The book selling wars that began four decades ago with the rise of the mall chains, followed by the growing power of the Barnes & Noble, Borders and BAM superstore chains, has been won by Amazon. Amazon sales are on track for double-digit gains again this year, aided in part by high fuel prices discouraging trips to the regional superstores that have replaced so many local bookstores. Amazon's North American growth in media sales (books, music and movies) may exceed the incredible 23% gain they turned in last year. Amazon is on pace to sell more books in the US than the entire Barnes & Noble chain in 2008, even allowing for a higher music and video mix. If you add Amazon's international stores to the mix, they will easily sell more books than Barnes & Nobles plus Borders this year.
On the bright side, large trade publishers may find that having Amazon as their #1 customer will free them from having to cater to the tastes of powerful chain buyers. In past years, buyers at the large chains had significant input in everything from the title mix at some large publishers to the physical format and design of new books. These chain buyers and a handful of review publications formed a cabal of gatekeepers in the American publishing industry, and while some may lament their waning power, I was never impressed by their choices. The exclusivity that they fostered contained the seeds of their own downfall. Amazon, to date, has offered the closest thing to a level playing field for booksellers that's existed in the publishing world since the beginning of time.
On the dark side, there's Amazon's attempt to force a new printing paradigm on the publishing industry. Strangely enough, they're in a better position to dictate surrender terms to the large trade publishers than to self publishers like myself. If Amazon changes the rules such that I no longer want too play their game, I may lose over half my sales and a third of my after tax earnings, but I'll still make a living thanks to diversification. Large trade publishers are only seeing their dependence on Amazon grow. If Barnes & Noble announced plans tomorrow to install print-on-demand machines to print ALL of the books they sell at each store location to save on fuel, what large publisher could afford to say no? Well, replace Barnes & Noble in the previous sentence with Amazon and replace "save on fuel" with "better serve our customers" and the economic decision remains the same. If Amazon actually builds the capacity to print all of the books they sell, the large trade publisher will be faced with an existential question. If the choice is to sign on or have the Amazon playing field tilt against their titles, they'll be forced to sign. Amazon is their buyer who is too big to fail.
And why am I revisiting this topic today? Since Amazon announced that they are are rolling out in-house print-on-demand services in the UK last week, several publishers with books printed in the UK by Lightning Source have seen them go "temporarily out of stock" in the international Amazon stores. Considering that the lead line of Amazon's press release begins "POD titles are effectively always in-stock" it appears that Amazon may be trying to draw a branding distinction. If it's not Amazon POD, it's not POD. Strangely enough, the Amazon relationship with Lightning Source in the UK had worked like a charm for the previous six years, maybe somebody changed their mailing address.
I can't predict exactly how far into the future the day of reckoning will arrive for large publishers, but it's clear that Amazon can control the timetable with the pace of their investment in POD and Kindle. Speaking strictly as a reader, I would prefer a world where Amazon dictates the physical form of books to one where a small number of chain buyers and opinion makers dictates the content and artwork. Speaking as a self publisher, I'd prefer to have the small publishing world continue just as it is today, with Lightning Source providing a single source solution for zero inventory publishing that encompasses both regular bookstores and Amazon at home and overseas.
But the bottom line is that the future of the publishing industry can no longer be extrapolated from past performance. The business of printing and warehousing large numbers of books, distribution through wholesalers and distributors, cozy relationships between buyers and publisher reps, is on the decline. The Internet is the infrastructure on which the publishing world of the future will depend, not the offset printer. And eventually, the transition from a "print and warehouse" business to a "data warehousing and print" business will do more to hasten the rise of ebooks than all the pretty devices in the world.