Amazon and Apple: why they succeeded, and why tradpub is failing

I wrote a blog post on adaptation – and why I have an Amazon Kindle, not a Sears Kindle. A tweet from Mark Huntley-James (whose books you should definitely read, but not while drinking a hot beverage or wearing nice clothes) prompted me to give my totally-unasked-for opinion on exactly what Apple and Amazon did right, and what various other businesses (including most of tradpub) are doing wrong. It’s probably not terribly unique, but this is my blog and if I want to be opinionated, I can. ūüôā

Answer: they gave customers what they really wanted/need, not what they said they wanted/needed, and not what the company wanted/needed.

Amazon

Amazon, for instance, operates at the bottom end of the market – and is now so successful that the bottom end reaches most of the way to the top. But its dominance stems from three things:

  1. Sell people the item they want.
  2. Sell it at a reasonable price.
  3. Make it convenient for people to buy from you.

Amazon is the only retailer who has lockers¬†in my office building¬†so I can have purchases sent to work. Where I actually¬†am, most of the week. I don’t have to spend hours going to fetch stuff, or have the delivery person put it in a ‘safe’ place (like the bin), or bother one of my neighbours.

People might say that they want ethically sourced local produce, or all sorts of other things (and there might be people who have the time and money to act on this) but in the real world, most of us want the thing we want, when we want it, with the minimum of disturbance to our already busy lives.

Amazon gives us what we really want/need, and does it very well.

Apple

Apple’s philosophy is different. It operates at the top end of the market. Apple’s philosophy is:

  1. Do everything you do very well.
  2. Don’t do anything until you can do it very well.

People point out that iPhones didn’t have NFC technology until even low-end other-manufacturer phones had it. What they don’t point out was that until Apple introduced NFC and Apple Pay, NFC was a bit of a gimmick. It was useful for finding your¬†car keys, but not for muhc else. When Apple got into the game, it changed the playing field. Suddenly, NFC was useful. Part of that was that Apple waited to introduce NFC until they had Apple Pay ready to go – and partly that they waited until the technology was mature enough to make Apple Pay possible, and viable (e.g. the availability of contactless payment terminals in stores).

Apple doesn’t go chasing after every cool gimmick its clever tech people can think up; it waits until the technology is something that people can use for something¬†real (hence we roll our eyes over the Google Glass, not the Apple Glass).

Traditional Publishing and Bookselling

Traditional publishing and bookselling have a major problem: ebooks. For the first time ever, an author with no money and no connections can publish his or her book and make it available to every internet-capable person in the world without any middleman.

There is no need for a publisher, and no need for a bricks-and-mortar bookshop.

Therefore, in order to survive, publishers and bookshops need to re-evaluate what they can provide to their customers which ebooks and ebook-sellers cannot.

Traditional Publishing

The first problem is that tradpub has failed to identify its customers correctly in this brave new world of publishing. Traditional publishers are used to thinking of bookshops as their customers; the bookshops then pass on whatever they bought to their customers. Who had no choice but to accept what they were given.

Since readers can now buy books directly from the author or second-hand (via Amazon or other online outlet) the bricks-and-mortar bookshops, instead of being a vital part of the book world, are now optional. So tradpub needs to start thinking about how it can contact its real customers, and keep them happy.

Tradpub has also alienated many of its suppliers: authors. Predatory contracts and long lead-in times have led many authors to move away from traditional publishing and towards self-publishing. Tradpub’s response to this seems to be to carry on doing what they were doing before – only¬†more. More predatory contracts, less willingness to let authors’ careers develop, and so on. And this will only lead to more authors jumping ship and going indie.

Tradpub is also trying to shore up its old customer-base (bookshops) at the expense of its real customers (readers) by raising the prices of ebooks above the prices of paper books. The thinking is that this will force people to go back to reading paper rather than ebooks, and thus return to bookshops. Unfortunately, this course of action is doomed to failure, because tradpub doesn’t have the power it thinks it has. If self-published titles were the tidal wave of dross that certain articles would have us think, they might be onto something – but self-publishing authors are just as good as tradpub, and the production standards are now equal or better, and rising all the time. Readers just don’t care who publishes a book, as long as it’s good.

AuthorEarnings reported that in 2016 42% of traditionally-published paper book sales in the USA (the biggest book market) were made via Amazon.

And in 2017, AuthorEarnings reported that in the USA, where Kindle was marketed first, 42% of all book sales were ebooks. In the UK, where we had to wait a couple more years for Kindles, ebooks have 34% of the book market.

That’s incredible.

And the numbers for ebooks are different, depending on genre: while nearly all juvenile non-fiction was, in 2016, in paper, 70% of adult fiction was sold as ebooks. Within adult fiction, 96% of romance novels were sold as ebooks (and 55% percent of that market was indie); for fantasy, 76% was ebooks and 37% indie.

The horse has definitely bolted and is now accelerating over the horizon.

Any attempt by tradpub to shut the stable door by raising prices of their ebooks is only going to drive people further into the waiting arms of indie authors. Ebooks are here to stay, and every day tradpub refuses to admit that is another day they inch closer to oblivion.

So what can they do to rescue themselves?

The only thing tradpub can do is reinvent themselves. Their new customer base¬†must¬†be authors. After all, tradpub’s existence depends on authors being willing to hand over their manuscripts – which they no longer need to do. Tradpub needs to entice them by offering high-level support and services, at a competitive price point:¬†sign up with us, and we’ll take the worry and stress out of publishing, and for only a reasonable cut of the profits…

Any other course of action will result, eventually, in oblivion.

Bookshops

Bookshops are in a worse position than traditional publishers. There will always be people who want to write books, and not all of those people will be willing to learn how to produce a high-quality product. There will always be a market for ‘author services’. But bookshops?

When Jeff Bezos picked books as his first product for Amazon to sell, that wasn’t by accident. Books are an ideal product to sell online: they handle being posted very well (unlike, for example, eggs or milk), and if the buyer knows what s/he wants, there’s no risk that the product won’t fit or be the wrong colour (unlike clothes).

Amazon can also offer infinite shelf-space, and a catalogue in the millions. I remember my husband, in the early years of our relationship, wanted a copy of a particular out-of-print book. He went to a local second-hand bookshop which provided a book-search service and requested that – for a price – the bookseller find a copy. It took several months, but eventually a copy was obtained. Now, you just do an online search and buy the copy from anywhere in the world.

In order to survive, bookshops need to do two things:

  1. Prevent books moving wholly to ebook format (or hope that they don’t)
  2. Provide a better experience than online buying, or some other value-added that an online bookstore can’t provide.

I don’t think that books will move wholly to ebook format in the next few years – after all, there are still people who listen to music on vinyl. But the number of paper-book aficionados will gradually decline until it’s a niche interest. And there’s nothing booksellers can do about that.

But in order to keep the paper-book customers they have, they’re going to have to offer something that online shopping doesn’t. There are several options:

  1. A long-hours collection point service (even if it’s a locker outside the store with a padlock to which they email you the combination) for those of us who work full-time and so are never in to receive parcel deliveries.
  2. Coffee (and eventually become a coffee shop with a few books, rather than a book shop with a few coffees).
  3. Community services, like book clubs, craft clubs (and eventually have to hire out rooms for money, because nobody’s going to buy enough books every week to support this).

But personally, bookselling is not a trade I would get into. I think bookshops will die, no matter what anyone does. A few will hang on, just like vinyl record stores, but they will be the exception rather than the rule, and will be patronised by a decreasing clientele of paperbook aficionados.

Isn’t it all doom and gloom?

Not really. This is the law of evolution: adapt or die. The book market has changed completely, and anyone who does not recognise the new environment and adapt to it is going to die. Some businesses will die anyway, because there is no place for them in the new ecosystem – a bit like there are a lot fewer longbow makers now than there used to be. This is the way of the world: no business has an inalienable right to exist. It will only survive for as long as there is a place for it.

And, to be honest, as someone who is trying to write a book – really slowly! – I find the new book world brighter and more full of possibilities than ever before. The new world might be disastrous for those who make money from authors’ work – but it’s downright magical for authors themselves.

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