Sunday, December 11, 2011

Amazon wants to be your ONLY bookstore.

I got a check in the mail this week from my friends at Amazon, for royalties from the launch of SwanSong.  (Thanks for buying it, everybody!)  So I'm disposed to be cheerful toward them right now.  But they're not making it very easy.

First up this week was an e-mail from Kindle Direct Publishing, announcing a program called "KDP Select."  Amazon has set aside a fund for author reimbursement for titles borrowed from the new Kindle Lending Library.  All I have to do is enroll my book in the program, and I can get a chunk of that fund (based on the number of times my book is "borrowed" compared to the number of books participating).  Sounds like a no-brainer, right? 

Well, there's a catch.  I would have to make my book exclusive to Amazon for 90 days.  Which is to say that I would have to unpublish it at Smashwords, and anywhere else I might have made it available for sale -- even on my own website, assuming I sold my books here.  (Interestingly, unpublishing at Smashwords doesn't necessarily mean my book would be unavailable anywhere but the Kindle Store. That's because Smashwords acts as a distribution hub for a number of other e-bookstores, including Barnes and Noble's Nook store, the Sony Reader Store, and iBooks, and it would take several weeks for all of them to take down my book's listing on their sites.)

I've also heard that Amazon's not making it easy for authors who publish new works on KDP to opt out of the lending program.  Apparently, they've kind of hidden the button.  (I bet you were surprised, huh?)

Then Friday comes an announcement from Amazon about its new Price Check app for smartphones.  With this app, you can scan the barcode for an item at a brick-and-mortar store, and Amazon will tell you what it would charge you for it -- and, of course, will allow you to place an order immediately.  So far, you can't buy books this way.  But independent booksellers are already complaining.  For one thing, they stock puzzles, games, and other items that are eligible for the Price Check app.  But the real problem is that small local businesses can't afford to sell stuff as cheaply as Amazon does -- they don't do the same kind of volume, obviously, but they also have brick-and-mortar expenses that Amazon doesn't have.  Independent booksellers are accusing Amazon of encouraging its customers to use their stores as a "showroom":  test drive the item in person, then order it cheaper online.  Some are even going so far as to reward customers who can prove they've cancelled their Amazon account.

I'm not inclined to go that far.  Amazon has an amazing selection of stuff, a decent distribution system, and good customer service.  But its current business model does seem troubling, and I don't think "predatory" is too strong a word for it.  We've seen all this before, of course, when the Wal*Marting of America a few decades back caused the deaths of so many small-town downtowns.  And Amazon has already proven itself capable of taking down behemoths:  witness the death of Borders earlier this year.

Isn't this the kind of corporate behavior that Occupy Wall Street has been about?

I like doing business with Amazon.  I just hope they have the sense to rein in their winner-take-all ambition soon.
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