No publisher in 2016 can ignore the shark in the waters; Amazon, a hungry behemoth encroaching on publishers’ margins, and staking its claim to much of the emerging market of books as digital products. Amazon has unrivalled access to our hearts and minds; exploiting the existing infrastructure in the UK of the postal service, health services and its workforce without making any contribution to its upkeep, it steamrollers over traditional publishing models with an irresistible blanket service. Who would make a trip into a town centre (quite possibly a town centre decimated by the changing social landscape and market realities of twenty-first century Britain) to the local bookshop to enquire about a book, which has not been given the seal of approval by the Richard and Judy Book Club, hasn’t been recently advertised on TV, and you’re not really sure if they will have it in stock, when a twenty second search can get a copy delivered straight to your house for four pounds thirty-one pence? (In this system, the amounts don’t have to be conventional, and frequently are not; algorithms determine the race to the bottom, that and being sure to offer the lowest price before postage fees). However, publishers everywhere needn’t despair yet. This changing landscape offers us several potential ways forward.
The internet and its associated technologies such as PayPal have offered many authors chance to sell directly to their target audience. Many authors such as Michael Hyatt leverage their websites, blogs and podcasts to sell digital bundles, which often contain audio-visual material in addition to ebooks. Whilst Hyatt’s full-length books are available via Amazon, his website offers unrivalled access to people interested in his offerings. His tailored packages have smashed into US bestseller lists. What this should tell us is that there is space online to build and craft followings, independently of websites such as Amazon, which can beat them at their own game.
Amazon has yet to come up with an algorithm that can craft and produce its own books; they have yet to decide to also dominate the writing and production element of the book industry. Even if they do attempt to break into this aspect, they will be forced to rely heavily on time-honoured methods of production, and people with years of experience. Amazon are also yet to begin supporting new authors; whilst publishers remain the focus and goal of talented new writers, they still hold cards relating to prestige and cachet that Amazon just can’t access currently.
Another area that is in Amazon’s blind spot is author events and book tours. In the current music industry model, record companies’ revenues are no longer mainly from physical music distribution, but from major, much-anticipated packed-out concerts. Book readings and signings, excepting J. K. Rowling’s public events, are unlikely to have quite the same draw, but there is no reason why small-scale events cannot be made more available as writers and readers enjoy interacting with and discussing their favourite texts new and old.
What Amazon can never offer is the ‘human experience’; as our day to day lives are gradually infiltrated by polite machines everywhere from banking to supermarkets, more and more of us will crave meaningful interactions. Much of our peace of mind stems from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our lives; these cannot be reduced simply to a digital product transferred to us in a matter of seconds. Our lives are not lived during the quick mindless purchases we make online; there remains a place then for the multimodal experiences available to us in and around our favourite books.