Amazon’s gorilla warfare teaches a tactical lesson

PUBLISHING is full of contradictions. Over the last decade, business book publishers have been full of advice they never followed themselves. The industry that brought us the handbook for the digital age, The Long Tail, didn’t attend to its prediction that mass markets would fragment into thousands of micro markets.

Did You Spot The Gorilla, from Random House Business Books, explains the psychological mechanisms that make us ignore vital intelligence. Yet book publishers have long known that the “dead tree” model was facing massive decline. And what did the likes of Random House, HarperCollins, Hodder, Macmillan and Hachette do? Did they avoid the gorilla?

The publishing industry certainly saw the growing power of online selling, and so threw its brands behind Amazon’s e-tail bookshop. But it failed to notice the other gorilla lurking in the undergrowth: electronic publishing.

The one advantage that traditional book publishing companies had over any competitor that might emerge was that they had distribution tied up. They could identify and nurture talent as they saw fit, since their partners were booksellers who were the channel to market. What a team they made.

For Amazon to succeed, as both a retailer and a publisher, it would need to breach that formidable partnership. Luckily, the publishers opened the door by giving Amazon favourable terms. My contacts in the book trade say Amazon’s volume of online sales means it can get up to 60 per cent discounts on books. Small independent bookshops are lucky to get 30 per cent.

Inevitably, many smaller bookshops have been driven out of business. Even Borders went to the wall. Amazon doesn’t declare its figures to the book trade, so we can’t get an accurate overall picture, but according to Nielsen BookScan, printed book sales through the high street were down by 25 per cent (£28m) between January and June last year.

Between 2005 and 2010, Amazon’s market share has tripled, while that of the independent shops has halved, according to BML’s Books and the Consumer survey. Amazon has 30 per cent of the market, while independent shops have just 5 per cent.

The e-publishing revolution is even more striking. In the same period, it grew by 623 per cent. Amazon now not only allows authors to e-publish directly through Kindle Direct, cutting out the middlemen, but, through Amazon Publishing, owns several imprints for both physical and online editions, plus collaborations like The Domino Project. Meanwhile, one hope for independent bookshops is to put their decades of experience in the book trade to use as boutique agents, editors and e-publishers.

The book creation industry, having put its sales partners out of business in order to stay in the game, must now defend its business against all comers. Perhaps the industry should have heeded one of its own recent titles, Common Sense Rules by Deborah Meaden. Or at least that business classic, The Art Of War. As Sun Tzu said, “We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours.”

Nick Booth is a business and social media commentator. Contact him on Twitter: @ohthisbloodypc