’ve offended you or James by suggesting your books aren’t high-quality writing, then I’m quite happy to edit out those comments from my blog for a small six or seven figure fee. Just post me one of the bags of money you use as a pillow, that should cover it.
**Language expert take on Dan Brown novels: “A renowned male expert at something dies a hideous death and straight away a renowned expert at something quite different gets a surprise call and has to take an unexpected plane flight and then face some 36 hours of astoundingly dangerous and exhausting adventures involving a good-looking (and of course expert) member of the opposite sex and when the two of them finally get access to a double bed she disrobes and tells him mischievously (almost minatorily) to prepare himself for strenuous sex. Where are we?” And another.
It is no secret that I like to write book reviews. Except when I’m sleepy. Or if I’m busy. Or if I get distracted by… Where am I?
Anyway, I wrote this blog a year or so ago addressing an example of people conflating book reviews with book promotion. I’m reposting it because of a recent discussion I had where several people were angry that a Mythcreants article failed to mention the authors of books being used as examples.
The issue that people seemed to have with the names being omitted was that it “wasn’t how reviews are meant to be written”….* Apparently the important details of a book review are listing the Title, Author, Publisher, Publication Date, etc, so that people can find the books easily. Yeah, an article on the internet referencing well-known books isn’t making it easy enough to find the books. Their irony meter must have been lost with the demise of Altavista.
Let me state up front: to my mind, book reviews are about helping people find good stuff to read and promoting authors whose work you’ve enjoyed. Of course some reviewers use it as a an opportunity to break away from the internet commenter stereotype and be jerks to others. This can be frustrating for authors and readers, but about par for the course as far as internet comments goes.
Fortunately an author has written a blog post advising people how to properly review books. Because you’re doing it wrong…
As a reader, reviewer, and occasionally sober writer, I don’t think authors should be telling readers what to do or how to do it, so the post doesn’t sit right with me. Actually, a lot of things don’t sit right with me, especially if they aren’t single malt and well aged.
Who are book reviews for?
You might be forgiven for thinking that writing a book review is primarily to flatter the author, or thank the author for writing an enjoyable book.
Book reviews are for prospective readers; to inform those buyers who are browsing the Amazon bookstore, chatting on Goodreads or following on-line bloggers, to decide if they might enjoy the book as much as the reviewer did.
The first major point is one I agree with: book reviews are for readers. But maybe not the readers the author thinks. Reviews are primarily about that reader and their thoughts. Sure, they may be trying to communicate with other readers and make recommendations, but let’s face facts, it is mostly just about sharing an opinion. Or is that shouting into the void? I can never remember the difference.
My philosophy on book reviewing – helping and promoting good stuff – is probably shared by many, or not, I haven’t checked. But I see it as an important aspect of being a reader and writer. Thanks to the wonders of technology we have access to more books than we’ll ever be able to read, and some of them are worth reading. Sharing your opinion of a book can help others find stories that will entertain them. Personally I’m not a fan of sharing reviews of books I haven’t enjoyed, just the ones I think others will enjoy reading, but negative and positive reviews are both helpful.
But, that’s just me. Readers aren’t obligated to say nice things about a book, nor promote it, nor make sure there are links to anything (except references, those are damned important I tells ya!).
The next points:
What to include:
The best single rule to remember is this: Only write about the actual book!
You can include a very brief outline of the story, but remember the book description is already right there, so consider these points:
Was the story believable, did it keep you engaged right to the last page?
Did the structure of the plot work for you?
If it’s a mystery, was there one?
The characters. Did they seem real, multi-dimensional people?
The author’s writing style. How was it for you?
The first point on this list is, frankly, rubbish. A book does not exist in a vacuum. Well, unless it was taken into space, but why would anyone do that? Unless they are an astronaut, but they’d want the book in the ship with them.
Anyway, all art/media is a product of the space it was created in, it has cultural and philosophical underpinnings that are part and parcel. And following on from that, the cultural landscape changes over time and individuals consuming the art/media are going to evolve as a result. So you can’t just write only about the book in a review, you will always bring baggage with you. Want an example? Try watching the original Ghostbusters movie without thinking Bill Murray’s character isn’t just a tad rape-y by today’s standards.
The next points about the story and how it is written are fair enough advice on things you could include. But you could include all or none of those things and still write a good review. The review has a subject and you only really need to include the stuff relevant to that subject – which means you might never mention the author, publisher, publication date, major or minor characters, etc.
The next part is where this blog post gets juicy:
What not to include:
Your possible relationship to the author, however vague.
If you need to reference the author, then use the surname only or call them the author or include their full name. Never use Christian names as it may compromise the validity of the review and some sites will remove them permanently.
Imagine if you saw this review on the latest Dan Brown: Hello Dan love, fabulous book, Five stars! I expect the vast majority of us would laugh, Dan Brown would most certainly cringe – but most importantly, would this sort of review help you form a decision to buy the book if you’d not read it?
I don’t know about the last point, I’ve read Dan Brown’s Inferno; I’m not sure he knows how to cringe.
There are two points to unpack here: the first is the idea that your relationship with the author doesn’t have any bearing on a review; the second is the idea that you’re trying to help the author sell books. To suggest that there is a way to refer to an author or that you shouldn’t mention conflicts of interest is wrong. If I like someone I will naturally be inclined to think their book is better than someone whom I don’t know or like. Similarly, if I already like someone’s writing, their lesser works are likely to be viewed more favourably than a new author’s work.
It also irks me that the blog is implying that the author is off-limits for criticism. That is rubbish. If I know that the book or author is controversial, then that will also colour my review and is worth raising. An example was James Frey’s Lorian Legacies series published under a pseudonym. During my reading of I Am Number Four I noticed several very lazy factual inaccuracies and wanted to know who the author actually was. It was then that I found out that Frey had scammed a bunch of writing students to produce the series. Not only did that colour my (lack of) appreciation of the novel, but it was information I felt other readers should know. Because screw that guy.
This links nicely into the next point about reviews helping to sell books. It is true that book reviews help sell books: who’d have thunk? It is also true that if you want to see more great material from an author one of the things you can do is make sure people know you enjoyed the book. But since when is it the reader/reviewer’s obligation to help sell books for an author? Shouldn’t an author be happy that you bought and enjoyed their book? Well, unless you borrowed the book from a library, friend, or got a freebie. I understand the desire of authors to encourage people to review their book/s, and what it can help do in terms of recognition and thus sales, but a review isn’t about selling a book. The review is about the reader sharing their thoughts on a book they have read. Book store clerks get paid, readers don’t. Worth remembering.
The weather! I’m being tongue-in-cheek here but really, no honestly, there’s no need to mention the weather…
How long the book took to arrive in the post, or that it was damaged. This isn’t the fault of the author – stick to reviewing the book.
Likewise, problems with your Amazon account: It won’t download. This is not the author’s fault and should never form part of a book review.
These next few comments are mainly about Amazon reviews and how people talk about the buying of the book in their review. While it is completely understandable for an author to be frustrated with comments in a review that are unrelated to the story they wrote, this recommendation is not only self-serving drivel, it forgets who the review is for.
If someone orders a book from Amazon and the shipment is not filled quickly, or won’t download, or the pricing is ridiculous, or the bonus “massager” didn’t arrive with the romance novel order, then that is a legitimate gripe. Other readers on the Amazon store will want to know this stuff. But even if this wasn’t on the Amazon store, there is legitimate griping to be done. For example, in Australia several major publishers price their ebooks based upon the currently available paper version’s price.** So if the hardcover is out, you pay hardcover prices for an ebook. Where else but a book review are you going to express your consumer discontent on this? Well, aside from in a blog post like this one. Or if you are talking to one of the publishers at a writers’ festival. Or if you know someone, who knows someone, who is related to a publisher.
I’d agree that there needs to be a distinction made been the store’s service, the publisher’s pricing, and the novel itself, in site reviews. Having those categories un-lumped would be something I’d support. Along with free hats. Everyone loves a free hat. But that I can’t go along with blaming the reviewers for not making that distinction.
Spoilers: giving away crucial parts of the plot and therefore spoiling it for other readers, e.g. I’m glad Susan was dead by chapter three.
Copying and pasting the entire book description – please dont.
And the worst of all: I haven’t read it yet… so one star. Why on earth do sites allow these ‘reviews’ to remain?
Some people really hate spoilers, others love them, others still are ambivalent, others still still will hunt you down and kill you with your own keyboard for posting them. As such there is an etiquette to posting spoilers in a review. If you are an undefeated Muay Thai fighter with a decent ground game, then you can post whatever spoiler you like. If you are anyone else, you can post spoilers as long as you warn people you are going to do it. Then people can read or skip the spoilers to their heart’s content, assuming the Muay Thai fighter hasn’t ripped their heart out of their chest for posting a spoiler.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone post a book review that includes a copy and paste of the book description. If this actually happens then it is either a compliment to the blurb author for capturing the book perfectly so as to act as an appropriate review, or someone needs to learn how to type their own thoughts.
The final point is about the dismissive one star review. Now some people, such as the blog post author, complain that these sorts of reviews are not legitimate. Nonsense. Books have a cover, a blurb, the reader might have read other books by the author, etc, all of which can be more than enough information for the reviewer. For example, let’s say that someone has written a book – fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t really matter – that claims climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, NWO, Zionist Bankers to something something profit-gravy-train. Do I really need to leave a long and extensive review once I’ve read the book? Or can I just point out that it is nonsense? Is that not legitimate comment?
Now these have all been relatively minor gripes to quibble with. Fun fact: Quibbles are the Earth equivalent of Tribbles. Bonus fact: the most famous Quibble currently sits on the President of the USA’s head.
Quibbles and Tribbles aside, let’s talk about complaining about book reviews not being done the way you want, when you yourself don’t review books. There is that inspiring – or is that insipid? – quote about being the change you want to see which applies here. The author of the blog post has exactly zero book reviews on their site, not counting the promotion of reviews of their own novels. The author’s Goodreads page has no books listed as having been rated or reviewed. Do as I say, not as I do. I mean, sure, that isn’t demanding at all.
In summary, it’s best to be thankful for readers writing reviews, even the bad reviews.
*Let’s just ignore that the article in question wasn’t a book review but an article that was using famous books as examples to make a larger point. The poor dears are having enough problems with conflating reviews with promotion.
**Not sure this is still the case in 2017. It was the case for many years though.
For quite some time now, which is another way of saying I can’t remember when exactly, I’ve been saying that e-readers are one screen improvement in phones/tablets away from redundancy. Now tech writers (whom I love) are coming round to my way of thinking, with a recent article in Salon suggesting that e-readers are going the way of mp3 players and vinyl:
Tech writers have begun rolling out their eulogies for the humble e-reader, which Mashable has deemed “the next iPod.” As in, it’s the next revolutionary, single-purpose device that’s on the verge of being replaced by smartphones and tablet computers. Barnes & Noble is spinning off its Nook division. Amazon just debuted its own smartphone, which some are taking as a tacit admission that more people are reading books on their phone these days, to the detriment of the Kindle. The analysts at Forrester, meanwhile, expect that U.S. e-reader sales will tumble to 7 million per year by 2017, down from 25 million in 2012.
At New York Magazine, Kevin Roose argues that this is “bad news for the book industry.” He writes:
If you’ve ever tried to read a book on your phone, you’ll know why. Reading on an original Kindle or a Nook is an immersive experience. There are no push notifications from other apps to distract you from your novel, no calendar reminders or texts popping up to demand your immediate attention. And this immersion is partly why people who use dedicated e-readers tend to buy a lot of books. (One survey indicated that e-book readers read about 24 books a year, compared to 15 books a year for paper-and-ink readers.)
A drop in e-book sales, which are actually more profitable for publishers than hardcovers, would certainly mean trouble for the industry. But I’m not convinced that’s where the death of e-readers will lead. Nook and Kindle owners might buy more books than your typical American, but I’m guessing a lot of that is simply because they’re more, well, bookish. As Pew wrote in January, “Adults who own e-readers like Kindles or Nooks read e-books more frequently than those who only own other devices (like tablets or cell phones). However, it is difficult to know whether that is because dedicated e-readers encourage more reading or because avid readers are more likely to purchase e-reading devices.”
Devices come. Devices go. The Kindle and Nook helped teach us all to pay for e-books, and I’m guessing that will be delivering publishers dividends for years to come.
I think we can all agree that e-books themselves aren’t dying, or books for that matter. I’d argue that reading a novel, or similar, will continue to be a pastime for many years to come, regardless of medium: digital, physical, or metaphysical. We’ll probably still be reading books when flame breathing giant lizards enter our dimension to destroy civilisation. After that time we’ll be too busy building something other than giant robots to fight the monsters to worry about reading.
When e-readers originally hit the market, phone screens were much smaller and the iPad was in its infancy, thus the e-ink screens of the e-readers offered a much better reading experience. They were a hit with the avid reading crowd, with the ability to shop for books, read them, shop for more books, read them, maybe do a bit more reading, then think about charging the e-reader in between side-loading some more books. But all of those advantages were heavily reliant upon the better reading experience.
Phones and tablets as e-readers have many advantages: they tend to go everywhere with us; they can access all libraries; they can access all online bookshops, not just the one you bought the e-reader from (*cough* Amazon *cough*); they can be used for audiobooks; they have a larger market share so better technology advancements (i.e. where’s the colour e-ink we were promised?); and they can do things other than be used as a reading device. Now with a range of screen sizes in phones and tablets (e.g. Samsung Note, iPad Mini, iPad, standard phone, etc) there is a non-dedicated e-reader suited to you!
Although, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. This magical new screen I’m seeing in my crystal ball – did I mention I see a breakup on the horizon for Brad and Angelina? – isn’t here yet. Until we have the new screen and e-reader owners are upgrading or replacing their old devices, the dedicated e-ink e-reader is still going to be the device of reading choice for avid readers. The articles are talking about a decline in sales from a peak of 25 million in 2012, to a “predicted” 7 million in 2017. Is this really surprising regardless of a tech upgrade?
You see, this is why I love tech articles so much: the lack of a reality check. 25 million sales in 2012 (26 million in 2011 from my source), on top of other sales in previous years, pretty much taps out the avid reader market to sell e-reader devices to. So any sales after that are going to be from old e-readers dying and needing replacement, which is probably where the 7 million figure comes in (note that my source shows that to occur in 2016, not 2017). That isn’t the death of the e-reader, that is the maturation of the market. I guess we could try to convince avid readers to not spend as much money on books and instead spend more money on buying e-readers, but that would lead to all sorts of problems. We’d need shelves to store all of these e-readers on, maybe even taking up entire walls; file them using some sort of system that allows us to easily find them in order; perhaps hire a person, let’s call them a librarian, to look after these e-readers until someone comes to use them.
So despite my agreement that e-readers will eventually be replaced by other devices, I think that news of the death of the e-reader is greatly exaggerated.
That’s right my fellow book lovers – lovers in the adoration sense, not in the brace yourself, oh yeah, uh-huh, uh-huh, chikka bow-wow, sense – it appears that Sony has decided it doesn’t want a dedicated e-reader, in fact it doesn’t even want an e-book store. They have announced that they are pulling out and customers are being transferred to the Kobo store.
Of course, I don’t think anyone is particularly surprised by this decision. Raise your hand if you’ve ever actually seen a Sony e-reader. Now keep it up if you’ve actually owned one. If you can see anyone with their hand still raised, I’d question how you manage to turn people’s web cams on. Sony has been playing at the bottom end of the market for e-readers and e-books for quite a while now. The chart below from Goodreads shows Sony were picking up Kobo’s scraps in the market.
So what does this mean for us readers? Well, it means the big dedicated e-readers remain, the Kindle and Nook. It also means Kobo could pick up a bit more of the e-reader and e-book market. But that isn’t particularly interesting to me, I’ll discuss why in a moment. What is interesting is the Sony e-reader is probably the victim of the modern device market.
I read an interesting tech article that was discussing mobile phones. They pointed out that the companies making money on phones weren’t actually making money on the phone sales, especially at the mid to lower price points, but instead cashing in on the app stores and downloads. The phone is a loss leader for the software business they run. Nokia and their deal with Microsoft is a classic example of this, with Nokia battling to compete for market share and profits.
Translate that to e-readers and the same thing applies. It was even worse for Sony, as the other competitors were/are selling their Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc, as a loss leader to get people using their store or affiliates. This meant that the big stores attract the users, who buy the associated tech, which locks them to the stores (to some extent at least), leading to e-book sales profits. Terrific! As long as you don’t think too hard about the slave labour making the devices.
The reason I don’t find the market positioning of the e-reader devices of much interest is down to a few things. The first is a little statistic that has been showing up in surveys from Goodreads and The Pew Institute; namely that 29-37% of people read books on their phone (23% on a tablet). A dedicated reading device is only really in the book space now because the e-reader screen has less eye fatigue. At the moment! Watch this bubble burst as phones and tablets eat away at the readability technology, such that e-reader screens become redundant. Mobile devices also don’t have to be linked to any one e-book store, so interesting times are on the horizon.
This morning I was browsing my various news feeds when I noticed someone had written an article about the arrival of the Amazon Kindle store in Australia. Clearly this article was going to feed my confirmation bias on how awesome it was to have an Aussie version of Amazon available, just like Canada, the UK, India, Germany, Spain, etc. No longer being locked out of some editions of books because of our region, an Aussie store is one step closer to Aussie writers not having all the publishing issues that currently exist, a .au suffix making us feel special: all good! Right?
Amazon has been prising open the wallets of Australian consumers for years – but what will its local push on Kindle mean for readers, writers and publishers?
It is always good to start an article by using emotive language and by poisoning the well. The use of a logical fallacy so early in the article does not bode well for Ben’s opinion piece.
The local book industry is threatened by Kindle’s entry into the Australian market. When Amazon opened its Australian Kindle store last month, it was to feisty reaction from independent bookshops. Charismatic Sydney bookseller Jon Page of Pages & Pages Booksellers even relaunched his “Kindle amnesty” – a scheme that allows conscientious local readers to swap their Kindle for the Australian book sector’s preferred e-reader, the Kobo, and receive a $50 book voucher for their trouble.
This opening reference to a stand by one independent bookshop being representative of all bookshops is another example of polarizing the argument before raising any actual evidence, essentially further poisoning the well. You see we are set up to believe that the Kobo e-reader is somehow better for Australian bookshops, despite Kobo also being in direct competition with stores in the same way the Kindle is, as well as to love the “feisty” response to the big bully Amazon arriving.
“We’re calling it Kindle Amnesty 2.0,” jokes Page, who is spruiking for the Kobo Aura HD, which he argues is “equal to or better than the Kindle Paperwhite”. Those who read via tablets such as the iPad or Galaxy have access to Kobo reader apps. “We want to take the fight to Amazon because they are so dominant in this market, particularly with the Kindle device,” argues Page. Pointing to the Commonwealth’s 2011 Book Industry Strategy Group report, he claims that Kindle represents about 70% of dedicated e-reading devices. (This figure does not include tablets, phones or laptops). “That’s a problem, because the Kindle locks competition out and locks customers in.”
My idea of a joke is a thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline. “We’re calling it Kindle Amnesty 2.0” doesn’t really make the grade as a joke, but this is all about, again, poisoning the well and polarizing the reader to the author’s opinion without needing to state facts or evidence.
The next point about the Kobo being as good or better than the Kindle is neither here nor there, it just doesn’t matter. I agree that the Kobo is a great e-reader, but most e-readers are pretty good, you are really choosing an e-reader based upon the stores and catalogue they offer access to. I’ve written before about hearing Kobo Australia’s chief seeming to have a very good idea of what is needed in the market place for readers and authors. But ultimately the raising of Kobo vs. Kindle in a discussion about Aussie bookstores is like raising a conversation about which is the tastier bacon at a vegetarian food store.
Finally we do get some actual data, showing that the Kindle is the biggest e-reading device. Well, d’uh. Amazon have the biggest store and have expanded into the most markets, have invested in technology early, have created new markets themselves, and have….. Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. The point is that the argument raised is that Amazon and the Kindle have a monopoly. Which is true. What is false about this assertion is the idea that the monopoly isn’t one that can be supplanted by the next generation of technology, or better business models arriving, or the competition preying on Amazon’s weaknesses.
You see, the key weakness for Kindle is also it’s strength. If you lock readers into one store you allow the competition to usurp the market by doing the deals with many stores and libraries (hang on, that’s what Kobo is doing in Australia and Canada!). You also have to remember that the Kindle or any other e-reader is only really for avid readers. Tablets and phones are for the more casual readers, thus they aren’t locked into one device or one store. So we are only another generation of technology away from e-readers losing their advantage over tablets and phones, and the entire Kindle argument becomes moot.
Industry sentiment is divided over the impact of the entry of the tech giant into Australian online retailing. Some have been forecasting impending doom. Others are merely apprehensive about Jeff Bezos’ juggernaut. Amazon’s thin margins terrify competitors. Despite vast revenues, the parent company makes no profit. Amazon raked in US$17bn in net sales last quarter, for an operating loss of US$25m. Analysts and brokers are starting to wonder whether, eventually, Amazon’s gravity-defying stock price will tumble to earth.
This part is a doozy. Ben has framed a false dichotomy in how the industry perceives Amazon. Where is the mention of the people who love their Kindle and the Amazon store? Where is the mention of the people who like their Kindle and Amazon but want to be able to use other formats and borrow e-books from their local library? This is a common false dilemma fallacy used in arguments.
Next the argument goes to Amazon’s business model, providing some facts but leaving out others. Why? Why not mention what the “thin margins” are that terrify competitors? I’d sure like to know. The next point is about how Amazon makes heaps of money, yet doesn’t profit….. Remember above how I mentioned that Amazon had stayed ahead of the competition by expanding and investing? Well that’s where all that revenue is going, straight back into making their business better.
What I’ve always wondered was why an online bookstore was the first one to grab hold of the e-reader concept. E-books are not new, nor are e-readers. They have been waiting in the wings for a decade or more, waiting for a company to invest and make things happen. Why wasn’t this investor a publishing house? Why not a major bookstore chain? Surely they are meant to be knowledgable about their industry and future trends, so why weren’t they the ones creating the new digital marketplace instead of Amazon? The answer is obvious. Amazon had the balls to do it and had an eye on the future, instead of a protectionist view of old and antiquated business and media models. To the victor go the spoils.
But other industry observers have argued that an Australian Amazon presence will be good for consumers and readers. As Kobo’s Malcolm Neil told Melbourne’s Independent Publishing Conference recently: “Amazon is good because the customer likes them … We’re not going to win the argument by telling people they’re wrong.”
Didn’t I say above about Kobo’s boss being a bright guy that knew what the industry wanted? If you’ve heard Malcolm talk about the publishing industry before you know that he has a lot of good points that have been left out, can’t think why. Malcolm’s points are the first example in this article of a different viewpoint being offered. But we’ve already been setup to either disagree with it or ignore it.
Martin Shaw, books division manager at independent retailer Readings, argues that Amazon’s Australia venture may not be such big a deal. “It is only ebooks,” he says. “That market has got so many players in it now, who knows what sort of impact it will have? We will just have to see how the dust settles.” Shaw foresees a coming war of devices in which competitors try to lock customers into competing ecosystems. “I think there will be a lot of devices flooding the market trying to get people to enter the walled garden,” he says. “That will force other e-tailers like Kobo to become more aggressive.”
This speaks to my points above about Amazon and Kindle only being one technology change away from losing market share. I used the example of tablets and phones, but there are other examples in the online stores themselves. Both Kobo and Amazon have exclusive author deals happening. We’ll probably see more of this, which starts to sound like publishing houses and their favoured deals with stores.
Of course the irony is that, in our globalised world, Amazon is not really “starting up” in Australia at all. The retail behemoth has long been prising open the wallets of Australian consumers, who have been buying books and all manner of other things from Amazon in the US for years – estimates of how much that market is worth vary enormously. The move by Amazon to begin an “.au” store that trades in Australian dollars and sells Australian ebooks through Kindle merely makes that custom one step easier. “All that’s changed now is that it’s an Australian-facing site,” Page argues.
I think the irony with this paragraph is the use of the term irony when there appears to be none. But it does give the article a chance to move away from the viewpoints the author disagrees with and move back to more Amazon hate.
There are upsides for consumers. The Gordian knot of digital copyrights, based around various national boundaries, has meant that some US and Australian titles were not available as ebooks in Australia. The new Amazon.com.au store can now stock a much wider range of titles that have Australian-only digital licences.
Lower prices for consumers: Yay!
And prices will be forced lower. Shaw says that we may see “a race to the bottom”. Amazon’s deep pockets, he says, means “they can go there [to low prices] and stay there for as long as they want”. Australian book prices are still much higher than comparable titles internationally. In Amazon’s view, that margin can be returned to consumers in the form of lower prices.
Okay, Yay and Bullshit. Currently Australian e-book prices are ridiculously high. You cannot justify the high cost of an e-book when there are no distribution or printing costs. I have been meaning to post some figures taken from a few publishing houses and their presentation to the shareholder meetings, figures that show just how profitable e-books are for them thanks to the lower costs associated. There is actual irony here, because those same publishing houses are using e-books lower price to justify lower advances and smaller royalty percentages to authors. So Amazon making prices more competitive is a good thing, for readers and authors.
A quick look around the various sites for Australian ebooks revealed some savings. An ebook of Ross Garnaut’s Dog Days worth $9.99 on Kobo, was $9.49 on Amazon. Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winner The Luminaries was $10.68 on Kobo; on Amazon it was $9.35. (As a comparison, a paperback of Dog Days costs $15.29 from Bookworld, while The Luminaries costs $22.49). For other titles, owing to so-called “agency pricing”, Kobo and Amazon’s prices have converged: Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda was the same price on both.
Notice that this is the only time “agency pricing” is mentioned. It will not be discussed again. Despite the importance it plays in this entire argument about e-books, pricing, readers, authors, the industry and who is screwing whom.
The other potential winners of Amazon’s entry are successful authors and self-publishers. Amazon’s benefits to authors are controversial, but for the top tier they are real. The Australian publishing industry has been rather wary of embracing the digital world and while it’s hard to pinpoint precise figures, there’s a perception that many local authors have lagged well behind their US counterparts in ebook market penetration. Australian self-publishers will now get a 70% royalty for books sold to Amazon.com.au accounts. International experience has shown that a lucky few will reach big new audiences with bestselling self-published titles. Although on the other hand, mid-rank and lower authors may find themselves little better off.
Well, d’uh. Any new bookstore or way to buy books will favour already successful authors (NB: self-publishers are authors too), because, wait for it, people buy books by successful authors. What is not mentioned is that Amazon algorithms are more likely to expose readers/buyers to authors they haven’t heard of because of purchases they have made or books they have liked. I don’t know if Kobo have a similar system, but I do know that most bookstores do not have anything remotely similar to the promotional power of Amazon for new, emerging or midlist authors.
The statement about Australian self-publishers will “now” get 70% royalties is deliberately misleading. They already get a 70% royalty, that has been the policy from day one at Amazon, it is what all the other self-publishing platforms have come to adopt as well (correct me if I’m wrong on this, I haven’t checked them all).
Meanwhile, agents, publishers and booksellers still face real challenges from digital, Amazon or not. Digital is reshaping the industry and still threatens to cut middlemen out of the chain. Online-only retailers like Bookworld may be the most vulnerable, lacking the size and scale to adequately compete. When Amazon bought Book Depository, the UK retailer popular with Australian consumers, there was consternation in the book industry, despite the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deciding not to oppose the move.
Yeah, who’d have thought an antiquated business model would be under threat by changes in the industry? And didn’t the article make the point that Amazon has already been in Australia to a large extent for years? So doesn’t this kinda negate any points made here?
As books blogger Patrick O’Duffy wrote recently in a long analysis of Amazon’s entry into the Australian market: “By starting this process of moving into Australia, Amazon is going to permanently affect the local writing, reading, publishing and bookselling world.” That much at least seems certain.
Um, no. This final statement and paragraph are about 10 years out of date. E-books and the ability of authors to manage their own careers without ‘gatekeepers’ is what has changed the industry. This has happened for quite a while now. To say that Amazon opening an Aussie store suddenly changes things completely negates the history and many of the points raised in this article.
Now that I’ve addressed the article by Ben Eltham, paragraph by paragraph, I think it is clear that this article is nonsense. It is just another in the long line of e-book, e-publishing, self-publishing, fear-mongering articles that have come to represent “informed” comment on the publishing industry over the last 5 to 10 years. I for one am sick of these articles, in fact I hate them. It isn’t just the continued “fear of change” mantra they all adhere to. The main reason I hate these sorts of articles is that they are trying to pretend that the publishing industry is hurt by changes that benefit readers and writers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Readers and writers are the publishing industry, everyone else is there at their behest. If those middlemen want to stay in the game then they have to offer something to the readers and writers that is beneficial to both. And the success of Amazon (Kobo, etc) and the various publishing houses (agents, editors, designers, etc) that have adopted/adapted to the new paradigms, only illustrates how out of touch these articles are with the industry. Instead of discussing the real issues, like the squeeze on authors, we get another stream of uninformed bile.