Amazon continues to erode book publishers' businesses

I really like bookshops – fortunately the city where I live, Oxford, has some really good ones – from the Tardis-like Blackwells to four storeys of Waterstones. My story begins with Waterstones, but not the brick and mortar version but the online Waterstones.

Quite often, if I can’t find a book that I want I’ll scrabble over to where, nine times out of 10, they have what I want and at a mostly reasonable price. But last time, I decided to try Waterstones Online’s bookshop, and it’s obvious to me that a bit like print publishers, the bookshop has underinvested in its online technology for fear of cannibilising sales.

I ordered five books at Waterstone Online – those books were reasonably priced too – and went to the online checkout where suddenly the volumes I’d selected just disappeared into the aether. As I’d spent 20 minutes or so tootling around Waterstones Online, that was my lot and Amazon gained my business.

The times, they are a changing all right, and it isn’t just bookshops that are suffering. An old channel hand tells me that retailers are now suffering from people who wander through their aisles, looking for particular gadgets, and noting down the specs. The folk go home, go online, and find a better bargain on the web. Dixons based an entire marketing campaign on it. Some of the shops are beginning to train their staff to close sales there and then, rather than drift around and vaguely being polite.

And he had observations about Amazon, too. He thinks its success is mainly down to customer service – that is to say, they give you a delivery date and you can trust them to hit that date. Amazon is easy to contact and if you’ve a problem the company acts fast.

He said: “Compare Amazon to your average reseller website. Hard to navigate, no signs of contact information, no stock information or unrealistic information ‘we have 999 in stock’. Even at check out the follow up information is poor, most specifically about when you will get yout product. Then look at the customer service and you see web forms. I ask if anyone who has ever filled in a web form has actually had a reply?”

Basically, he said, any etailer which wants to succeed has to make it really simple to find what customers want and easy for them to buy.

The book publishing industry has its own problems. It’s been complacent and slow off the mark to realise the threats online vendors bring. Many of them – a little like newspaper publishers – have been unclear how to maintain the print model along with the internet model and have vast overheads, particularly in terms of staff and distribution that they can’t rapidly switch to a new model without totally re-engineering the company.

The power of the internet to revolutionise industries and totally transform them has never been more obvious than in the first decade of the 21st century. Kindle is, it appears, spelling the end of the day for real books, tomes you can heft in your hand and that look nice on shelves.

But we’re not quite at the stage where we can download the hardware we need – so distribution is still important too. That’s something I’ll get onto next.