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The Guardian Discovers That Amazon Wants to Make Money on Books And Does Not Approve


There seems to have been a flare up these past few weeks of the belief that Amazon, a for-profit corporation, is evil for wanting to make money. There was a piece in the NY Times a couple weeks back (you may have read my takedown), there was an entertaining drug trip on the Melville House blog, and today The Guardian joined in the fun.

I’ve just come across a piece that was published on Friday. The Guardian's Ashley Kirk takes Amazon to task for having the temerity to sell academic titles at only a slight discount. This piece is shorter than its progenitor in the NY Times, but it still offers some points worth considering:

Just look at the contrast between the UK’s top 10 bestsellers – offered at an eyewatering 45% off when I crunched the numbers earlier this week – and the discount applied to, say, Acumen Publishing, a small-press publisher that focuses on academic books. You can pick up a handful of recent titles from Amazon at an average discount of just 6%. If you were to go directly to the publisher, they’d knock off 20%.

It’s the same story with Seren and Carcanet. The average discount Amazon offers on Carcanet titles is 7%, compared to an average of 14% directly from the publisher. Seren’s own discounts are, on average, almost ten times as large as those on Amazon.

Just out of curiosity, how much of a discount is Walmart offering on these titles? What about college bookstores?

And since when is it news that a customer can get a lower price by buying direct from the producer? That’s been the case in many industries for decades (you would not believe how much you can save on car parts), so I do not see why it is worth noting with respect to Amazon.

Also, if the publishers don’t like the price Amazon is charging they are always welcome to lower the price or simply stop selling via Amazon. Of course, we have not heard any of these publishers complaining about Amazon’s pricing policies, so at this point all we can conclude is that The Guardian Does Not Approve.

It’s almost as if The Guardian is trying to argue on behalf of publishers that "Amazon should make less money so that we can make more" (source).  That is particularly illogical given that Amazon’s pricing policy leaves room for these 3 publishers to undercut Amazon and make more money on each sale.

I do not see how that is a bad thing, but then again I don’t write for The Guardian.

According to Frances Smith, an independent bookseller who campaigns about Amazon’s tax status, these pricing policies are designed "to squeeze as much money as possible out of all publishers – large and small".

"There is a perception that it is the cheapest option for all books, which is isn’t," she says, adding that "the likes of Amazon don’t care about smaller companies … Some think that there won’t even be any small competitors left in the future." If that’s what the future holds, it’s a future I can’t bear thinking about.

Can someone please tell me when things got turned around and publishers started buying books instead of producing them? I was under the impression that it was the customers that were being squeezed, not publishers.

Also, if Amazon is selling books at only 6% less than the retail then I seriously doubt that anyone but the uninformed and the lazy would believe that is the lowest price. The astute buyer would shop around, and hopefully they would find an independent bookstore  or even the publisher.

And finally, if Amazon is no longer offering prices no other retailer can match then those other smaller retailers can now compete with Amazon and not die.

That last point is probably the most important because it undermines the longest running gripe that many have directed towards Amazon. The Satan in Seattle was offering prices that none of their competition could match (or so the story goes). Amazon’s goal was reportedly to drive the competition out of the market.

Unfortunately for Amazon’s detractors, the retail giant still has plenty of competition but is no longer offering the claimed huge discounts. This has unfortunately put the detractors in the position of no longer being able to attack Amazon for trying to drive the competition into the poor house, thus leaving them in the unenviable position of attacking Amazon for no longer offering deep discounts.

Yes, that doesn’t make any sense to me either, but that’s where we are right now.

P.S. I’d like to give a hat tip to Brian O’Leary for making several of these arguments a couple weeks back.

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yuzutea July 21, 2013 um 8:41 pm

So, Amazon is destroying the publishing industry by selling books at 40% off, and it’s also destroying the publishing industry by selling books at 6% off?

Nate Hoffelder July 21, 2013 um 8:45 pm


Ravi July 23, 2013 um 6:34 am

Exactly. The discount is an irrelevant detail. Amazon is destroying the publishing industry by selling books. Just think of how much better off they would be if Amazon just stopped doing that.

fjtorres July 21, 2013 um 8:58 pm

Amazon is destroying the publishing industry just by existing. 🙂
See, they are the handy-dandy excuse for everything these days:
The feds caught you clumsiy conspiring to raise prices on consumers? Blame Amazon!
You totally misjudge demand for your eink reader and got stuck with a zillion of them in the warehouse? Blame Amazon!
Your overpriced book isn’t selling enough? Blame Amazon!
Your predatory publishing contracts are driving business-savvy authors to reclaim their backlist and self-publish? Blame Amazon!
An asteroid is headed our way to destroy the world in 2030? Blame Amazon!

I’m thinking Mel Brooks can put that to music…

Nate Hoffelder July 21, 2013 um 9:09 pm

We could set "Blame Amazon" to the tune of "Blame Canada". It would fit:

Sherri July 21, 2013 um 9:44 pm

I buy lots of stuff from Amazon, and I’ll let everybody in on a secret: Amazon does not always have the lowest price on everything. Shocking, I know, but it’s true.

Rudy July 22, 2013 um 12:16 pm

Agreed. The notion that amazon has always deep discounted all books is laughable. Mass market paperback list price $7.99. amazon price $7.99. Occasional 4-3 sale on same, usually of older mmpbs. Scholarly books lightly discounted, if at all. Modest discounting on frontlist hardcover and trade pbs. Biggest discounts are on the splash books (which I don’t buy so I don’t care); this is known as loss-leadering and has a venerable history in retailing, no matter what kind of product. amazon is the villain du jour because of its size and success. Handwringing coming from the big conglomerate publishers is also laughable. The very ones who gobbled up all the small publishers and then started shedding midlist authors because they weren’t generating enough profit. Forgive me if I don’t sympathize.

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