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Lee Child Weighs in On Amazon’s Rumored Bookstores

Hot Air Balloon Fest Uniontown, NJThe Guardian has given author Lee Child a platform to prognosticate on the rumors about Amazon opening even more brick and mortar bookstores, and the result is painful to read.

If you liked Child’s factless comments over at The Passive Voice, you’re going to love this:

Because, even now, for most books and most people most of the time, the biggest spur to purchase is actually seeing an actual book in a physical place. Because for most people most of the time, reading is a take-it-or-yawn-leave-it activity. Books are not quite distress purchases, but neither are they exciting enough for enthusiastic online hunting. (Again, for most people most of the time, which I’ll stop repeating now, but only if the e-fanboys agree to discuss the real world, not their pretend version. Deal?)

Nothing sells books better than physical displays in bricks-and-mortar locations. …

Which is a problem for Amazon. Classically it uses books to hook customers and then data-mine them. But it gets only dedicated book buyers. …

Let’s skip, for the moment, Child’s condescending tone, and consider the point he has raised.

Amazon sells something like a third of all trade books in the US, and yet Child thinks Amazon is in some way hobbled by only selling books online.

This does not compute.


If Amazon sells more books that B&N, with its 600 plus retail stores, wouldn’t that detail suggest that Amazon doesn’t need a chain of bookstores?

I would think so, but Child does not. He’s even foreseen where this would lead, and inadvertently given us a great explanation for why Amazon will never open that chain of bookstores:

So, what if? And suppose those 300 stores were only the start? We’d quickly approach a de facto monopsony. Amazon would become the only practical route to market for 1,400 US publishers and a million US self-publishers, for either digital or paper product.

That is exactly the point which we should have raised when the rumor first broke last week (and I can’t recall that anyone did).

Amazon is already getting attacked with bogus claims that they are a monopoly/monopsony. At this point the accusations are nothing more than whining a propaganda campaign, but if Amazon opened all those bookstores there would be valid grounds for a real antitrust investigation (including claims that Amazon was underselling books to drive their local competitors out of business).

If Amazon didn’t see that coming, they know about the problem now and will avoid it. Child, on the other hand, didn’t make that connection; instead he engaged in FUD.

Child tried to twist Amazon’s use of standard retail practices like coop fees into something more sinister:

Amazon has already tried to use its power in a punitive fashion, as if determined to hurt publishers financially. All kinds of fees and “contributions” are required. “Pay to play” was openly the name of the game, until Amazon’s lawyers suggested a less explicit description. One publisher resisted, and a senior Amazon executive boasted: “I did everything I could to screw with their performance.”

When you unspin those sentences you end up with the same activities carried out by most if not all retailers.

In fact, when you filter out the FUD, condescension, lack of context, and selective reporting of the facts, there’s really nothing to this piece.

Once all the hand-wringing is gone, we realize that Child’s editorial is nothing more than hot air.


images by dfbphotospeyri

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fjtorres February 12, 2016 um 11:11 pm

I’m not sure it even rises to the level of "hot" air.
Are zombie (memes) hot or cold-blooded?

There are several problems with the Amazon books = antitrust problem scenarios:

1- There would still be thousands of outlets for book sales in the US even if B&N and all the independent book stores were to vanish overnight.

2- Amazon doesn’t sell books at a loss. They sell *some* books at cost but the vast majority of their sales generate net profits. Especially the Apub and Indie titles. The ADSers may repeat that a million times and it still won’t be true. Basket pricing is not illegal. Neither are loss leaders.

3- Amazon’s data-curated inventory only reflects a fraction of the books their competitors carry and it features two enture categories the traditionalists refuse to stock. Which means their overlap is actually minimal. If the feds were to investigate, the traditionalists' own sniffy claims about Amazon only stocking a fraction of the titles they do would be enough to acquit them. Especially once the boycotted Apub and indie titles are factored in: Amazon isn’t so much cannibalizing existing stores as they are counterprogramming them by expanding to the B&M reach of titles the other stores refuse to stock.

4- For antitrust purposes the relevant market the feds look at in publishing isn’t just the slice the Manhattan Mafia controls but rather the entire US publishing business. That is why they quickly approved the randy penguin merger; they may make up half of the BPH sales in the US but that is barely 18% of the total US publishing market. (Closer to 15% and dropping, these days.) Likewise, Amazon’s total share of US publishing is nowhere near even 20%. Adding even a couple hundred stores over 5-6 years isn’t going to change that. Nowhere near monopoly levels.

3- The BPH’s real problem is they have over the last 35 years become addicted to volume sales–first Borders and B&N and now, after pushing Borders out of the market, Amazon and B&N. If they don’t want to be dependent on Amazon sales (and Amazon pre-orders) all they have to do is stop discounting pbooks based on order size. For all the pretense of Amazon selling books "below cost" the reality is Amazon book costs are lower than indie bookstore costs. Many indies routinely buy stock from Amazon because Amazon retail prices are at times (often?) lower than Ingram and B&T wholesale prices. That is not Amazon’s doing alone or even primarily. That is the publishers' policies at work: Amazon buys books in bulk, returns few if any, and even picks them up at the publisher facilities at their own expense. In return, they pay less. What the ADSers don’t talk about is that Amazon isn’t just the publishers' biggest seller: they are also the most profitable on a unit basis.

When all is said and done, the traditionalists' gripe against Amazon boils down to Amazon catering to reader interests instead of slavishly promoting publishers' high profile titles.

(Remember the release of GO SET A WATCHMAN? Every store in B&M and online was pimping Watchman all over…except Amazon. And they still outsold the pimps…)

Amazon promotes books they think readers will enjoy, not just whatever new release the publishers want featured. That puts real power in consumers' hands. Hard to call that an antitrust violation.

Amazon isn’t going to do 300 stores overnight.
But over a decade they just might get there.
And there will still be thousands of other outlets selling books.

Nate Hoffelder February 12, 2016 um 11:46 pm

You put too much thought into it. 🙂

fjtorres February 13, 2016 um 7:50 am

Just a couple minutes.
He, obviously, put none.
Whoever is feeding him stories is serving him poorly.

Mackay Bell February 12, 2016 um 11:26 pm

Lee seems to think that the only time people buy books is when they are waiting in the airport shop and grab something to read on the plane, because that’s the only kind of book he writes.

Because he makes a lot of money selling sausage, he can’t quite get his head around the fact that there are people who like steaks.

But why on Earth does he want to be the poster boy for obnoxious traditional publishing arrogance? Does he think that will help his sales or legacy. Odd.

As for Amazon, I don’t think 300 bookstores would make it any more likely to run up against anti-trust laws. That wouldn’t be anywhere close to a monopoly in retain brick and mortar sales. And I don’t think the DOJ would simply add brick and mortar to online sales. Now, if Amazon starts building 2,000 bookstores, then maybe it becomes an issue, but that’s not likely to happen. (But neither is 300.)

Also, people seem to think that having a monopoly is illegal. It isn’t as long as you don’t use that monopoly in an illegal way. So if Amazon only sold it’s own print labels in it’s stores, or refused to sell books by other publishers, then it might have a problem. But it isn’t going to do that because it’s too customer oriented. If Amazon does or doesn’t decide to open a lot of bookstores, it will have little to do with anti-trust issues.

Lee’s off base as usual.

Nate Hoffelder February 12, 2016 um 11:48 pm

Don’t knock his sausage. He sells a lot of it, and people like the taste,

fjtorres February 13, 2016 um 7:56 am

Yeah, but the issue here isn’t him.
At all.
Hmm, do you think maybe he’s in a tizzy because he thinks his books *aren’t* featured at Amazon Books? He already slipped once at TPV and claimed Amazon "only promotes their books", meaning APub and KDP. Maybe he’s been told Amazon doesn’t promote sausage? 😉

Chris Meadows, Editor of Teleread February 13, 2016 um 3:34 am

Lee Child’s comments seem like he’s "reaching" to me. 🙂

Name (Required) February 13, 2016 um 9:02 am

I have followed the train-wreck last time Lee Child got into discussion at the Passive voice.

He is patronizing, he is condescending, he is almost insufferable.
And he is also right. You see, Lee Child is different. He belongs to a small group of authors that sell bestsellers. The vast majority of *his* books are sold to people that buy only a small handful of books per year. He also sells to other readers, such as you, me or our comrades at the Mobileread. But the prolific readers also buy books from thousands of other authors.

For buyers of *his* books, "the biggest spur to purchase *is* actually seeing an actual book in a physical place" [most probably Walmart or a shelf at grocery store check-out line. The majority of his readers do not shop for books at Amazon or in actual bookstores.

His books are also not as sensitive to price, because when somebody buys only two books per year (and most of those at Walmart or an airport kiosk) they do not mind as much when they have to pay a bit more. Readers that buy a dozen [e]books per month have to watch their book budget and can wait for his book to come down . This was one of topics of discussion on the Passive voice.

fjtorres February 13, 2016 um 11:07 am

Where he shows his cluelessness is in assuming that his readers are the only ones out there. Or even the only ones that matter.
His readers, bandwagon casual readers, only show up to buy books from authors they already know or that have a buzz bandwagon rolling.
Those readers sinply don’t exist when it comes to debut authors or midlisters or even litfic authors. Those authors careers depend on heavy readers who are, as you say, very budget conscious.
To a large extent Child is Marie Antoinette wondering why, if there is a bread shortage, the peasants don’t eat cake instead.

He is so arrogantly ignorant he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know what is going on outside his pampered castle.

Name (Required) February 13, 2016 um 4:18 pm

I hope that you aware that Marie Antoinette never really said "Let them eat cake" "Qu’ils mangent de la brioche".
Just google it up.
The vast majority of historians agree that the phrase was in use long before it was supposedly used by Marie Antoinette and that such callous / ignorant remark would have been highly uncharacteristic of her.

fjtorres February 14, 2016 um 12:02 am

I know.
She was an innocent *asking* in effect why all the fuss over bread. She didn’t understand that for the poor bread was the only food they could afford. And if there was no bread…
She was isolated from the real world outside the palace.
Much like the gold-plated AU gang.

Chris Meadows, Editor of Teleread February 14, 2016 um 6:32 am

The person who asked the question was. Which wasn’t Marie, in any event, who was actually very sympathetic to and supportive of the poor.

Nate Hoffelder February 13, 2016 um 12:57 pm

Excellent point. I’m going to bookmark this for future reference.

Mackay Bell February 13, 2016 um 6:18 pm

It’s particularly odd for Lee Child, of all people, to lecture people about the digital revolution, book publishing in general and the success of The Martian specifically.

He’s such a one trick pony. It’s a little like Jerry Lewis telling people that You Tube isn’t real cinema and PewDiePie isn’t funny. Okay, Jerry, fine that you think that, but who cares?

Lee’s only created one character in a detective series and simply milks that over and over thanks to generous support from the traditional publishing machine. That works very nicely for his very specific type of mass publishing success, but it hardly makes him an expert on the industry. (Perhaps on selling detective thrillers in airports.) The film based on his books wasn’t a huge success, and all the rights are now tied up, so it seems like a franchise in slow decline. In terms of being an expert in popular culture, or mass market sales, he not in the same category as Stephen King or even (yuck) James Patterson. Let alone a Raymond Chandler or Agatha Christie.

Yet, as a symbol of all that is wrong with traditional publishing as it is eclipsed by Amazon, he is perfect. Snobby, elitist, condensing and clueless. Wed to a very specific limited model. Most writers love self-publishing because they are free to create lots of new worlds and characters and blend genres. Lee only wants to milk his one character over and over again. He has no interest in creating new genres or dabbling in anything less than the most mass appeal possible formulas. Many former traditionally published writers complain that publishers wouldn’t let them write more than one book a year. Lee is fine with that. That’s exactly what he wants. One book a year, same character, same formula. Even Patterson tries different stuff like writing kids books or YA. Nope, not for Lee. Why create a new character when the old one is working fine. Stephen King experimented with ebooks. Nope, not for Lee. That rack in the airport looks mighty fine to him.

So it really seems weird for him to have anything to say about The Martian and Andy Weir’s amazing accomplishment with that novel. It was a story that broke conventions in how it was told, how is was sold, and is a surprise hit film and an even more surprising Oscar nomination for best picture. Andy Weir is the anti-Lee Child in almost every respect. Weir’s success is practically a refutation of everything Lee symbolizes (playing it safe, taking advantage of industry connections, conventional publishing and marketing, etc.).

Blackie5 February 13, 2016 um 9:08 pm

The guy is a writer, not a marketing expert. He believes that hard copies sell books because that’s what his publisher has told him.

Enough said.

Nate Hoffelder February 14, 2016 um 6:59 am

Good explanation.

Peter Winkler February 14, 2016 um 5:40 pm

Raymond Chandler’s books weren’t close to being best sellers during his own lifetime. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels would make a better exemplar. Spillane’s sales in the 1950s were phenomenal.

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