An American Editor

January 9, 2012

eBooks: Has Amazon Turned eBooks into Commodities?

For a long time, publishers and readers have argued that each book is unique and thus one cannot substitute, say, a book by Dean Koontz for one by Stephen King. For years I accepted that — until ebooks and agency pricing and Amazon exclusivity. Now, in the case of fiction at least, I think the tides have turned and ebooks demonstrate books and authors are substitutable, that is, (fiction) books are commodities.

Until inflated agency pricing of bestsellers and Amazon’s concerted effort to dominate the ebook market, I would not have considered substituting one author for another author — at least not consciously. Yet the more I think about book buying and reading habits, the more convinced I am that between the criteria genre and author, it is genre that dominates.

Before the advent of ebooks on a wide scale, most readers bought (or borrowed) physical books to read. Physical books, except in the secondary market, were (and are) highly priced. A popular hardcover today, averages $25 and climbing. As a consequence, a reader carefully chose the book to buy and placed the emphasis on author and genre. For $25, the reader wants Tom Clancy, not Jack Unknown.

Amazon began to whittle away at that reader preference with its heavy discounts. Selling bestsellers at $9.99 rather than $25 meant that a reader who had already read Clancy’s latest novel could look for something else within the genre and take a chance on Jack Unknown. The investment was not overwhelming.

Today, Amazon has gone further with ebooks. Tom Clancy’s newest release may cost $14.99 in ebook form (and less in hardcover), but readers are increasingly finding ebooks at $2.99 and less in the same genre by unknown authors worth a try as they wait for the Tom Clancy novel to come down in price — or simply move beyond Clancy altogether.

Amazon, by aggressively courting the indie author and by aggressively pricing indie titles, has expanded what readers will search to find a good book to read. And Amazon has gone the further step with its Prime Lending program and Kindle Direct Publishing programs. Amazon has given its stamp of approval to indie books and authors. Although I think Amazon is not a bookseller to patronize because of its desire to monopolize the integrated book market, it deserves a great deal of credit for changing books into commodities.

I know that many of you will clamor to say that I am wrong, but I ask you to consider this: Once you have bought and read the latest release from your favorite author, do you stop buying and reading books until that author’s next release in 2 or 3 years or do you continue to buy and read books within that genre? And if you do continue to buy and read books, do you continue to be entertained by them or are you only entertained by books written by your favorite author? Finally, do you rush out to buy your favorite author’s newest release or do you wait for a less expensive edition to appear?

If you answer yes to the latter parts of each question (at least the first two questions), then books are commodities and substitutable. And this is the revolution that Amazon has wrought aided by the Agency 6 — the change in how readers view books, especially ebooks. What the Agency 6 claimed they wanted to prevent by instituting agency pricing, they have instead brought about by encouraging, through their actions, Amazon to legitimize the indie marketplace.

Prior to this legitimization, indie books and vanity books were synonymous. That is no longer true. Amazon has made it possible for known and respected authors to go indie and not be negatively viewed by readers. What vanity presses sought for decades, the Agency 6 gave them in months.

The commoditization of books is both good and bad. It is good because a wider range of authors are discovered. The Shayne Parkinsons, Vicki Tyleys, L.J. Sellers, and Richard Tuttles of the indie world — authors who write very well and excellent stories but who were unable (or unwilling) to break into the traditional publishing world — now have a chance to be discovered and claim the large and broad readership their writings deserve. I admit that prior to the commoditization of books, I would not have tried any of these authors. But once indie books were legitimized and books commoditized, I began to explore the indie world and found numerous gems, with some authors and books being better than what I could find in the traditional book world.

Commoditization is, however, also bad — bad for publishing, for authors, and readers — because in coming years the writers who currently make grand incomes from writing — the Stephen Kings and Tom Clancys of publishing — may well find themselves unable to attract an audience for their higher priced efforts. Granted that this is just the marketplace at work, but the pendulum can swing too far in either direction. As the market settles on a low price ceiling, that ceiling will become crowded and with the ease of entry into ebook publishing, it will become increasingly difficult to find the King and Clancy of the 2020s.

A balance is needed, but I have no idea how to bring it about or what that balance should be. Amazon deserves praise and scorn for commoditizing books, but more praise than scorn. In this, Amazon has done well.

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