Friday, February 21, 2014

Books: Is Amazon Good For Readers?

(Drivebycuriosity) - "Is Amazon bad for books", asks the "New Yorker" (newyorker). This is a leading question. George Packer, the author, explicates in an elaborated and very long article that he believes, Amazon is bad for books.  I disagree. And I suppose he asked the wrong question. Books don´t have a life of their own. Thus what can be good or bad for them? Books have purposes for readers, publishers and authors which could be different. What interests me, is Amazon good for readers?

My answer is a clear yes. And I have 2 reasons for that:

1. Low Prices

Amazon - and their online competitors - make books much cheaper, especially in their incarnations as e-books. For instance "Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality", by MIT physics professor Max Tegmark, a book which had recently a review in the New York Times, has a print list price of $30, the current Kindle offer is $11,19 (amazon).

Who wants to spend $30 for a book? I am a book lover, but I don't have a fortune to burn for that. In the past I often skiped buying a book because it was way to expensive. Now many Kindle books are offered for $4 or less, which makes them much more attractive for me. Therefore I buy more books and I read more. Prices below $5 open a paradise for book lover.

Critics presume that the low prices on Amazon will drive competitors out of the market. They claim that Amazon would gain monopoly power which they then could use to hike prices again. This is nonsense. There are already some huge competitors like Google and Apple which are not vulnerable. Both are trying to get a piece from the book market. Amazon can not get rid of competitors. And if Amazon would lift prices new competitors would arrive. There will be never a monopoly.

And it is not really Amazon, which its squeezing prices, it is the technology. If Amazon wouldn´t offer cheap books online, Google and other companies would do that. Amazon is cheaper than traditional bookshops because their technology (software and large fulfillment centers) is very efficient and productive. The online book market, including e-books, is comparable with the invention of book printing in the 15th century and the introduction of paperbacks in the 20th century which both reduced book prices significantly. All these technological revolutions opened books for the masses.

2. Convenience and Selection

On Amazon - and some of its online competitors - I can buy almost any book on print with a mouse click. And e-books arrive within seconds on my Kindle reader. Therefore Amazon offers a much larger selection and is much more comfortable than bookshops who often focus on bestseller and don´t have the space for niche products.

I believe that Amazon even increases the selection because the online seller is good for authors too. Anyone can publish an e-book on the Amazon Kindle platform. Publisher aren`t interested in the mass of unknown writers. They focus on approved bestseller authors who can cash high advances. Even  J. K. Rowling`s first  Harry Potter manuscript got rejected by 8 publishers before the publishing house Bloomsbury accepted and printed the novel (wikipedia).

With the help of Amazon books get published - though often just as e-books - which would`t have a got refused by traditional publisher. Low prices and convenience also increase the number of book buyers which expands the chances for unknown authors and book specialities. In the end the buyer (reader) decides which book will be a success - not a big publishing house, a very democratic process. This is a win-win situation for readers and most of the authors.

Milk, Eggs and Butter

"The New Yorker"  bemoans that Amazon treats books the same way as other products. They sell books like shoes, appliances, cameras, pet supplies - or in the words of Packer "milk, eggs and butter". Maybe so. But that doesn´t hurt. The big traditional publisher do the same. Amazon is just more efficient. Business spirit and competitive approach coerce the company to be efficient and sell as cheap and customer friendly as possible - otherwise book buyers click on the offers by competitors. I am happy to have cheap & easy access to milk, eggs and butter - and to books too.

Conclusion: may be bad for huge publishing companies like the giant Penguin Random House, but it is good for authors and readers.

Disclosure: I am an investor in, user of a Kindle and subscriber of Amazon Prime.

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