Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Has amazon fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value?

Two of my favourite ways to lose time online are amazon and twitter so it's something of a bonanza when twitter points me to an article about amazon... In this case from The New Yorker. Amongst other things it argues that "amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimum value". I'm not sure it's a statement I entirely agree with but it's certainly a question worth considering. The subtitle is "Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?" I'm not sure I agree with that either.

I'm old enough to remember the net book agreement in the U.K. It was great for independent bookshops - no one could under sell them, and I suspect better for publishers and accountants too, and as the U.K. is a reasonably cheap place to buy books (no vat on the paper sort) customers probably didn't suffer unduly under the old system either. Now of course the retailer with the greatest buying power, and those able to sell either at cost or at a loss have a definite advantage over there competitors, long term I don't believe that's in anyone's best interest, not even the customer who feels like they're getting a bargain. When margins are squeezed like that all our choices are diminished.

As far as amazon goes I'm basically a fan, although their plans for world domination are undoubtedly a worry, for every bad news story there's generally a positive one as well and I very much like being able to get cut price cookbooks. The thing is when you get away from the big name titles the discounts aren't actually that huge, many, if not most of the fiction paperbacks I look at are within a pound or so of what I would pay on the high street (if I could find them on the high street) and balanced against that saving is the hassle of dealing with couriers. In this country at least I would be tempted to say that supermarkets have done as much to alter the perceived value of a book as amazon has, although I guess it's amazon who now set the benchmark as to price as anyone with a smart phone (and a signal) can check and judge cost accordingly.

What I'm still coming to terms with however is the idea of ebooks. I've only very recently stuck a toe in the water with these. My phone has a kindle app and from time to time I've found it useful. When trying to sell me on e-readers (it's a losing battle people, I'm never going to be a convert) the main argument used is always for the amount of classics available free or at very low cost. I notice there's also a murky underworld of free or very cheap fiction most of which I take to be self published (after ordering a few Viking saga's I was recommended some really odd 'romance' titles).

Free is a seductive sort of price for the hard up but it definitely devalues books as a whole. Another thing I've noticed over the last couple of days are a number of one star reviews for otherwise well received titles based purely on the kindle price. This seems really unfair for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that it clearly has nothing to do with the content of the book. Authors, publishers, and even electronic booksellers have to make a living, and e-books attract vat which does it's bit to push prices up. Part of me feels a little bit smug when I read howls of protest from someone who has just shelled out £100 or more on a shiny new device only to discover that they still have to pay a reasonable amount for content for it. They seem to feel so cheated, but then it's hard to really understand where the money is going, or even why you have to pay it when you don't get an actual object to hold in return.

I don't believe that amazon is responsible for fostering the idea that books are of minimal value anymore than Penguin were in the 1930's when they introduced those orange paperbacks. Paperbacks that can still be picked up for pence in any number of second hand and charity shops. It's a good thing to live in a world where books are basically affordable and easily available, it's a great thing to have a market place in which small independent publishers catering for a niche audience can easily reach that audience. It's an interesting thing to have a retailer so all reaching that they get to set the perceived value of a book but I think that in the end responsibility basically stays with the customer and buying cheap now might not be best for us in the long term.  


  1. I don't get the minimum value feel myself, probably because books in Australia are very expensive. It's difficult to take a book for granted when you have to consider if you can really justify purchasing a paperback in Oz for two to three times its cost overseas, even if you can find it in the first place without having to order it in. I do wonder if one day when we're all (OK, not you...) converted to ebooks and the industry decides to hike all the prices!

    1. Every so often I see some debate about ebooks, the price always seems to be a sticking point. My issue is why spend a hundred pounds on a piece of technology that will be obsolete before you know it and then have to buy content for the thing. I have paperbacks which are 60 years or more old. They cost me pence and are still readable. Not sure a kindle will be in 60 years time. I have a free app on my phone and have downloaded a couple of things most of which have been free which all seems to good to be true. I get the point of them but they're just not for me. (Rant over).

      We are lucky in the UK because much as I complain about it books are basically good value here. A full price paperback is generally somewhere between £7 and £10 which isn't precisely cheap but comparable with going to the cinema. I read a while back an article about ebook piracy, the comments stunned me - lots of people who were happily saying they didn't regard hooky copies as theft because ideas should be free (how are authors meant to live) and because they felt ebooks were too expensive so therefore it was basically okay to steal them. The reviews I was reading on amazon had the same enraged disbelief about price - it seems we struggle to attach a value to content, it's all about the physical object. I also hate the idea of any one retailer becoming to powerful, it won't do any of us any favours.

  2. Good post Hayley. I think the demise of the NBA was the prime cause and Amazon and the supermarkets leapt on it with glee. More insidious in a way though is the explosion on Amazon of used copies of books for 1p (+p&p) that has totally devalued the second-hand market. Small vendors of S/H books are being edged out by all these huge companies with warehouses full of 1p books, who get cheaper listing rates and Amazon fees than small vendors who are having to specialise more and more. I used to subsidise my daughter's cello lessons by selling on my books once read, but if I can't net £1 on a sale what's the point these days? I'm trying not to buy 1p books - but do succumb now and again.

  3. I didn't know that about the 1p book market. I like to shop for books but sometimes there's something specific and out of print and then the lure of the bargain is to strong to resist. I noticed that the River Cottage fruit book is listed on amazon at £5 at the moment which is crazy. It's a good book and anybody who buys it at that price is getting a great bargain but can anybody be making any money? And if nobody is, surely that's a totally unsustainable situation. Normally this is my hobby horse with food politics but as tough as it is we have to pay what things are worth to preserve choice and diversity and jobs, and long term to protect ourselves from supplier monopolies. I guess it's all about balance and choice.

  4. I think the minimum value idea referred to in the article has more to do with the high volume, low return rate of books -- and the relative ease of shipping. It made books the perfect entry point into the online retail marketplace for Amazon. I have no sense that Amazon -- which I love for the ease with which I can find hard-to-find and antiquarian books. My dealings with their customer service specialists the few times I've had an issue with an order have been an absolute pleasure. I wish my local independent bookseller was as helpful.

  5. I wish I had a local independent bookseller! I try and spend in actual shops because I prefer it that way but am also happy to use amazon when it's the best option for me - generally that's when looking for out of print books. I'm quite interested by the whole ebook thing, I assume that as they get a bigger market share they'll need to become more expensive to pay for authors, editing, PR, and all the rest but it seems that on the whole we're quite resistant to the idea of paying out for a non physical book - what does that say about the value of the content?

  6. I know what you mean ... I find that I don't value my ebooks as much as my 'real' ones. Amazon had a big sale in January where a lot of books that were in hardback were marked down to £1 as Kindle files. Given that I am poverty-stricken, I succumbed as the bargains were fantastic on books that I actually wanted but it never feels as if I actually have the real book, even though I can reread them whenever I want.

  7. I find I just don't read them - I don't have very many but I'm an out of sight out of mind kind of person. A book that I can't see will never be top of my tbr pile.