Protectionism rears its ugly head in bookselling

I’m cynically amused by demands from ‘traditional’ booksellers in France and England that their governments protect (which usually means ‘subsidize’) them in the face of the threat from online retailers such as  For example, the Guardian reports:

Tim Godfray, chief executive of the Booksellers Association, said Britain’s bookshops, closing down at a rate of more than one a week, consider Amazon “the main threat to their business”. He warned that if Amazon continues its “relentless expansion” even more bookshops will be driven out of business, and publishers and agents will also be forced to shut up shop, he said.

. . .

More than 73 independent booksellers closed down last year, bringing the total number of UK bookshops to 1,028, compared to 1,535 in 2005.

Jane Howe, owner of Broadway Bookshop, in east London, said: “We really need the government to do something to protect independent bookshops. We are the heart of the community – sometimes you are the only person that a customer has spoken to all week.

“If the government want to keep any type of integrity in any high street they’ve got to support small businesses. It would be really wonderful if they took notice of what France is trying.”

There’s more at the link.

What they mean, of course, is that they want the state to subsidize their outdated, inefficient business models.  The world has moved on from bricks-and-mortar storefronts in many fields of commerce.  Remember the 1980’s and 1990’s?  Computer and electronics stores were springing up like mushrooms as far as the eye could see.  How many of them are still there?  Precious few.  Electronics purchases are now overwhelmingly made online.  The same is happening to bookstores right now – and to traditional publishers as well.  Amazon is eating their lunch;  but not only are they failing to do anything about it, they don’t seem to know what to do about it.  It’s a sorry sight.

Joe Konrath put matters into profane perspective recently.  Addressing his message to the entire publishing and bookselling industry, he wrote:

Blaming Amazon for your eventual downfall is like blaming a lion for being king of the jungle.

If you don’t like apex predators, get the hell out of the food chain.

Here’s the thing, all you whiners. You had your shot. And you blew it.

Hardcovers cost too much. So do paperbacks. As media goes, paper books cost too many dollars per hour of entertainment they provide.

The return policy for books is archaic, wasteful, and stupid. It encourages overspending, overbuying, and underselling.

Underestimating the importance of digital was suicide. Then trying to prevent its widespread adoption via windowing titles, the agency model, high prices, and DRM was just throwing gas on a fire.

Treating authors like s***, when authors are essential to the process, is bad business.

Treating readers like s***, when readers are essential to the process, is bad business.

Bookstores and publishers and distributors are NOT essential to the process. You should have evolved.

Why didn’t the Big 6 invent online bookstores and ereaders? Why didn’t the ABA?

Amazon INNOVATES. That’s the thing you whiners don’t understand. They’re not dominating because they undercut you on price. Price is just one way to please customers. Service is another. Value is another. But the biggest one is technology.

Anyone can sell for cheap. Not anyone can single-handedly jump-start the digital revolution. Not everyone can create an online store that is not only a pleasure to shop at, but where it is fun to spend time.

Amazon is going to eat you all for lunch because they aren’t thinking about how to make money tomorrow. They’re thinking about how to make money in 2018.

They’re doing all the stuff you never did–hell, they’re doing stuff that you never even thought of. They’re all about pushing it forward. They’re all about gathering and analyzing data. They’re all about challenging themselves to do better, to focus on the future, to learn from the past. They’re all about pleasing the customer (and I heard from no less than half a dozen Amazonians that they consider authors to be their customers.)

They experiment. They change. They evolve.

Again, more at the link.

All these calls for ‘protection’ and/or subsidies are farting against thunder.  The business world has changed, is changing, and will continue to change.  Unless you change with it, you’re going to end up like the buggy whip industry.

I’m seeing this at first hand with the publication of my first novel – on Amazon, naturally enough.  I set the price at $2.99, for three reasons:

  1. I wanted to break into a market already overcrowded with alternatives.  A low price is one way to do that (as Marko’s just proved with the smashing success of his first novel).
  2. Even at that low figure, Amazon offers a high enough royalty percentage to give me more money per sale than a conventional publisher would offer me if they’d published my book at five times that price!  Amazon can do that because it’s built a far more efficient infrastructure.
  3. In today’s economy, I know potential readers are struggling to find spare cash for entertainment.  If I price my book at or below the price of a standard cup of coffee at Starbucks, I can appeal to a much broader market than if I price it at the cost of lunch at a restaurant – but again, conventional publishers won’t do that.  They’re still insisting on pricing their e-books at much higher prices.

Amazon’s approach has worked for me so far, and I think it’ll go on working.  The conventional publishing and bookselling industry can’t survive on margins that low . . . which is why more and more ‘indie’ authors like myself are going it alone, and doing very nicely, thank you.  It’s a new world out there.  Dinosaurs need no longer apply.



  1. The difference between being at the table and being on the menu.

    A perfect example of the model these people need to embrace is Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon.

    Their main store is about five stories tall and occupies one entire city block. There is a second building nearby for their technical books as well as a couple other general branches (neighborhoods, the airport, etc…)

    The website is excellent.

  2. One of the effects that allows Pub World to perpetuate its dwindling barony is that the well known, mostly capable writers the big houses publish remain under its wings. That might be a matter of contract, or it might be for the prestige of having been admitted into Pub World’s gates, or it might be simple inertia. Whatever the reason, with the well known names securely in its fold, Pub World can sell eBooks at prices far above what an indie writer – a relative unknown, bereft of marketing or promotional support – can afford to do.

    That suggests that what’s needed to break open the gates is a stream of defections from Pub World to the self-publishing domain where we indies operate. It hasn’t happened yet, but with the colossal success of Amazon, and the ever growing appeal of the eReader / tablet, it could happen at any moment.

    The moral? Stay ready!

  3. Mr. Porretto, there are several reasons why the big authors have stuck with the Big 6, and why so many smaller names are still trying to break in. 1) You are still not a "real" author, able to have membership in some writing groups and to compete for major awards, unless you have agented books in print. 2) If you have a contract, you may lose your rights to the characters and series, and even your author name, if you "defect." 3) It is a closed world in many ways, and if you tick off one publisher, the others may very well lock their doors to you. 4) Self publishing is scary if you have never had to manage your own business, design your own covers, arrange distribution, and so on.


  4. One reason I'm reluctant to pay more than 3 or 4 dollars for an ebook is that I don't get the same benefits that I get when I buy a paper book. Amazon/Kindle reserves the right to take the book back if they want to. For that reason alone I won't buy an ebook that's priced roughly the same as a paper edition.

    Your price point is perfect, Peter. I bought via Amazon for the Kindle app on my iPhone. You got more money than you would have from a paperback edition sale, and I got a good read at a good price. We're both happy! At that price, I can put up with the Kindle restrictions. I won't put up with them at a price much higher than that.

  5. *nod*

    At $2.99, I bought a copy, even though I'd already read it as part of your beta team, just to see how the "final" version turned out.

    Of course, I buy a paper copy of everything Correia turns out, too, even though I read all of that stuff in the beta loop as well, so, that may not be my best argument.

    Realistically, I think the best argument is, I was able to buy a copy of your book, without the gatekeepers' approval.

  6. The thing that I never understood, as I watched the digital versions of books become available, was why the publishers continued to charge full retail price of a hardcopy or paperback for the digital version. After fixed production costs on a hardcopy print run, they have no distribution costs for the electronic version. Simple greed, I suppose.

  7. Actually, this is a big issue at the moment in the U.K. – grossly simplifying, Amazon, Google, etc are getting away without paying any tax. That's a huge advantage.

  8. Quentin: at least for sales tax, that's not unique to UK. They don't generally charge sales tax here in the US either. At least in Virginia, consumers are supposed to pay the tax directly when they file their income tax returns.

    I'm pretty sure that US companies pay income tax on all income, even income earned overseas, so not paying UK income tax doesn't really give them much of a competitive advantage, even though it may hurt local tax revenues.

  9. No, it's not sales tax. It's the companies like Amazon paying little or no corporation tax – see and

    And the companies aren't paying US corporation tax. They are domiciled in low-tax countries like Ireland.

    As an aside, this is one of the problems Apple has: it has a huge pile of cash but it's mostly held offshore and cannot be repatriated without Apple paying a large amount of tax.

  10. I love indie. Amazon made me a thousand bucks over the last two months, after I put up my first novel. I got tired of trying to 'break in' with the big houses, and decided to go indie.
    It works if you have a good product, and I guess mine is good enough for a first novel. I am deeply gratified that people are willing to risk $3.99 on a novel from someone with no track record and no big name to push it up.

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