images.jpegAmazon is probably the largest bookseller, dollar-wise, in America and the world. Certainly, it is the largest ebook seller in America. And Amazon has spread its tentacles so that it is not only a bookseller, but it competes with publishers as a publisher.

Amazon has positioned itself so that, with the exception of the big publishing houses like Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Random House, authors and publishers believe their books must be available for sale on Amazon or they will never make it. I have yet to hear of anyone cry, for example, that the failure of Barnes & Noble or Sony ebookstores to carry their ebook is a crisis. But we do hear and feel that panic when it comes to Amazon.

The result of this concentration of power is that Amazon is given the opportunity to censor. I grant that Amazon is free to decide what products it wants to sell or not sell; after all, it is not a governmental agency that must be neutral in the marketplace. But saying that begs the question because by agreeing with that proposition (i.e., Amazon is free to sell or not sell a particular book or genre of books), we are also saying that Amazon is free to dictate what an author writes, a publisher publishes, and a reader reads — at least if you are an author or publisher who believes that not being sold by Amazon is tantamount to writing death or a consumer who believes that the only place to buy a book is from Amazon.

Amazon’s Kindle has changed the worlds of reading, writing, and publishing. Although the change has been largely for the good — more books are being sold (and hopefully read) — there is also a dark side to the Kindle world. The dark side begins with a proprietary format that is designed to lock the average consumer into buying books only at Amazon. (Yes, I know that one can strip Amazon’s DRM and then convert the book to another format using readily available free tools; but most consumers do not do this and do not want to be bothered having to do it, thus the success of the Kindle. The Kindle is the market leader not because it is the best ereader but because of the ease-of-use with the Amazon ebookstore.)

The dark side spreads to the way the device is designed; that is, it is designed to encourage users to be connected to Amazon’s servers and to automatically download updates. The problems with being connected and updates are that they allow Amazon to track the consumer’s buying habits and give Amazon access to the Kindle’s content, enabling removal or disabling at Amazon’s whim. Although a lot of Amazon fans say that Amazon will do no evil, that is really more of a wish and a prayer than a fact. Amazon has always put Amazon’s interests ahead of everyone else.

A more important dark side, however, is that Amazon uses such vague terminology that what was acceptable for publication and sale at Amazon today, may not be tomorrow — and there is little (actually nothing) that the consumer, the author, or the publisher can do about it. The only publishers with power in this battle are the big 6 publishing houses which between them publish probably 75% of all best-selling, money-making, books and whose refusal to supply Amazon with books could seriously affect Amazon’s bottom line (which is why 5 of the big 6 were able to force Amazon to accept the agency model).

In recent weeks more than one author has noticed the disappearance from Amazon of their books. The given reason was that the books violated Amazon’s terms of service but no explanation of what the violation actually was was forthcoming. Authors were left in the dark and consumers who had purchased the titles suddenly no longer had access to them (and apparently were not given refunds by Amazon).

For these shenanigans, I do not blame Amazon: instead, I blame the authors and smaller publishers who will do anything to be listed on Amazon and who then turn a blind eye when a fellow author/publisher’s books are dropped for some vague reason. The survivors hope that their turn will not come.

I also blame the consumers who are too lazy to do 2-click buying and will only shop at Amazon; consumers who are unwilling to spend a nickel more on a book at another store because Amazon is the lowest priced. Some day, in the not too distant future, that consumer attitude will haunt the consumers because as competition to Amazon disappears, the need/desire for Amazon to increase profits will raise its head and those low prices that everyone wants to grab today will no longer be available.

Once Amazon sees a decline in the growth of Kindle sales, that is, the point at which it realizes it has reached 99% saturation of its ebook market, I expect to see Amazon begin raising prices on ebooks. With millions of locked in customers, a simple 10-cent increase would generate millions more in profit, which Amazon shareholders will be expecting and demanding.

The Amazon success story in ebooks is much like the biography of a lemming.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog


  1. All of the above are reasons why I won’t be buying a Kindle or publishing my books on Amazon. I know that not publishing on Amazon isn’t a viable option for every writer, but as long as they succumb en masse to the power of the Kindle, the less likelihood there is of more open markets having a chance to grow and prove themselves.

  2. “I also blame the consumers who are too lazy to do 2-click buying and will only shop at Amazon; consumers who are unwilling to spend a nickel more on a book at another store because Amazon is the lowest priced.”

    I never bought books at Amazon UNLESS I couldn’t find them locally first. I enjoy browsing a book store, and the instant gratification never hurts. Heck, before I moved to Florida, I used to go to Vermont for weekend getaways all the time, when it was a 3 hour drive. I would go out of my way to buy at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT, just to support Mom & Pop stores, and they really are a terrific place.

    The problem now, is that once you get a Kindle, you have no choice. Your books need to come from Amazon if you read mainstream. You can talk about switching to another platform, but then you can kiss your existing digital library goodbye, or deal with fragmentation (is that book in Kindle, iBooks, Nook or something I had in print??).

  3. “The Kindle is the market leader not because it is the best ereader but because of the ease-of-use with the Amazon ebookstore.”

    No, the Kindle is the market leader because it is the best device on the market. The ease-of-use with the Amazon store is one of the factors that *makes* it the best reader currently on the market, of course, along with its superior design (the Kindle is currently the only e-reader that would seem to have been designed by somebody interested in reading, rather than gadgets).

    More broadly, Amazon has power in the current market for one simple reason: consumers have given it to them. Amazon built the proverbial better mouse-trap, and people flocked to buy it. This has, of course, lead to much consternation and confusion in the publishing industry, which is struggling to deal with the fact that it now has to deal with customers other than Ingram and Baker & Taylor, the upshot of which is that the real Question of the Year is “Do consumers have too much power?”

    Amazon got where they are because consumers put them there; if they screw up too badly, today’s happy Kindle owners will be tomorrow’s angry pitchfork-waving mob, and I daresay Jeff Bezos is quite aware of that…

  4. “For these shenanigans, I do not blame Amazon: instead, I blame the authors and smaller publishers who will do anything to be listed on Amazon and who then turn a blind eye when a fellow author/publisher’s books are dropped for some vague reason. The survivors hope that their turn will not come.”

    I would submit that the whole publishing community are to blame, by following the short term buck instead of the best medium and long term strategy for the business and the reader. I am hardly surprised considering almost every major decision made in recent years by the big Publishers has been short term in the extreme and driven by the quick buck.

    I do not blame customers. Customers are always right. I buy from Amazon all the time. Books, Music, technology, etc. I enjoy the convenience far more than any savings, which I find quite limited.

    I would not despair however. We are only at the embryonic stages of the eBook world. eReaders will become generic throw away gadgets within a few years. More eBook eRetailers are appearing all the time and indies are developing promising sites. The very size and restrictive nature of the Amazon behemoth will push readers to third party sites over time. I just hope that smaller investors and small, new model publishing houses will take up the challenge and take advantage of the huge potential in this embryonic market. There are huge opportunities, I am convinced, for innovative models.

  5. First, I have a kindle and love it. Were Amazon to buy up Barnes and Noble and then Apple and then Sony, THEN I might think that they have too much power in the e-publishing world.

    The publishers are the ones with too much power here. $14.99 for a digital file that I can’t resell, or really even give away? They don’t have to warehouse anything, they don’t really have to market with gobs of free books, they just spend a couple of hours reformatting their books for each file format and decide where to buy their third vacation home.

    The authors need to consider asking for a reduced roll of their publisher, along with asking for more per copy sold. My dad published a book in ’98. He gets $1 per paper tome sold. His publisher is finally getting around to creating a digital version of his book, and he will get….$1 per book.

  6. Question of the year: does Amazon have too much power?

    Answer of the year: Yes.

    Of course, there is a lot more to Amazon’s problems than its market dominance or its tendency to bully when not restrained by the market or the law.

    * Amazon sees books as little more than fungible commodities. Its corporate ethos lacks the genuine love of interesting books that you find among almost all brick-and-mortar bookstore owners. And no, that problem isn’t going to be solved by their recent attempts to imitate the sort of fashionable book hyping you typically find in the style section of the NY Times. One sort of shallowness isn’t improved by another.

    * Amazon’s refusal to pay taxes in states where it not only sells but has a clear legal presence requiring sales tax collection sucks the life out of communities. In most states, when you buy from a local store, you’re contributing to community services like police and fire protection. But if you buy from Amazon (because it is a few cents cheaper), you’re contributing nothing to your community. You’re merely enriching a few already very rich people in far-off Seattle where I live. And notice that contrasts very unfavorably with much maligned WallMart, which pays local and state taxes while employing people in communities where it has stores.

    * Keep in mind that, once its competitors are reduced to insignificance, Amazon will behave like the classic monopolist. They will raise prices to whatever they can get away with. There are already examples.

    You already see that attitude displayed in their book search feature, which conceals low-profit margin books in an attempt to steer customers to high-profit books. From what I can see, pseudo-publishers are coming on to Amazon to exploit that very policy. They crudely scan public domain texts, showing no concern for pages that stick together, and OCR them without making any effort at proofreading. Then they overprice the resulting substandard book, knowing that Amazon’s profit-driven search engine will display their titles while excluding less-expensive, high-quality versions of those same titles from legitimate, traditional publishers. For an illustration, go to Amazon’s advanced search and look for all books published by “General Books.” You’ll see tens of thousands of results from just those sorts of books. General books doesn’t even need to hide the dismal quality of their titles. They know that Amazon will keep potential customers from finding out about better quality titles precisely because those titles cost less and thus earn Amazon less profit.

    In short, Amazon knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It cares nothing about books as something special. It cares nothing about the quality of the books it sells as long as it profits. It cares nothing about the community in which you live or the harm it is doing to your local bookstore, to other businesses, and to necessary community services.

  7. Amazon is big because it created the first ebook device and store for regularly readers. Sony may have been there first, but readers weren’t coming to their party in very large numbers.

    As for proprietary formats, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the DRM used by Barnes & Noble, Sony, and Kobo proprietary to Adobe Digital Editions? Why would Amazon willingly pay a licensing fee to Adobe for each ebook sold when they’re the current market leader and already own a DRM system?

    Would someone P&M if Abode held all the DRM cards?

  8. I don’t see that Amazon’s “power to censor” is any different from that which publishers and the big chains have always held — nope, won’t publish that, nope, won’t sell that, let ’em find someone else to market that material. With the presence of Smashwords, Lulu, and others, Amazon isn’t the only game in town and anyone doing a lot of self-publishing knows it. Amazon may be the biggest, but it isn’t the only outlet.

    Should Amazon be the biggest bookseller? No? Well, then, who should? Amazon gives terrific service, the Kindle is a joy to use, most major publishers didn’t get truly serious about ebooks (particularly backlist) until Kindle, and the big chains haven’t exactly fallen all over themselves to put brick and mortar stores in easy reach of every book buyer. Yes, in some places there are mom-and-pop bookstores selling new and used titles, but the available selections are dwarfed by what you’d find in a B&N superstore or in a brief browsing session at Amazon.

    When Amazon stops pleasing its customers, it’ll start losing market share and then it won’t be a horrifying menace any more. Until that time, I’ll be happy to give Amazon most of my online book-buying business.

    Bests to all,


  9. Anyone who claims that “their books must be available for sale on Amazon or they will never make it” has forgotten, far too soon, the strength of the web on which Amazon sits.

    In an age when we can google and visit major retailer sites and indie authors’ sites, all day and night, in an instant… we seem to be forgetting that if Amazon died tomorrow, we’d still be able to shop and buy online, from anywhere in the world, the day after.

    Amazon only has the power we consumers and producers give it. And all they have to do is anger enough of us, and they can lose it all. Obviously, you-all aren’t angry enough yet.

  10. Amazon can lock people in as long as they are using the Kindle reader, which is a good deal, delivering arguably the most bang-for-the-buck. I’d say the success of the Kindle (the e-reader) is tied to its price as much as to the strength of the Amazon Kindle store.

    However, we shouldn’t assume that e-reader sales are the whole of the e-book market. In terms of books read on iDevices and Android devices, Amazon can’t truly lock people into using only the Kindle software. Consumers who read on LCD screens are free to use a variety of apps, and in the future, more cheaper, non-backlit (whatever replaces e-ink) readers may also appear, which may further undermine Amazon’s lead.

  11. Here is another dark side to the Kindle (one that screen book advocates should realize). Kindles are shopping devices.

    The book is a decoy. The Kindle merely simulates each one as it is read. The Amazon intent is (1) sell the devices as such, (2) augment on-line sales, (3) cultivate a dedicated consumer base, and (4) exploit cultural regard for books.

  12. Great discussion.
    I love my Kindle (and my Color Nook). I share Rich’s concern that one vendor (whether Amazon or anyone else) dominate the market. From a publisher perspective, (author perspective) what could we do if Amazon decided to drop its royalty. It initially offered less on the Kindle than it did on its Mobipocket sales (and still does in many cases depending on complex discount formulas). Still, Amazon makes a good product and offers a great buying experience. Should I, wearing my consumer hat, choose an inferior experience or higher prices today just because I’m afraid that Amazon might, someday, raise prices? I think it’s up to B&N and the others to offer a better experience. I’m encouraged by my Color Nook–with it, B&N really did get a lot of things right.

    If Amazon ‘wins,’ we may need an antitrust or regulatory solution but I’m not in a hurry to demand government solutions to a potential problem given how many present-day problems are going underfunded.

    Rob Preece

  13. “the Kindle is the market leader because it is the best device on the market.” Surely you’re joking.

    I won’t deny that Kindle has done well with the ease-of-purchasing and the authoring promotion tools.

    Kindle does not support any kinds of floats, be they for images or sidebar divs. That means all images have to use 100% of the screenwidth as a block regardless of how small or narrow it is. (If the image is smaller than half the screen size, it will not blow up to fill the screen width; still, it will leave a big empty space there, which is just as bad).

    To my knowledge, all the other devices support floats/borders/backgrounds. Why on earth would a consumer prefer one doesn’t support such basic functionality?

    Also, the mobipocket code puts presentation in attributes, which is a definite no-no for HTML (as well as epub).

    I really have no problem with Amazon’s market dominance; that’s what happens. The bigger problems is why aren’t consumers seeking devices with better layout options?

  14. I don’t think he was joking at all. Floats? Divs? Things that are a no-no in ePub and HTML? What consumer has any idea what that means. If formatting wife that important, because it ‘looks better’ then eInk devices would never have taken off, especially the early 4 shades of grey, comparatively primitive devices of a couple of years ago.

    Kindle sells because:

    1) It’s reasonably affordable.
    2) It’s backed by a proven name.
    3) Nobody outside of tech knew what eInk or eReader meant, they asked if that was a Kindle, much like people began to ask for a Kleenex or a Xerox. Nook is starting to have that same recogition, thanks to the retail presence.
    4) The books are deemed affordable. Yes, even today with higher than $9.99 best sellers, and even with some titles costing the same or more than paperback versions.
    5) Books come instantly.

    Joe Consmer doesn’t care about formatting. He doesn’t notice hyphenation gets screwed up, or horrible look to some Topaz files, or when the full justification is full of white space. He may read in a way that he barely notices spelling mistakes.

    Joe Consumer also doesn’t care about 120hz versus 240hz unless a store clerk tells him to care. He does not care if the app store is less open than the Android marketplace. He didn’t care when his music had DRM. And he has no idea that when he keeps a car for 3-4 years and trades it in the premium for a Prius will cost him more than the money he saved on gas.

    Joe Consumer knows the Kindle is a safe investment, and he enjoys using it.

  15. The only reason an anti-trust or regulatory solution would be needed if Amazon had most of the market share was if Amazon then went to the federal government & got it to start putting up roadblocks to its competitors. But of course, the government doesn’t pass legislation against itself which is why so much of anti-trust in the past actually benefited the so-called monopolies & hurt consumers.

  16. The thing that Amazon really excels at is logistics. I buy more electronics from Amazon than I do books, because I can count on their ordering, billing, and package tracking. The other day, I placed an order with a third party via Amazon Payments because I trust their infrastructure more than the other three alternatives offered.

    I don’t have a Kindle, but I buy most of my ebooks from Amazon because (a) they were there first on my platform (iPad/iPhone), (b) they support more of the devices I own than Apple does, (c) they have a larger inventory than Apple does, and (d) I already buy lots of stuff from Amazon. Barnes & Noble and Borders are also-rans; I might look at them if they had differentiators.

  17. @Scott G. Lewis: “Floats? Divs? Things that are a no-no in ePub and HTML? What consumer has any idea what that means.”

    Exactly. While the developer in me would like all programs to be as pretty and have as many functions as possible, I realize that sometimes less is more. The ease-of-use is part of what has made the Kindle so attractive to so many people. As the owner of both a Sony and a Kindle, I don’t really care about “Floats” and “Divs”. Getting content on my device, being able to read seamlessly across multiple devices (mobile & e-ink devices) are more important to me. And with the Kindle, I don’t have to reformat virtually every ebook I purchase, which is something I would have to do with virtually every epub I purchase if I want the epubs to be as pretty as possible. Because even with CSS styling available, the fonts, margins, and/or text alignment on the Sony are almost never what I want them to be.

  18. Your Captcha is so annoying…

    “A more important dark side, however, is that Amazon uses such vague terminology that what was acceptable for publication and sale at Amazon today, may not be tomorrow…”

    By using vague terminology and letting the publishers and authors police themselves as to what is appropriate, Amazon allows for the widest possible selection of ebooks by small-pubbed and self-pubbed authors. If Amazon were to spell out in finite terms exactly what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, not only would there likely be fewer ebooks offered for submission, but there would probably also be a bottleneck while Amazon determines if the titles meet those guidelines. Again, by being vague, Amazon is allowing more ebooks onto their site in the first place.

  19. “… and there is little (actually nothing) that the consumer, the author, or the publisher can do about it.”

    And there is virtually nothing the consumer, author, or publisher could do if Amazon spelled out exactly what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and then reviewed every single book prior to offering it for sale. The main difference, as I see it, is the books would never be offered for sale in the first place, the public would probably never hear about the titles that were rejected, and the author would likely have less options for following up with Amazon and asking them to reconsider pulling their titles. And the author is less likely to be able to stir up an “OMG! Amazon is censoring my books!” boycott frenzy if the book had never been offered for sale in the first place.

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