Kindle: Amazon’s Shooting Itself in the Foot By Charles W Orton

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In October 2002, Jim Wier, CEO of the Snapper lawn mower company, paid a visit to Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Wal-Mart had been selling Snapper lawn mowers for three years, so Wier’s reason for making the trek to Big Box Mecca wasn’t to put on the usual dog-and-pony show that so many manufacturers reduce themselves to in an attempt to get the world’s largest retailer to carry their products. His purpose was the exact opposite: Although his contract with Wal-Mart was worth tens of millions of dollars, he wanted to tell a Wal-Mart vice-president in person that Snapper would no longer sell its product through Wal-Mart.

Snapper lawn mowers are top-of-the-line, and Wier didn’t want to dilute their value by producing a cheaper model for Wal-Mart. The result of his withdrawal from Wal-Mart was an immediate 20 percent reduction in gross revenues.

Today, Snapper is even healthier than it was in 2002, and it’s adding more manufacturing capability.

The parallel and lesson for publishers large and small is that Amazon’s hubris, like Wal-Mart’s (and Wal-Mart has a plentiful dose), doesn’t make it bulletproof. Like France’s King Louis XIV, whose purported statement, “L’etat c’est moi,” (I am the state), planted the seeds for the French Revolution, Amazon’s recent and continuing mistakes are planting the seeds for its own demise.

Today, Amazon holds 20 percent of the book-selling business in the United States. Depending on who you want to believe, its share of the e-book market is anywhere from 45 percent to 90 percent. These two impressive figures seem to have led Amazon to the belief it is the linchpin of publishing, and that no matter what it does, the book-buying public and publishers will just have to put up with it.

The fallacy of that delusion is already showing.

First, Booklocker won its anti-trust suit against Amazon. Then Macmillan and other publishers balked at Amazon’s e-book pricing and got what they wanted. And now it has allowed its vaunted “customer reviews” feature has revealed itself as not so much a “review” mechanism as a forum for gripes about the availability or unavailability of particular titles for Amazon’s proprietary Kindle e-book reader.

Kindle owners have given 1-star ratings to Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, Ted Kennedy’s memoir True Compass, Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue: An American Life and Douglas Preston’s Impact merely because the e-book version wasn’t available at the same time as the release of the hard-cover version. In fact, according to a Jan. 22, 2010 article in Fortune magazine, two-thirds of all “reviews” for Game Change were 1-star ratings because of this situation (if this is true, Amazon has since deleted those posts). In the case of Preston’s Impact, a check of the 49 1-star reviews as of Feb. 17 revealed that 35 of them were complaints only about the unavailability of the e-book version.

Amazon might believe these complaints will benefit it by forcing publishers to make the Kindle-readable e-book version available at the same time as the hard-cover version of a new title. And that might be true in the short run. But the sham of Amazon reviews has already received a lot of press, and intelligent book buyers will soon ignore the system entirely. As should authors and publishers.

In addition, Amazon’s Kindle might enjoy a large share of the e-book market in the United States, but in English-speaking countries around the globe Sony’s proprietary e-book reader is king with at least 55 percent of the international e-book market.

This competition between Amazon and Sony brings us to another important point. Since the introduction of e-books, more than 20 dedicated e-book readers have hit the market, and most of them are today just historical footnotes. The likelihood that the Kindle and the Sony readers will follow the once-popular Rocket eBook reader and others into oblivion is almost assured.

If that is the case, and there is every reason to believe it will be, the current flap over Kindle-readable e-books is truly just a tempest in a teapot. Amazon might be betting the farm on Kindle, but there is no reason for authors and publishers to do the same.

Charles Wesley Orton is a freelance writer with more than 40 books and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles to his credit. Three of his books are available through Booklocker: Graveyard Tales: Stories Not to Be Told at Bedtime (for 8- to 12-year-old readers), Buckhorn Bob’s Big Book of Clean Jokes, and Buckhorn Bob’s Big Book of Not-So-Clean Jokes. The only one of his books available through Amazon is his second history of Carlsbad, Calif., because he doesn’t control the rights to that one. He lives in southern California with his wife and two dogs.