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.



  1. Haven’t books always been a commodity? Although I understand your points and agree that they describe what’s going on today, I don’t see how it differs much from before, aside from scope. People have always selected from what’s available, whatever the art form, and stayed loyal to artists who deliver what they like. Volume consumers will continue to troll through the selections in the genre(s) they favor, even explore outside them, while more selective consumers will stick with what they know, and buy for brand.

    Too, there has always been, and I believe will continue to be, an elite who can command large audiences and dollars for their output. That elite may grow smaller in number, and earn less, as the commoditization process continues, but they will survive. Commoditization hurts editors, designers, typesetters — the production and support people in traditional publishing — more than authors, publishers, or readers, by removing or devaluing job opportunities. The altered opportunities arising from commoditization can serve writers and publishers who learn how to play the new game. Some new authors have already demonstrated huge earnings and publicity, and some publishers are figuring out how to repackage their offerings to tap into the potential. Readers’ cups runneth over from material to choose from. Yeah, it’s a pendulum swing, but most states of balance occur after a few wide swings have alarmed everyone. Eventually, though, the swings narrow, people adapt, and the show goes on.


    Comment by Carolyn — January 9, 2012 @ 7:58 am | Reply

  2. Let’s hope that talent and craft win out. Although I may be willing to risk a few dollars on a new author, I would still be willing to pay more for an author/book that is excellent. Reading is about pleasure. Since many new authors are unwilling to pay for competent editors, the reading of their books can be a painful. experience. Peer reviews, reader comments will help sort wheat from chaff. Frankly, I can’t stand Stephen King. His skill is fast and frequent delivery, not great writing. He produced,albeit average writing, ergo more revenue for publisher.


    Comment by irene — January 9, 2012 @ 8:01 am | Reply

  3. Do I stop reading/buying books after I buy/read books from my favorite authors? No way! First I am a volume reader. If I just read my fav authors, I would be able to still read several books each month. But I am always looking for authors who right lik X to fill in the empty spaces. Also now that I have the Kindle, I can add free books from all kinds of genres thus expanding my horizons. I will always buy my favorite authors but still look for more. Just greedy I guess!


    Comment by Jackie — January 9, 2012 @ 8:07 am | Reply

  4. After the Christmas Amazon sales I have about 30 books downloaded and ready to read. In addition I have samples for over 80 books ready to start and purchase if I like the sample. All of the sample books are less than $10. That gives me about 7 months of reading material.

    There have been 2 nonfiction books that I have bought for over $10 this year. However, any fiction or regular generic nonfiction books over $10 goes onto for notification of a price drop. There have been books I have missed because a few publishers refuse to drop the price on e-books when the paperbacks come out but there has been few of those books. I steadfastly refuse to pay more for an e-book than its print counterpart. As an engineer I have to say that paying more for an e-book is an artificial violation of the law of entropy.

    Bottom line is that I have more than enough really great books to read without paying high prices. I believe the publishers still haven’t figured out the supplier/customer relationship.


    Comment by Joe J. — January 9, 2012 @ 9:16 am | Reply

  5. Interesting, although it only applies to people who read genre fiction. Isn’t that a relatively small percentage? I might enjoy one whodunit or thriller, but that doesn’t mean I want to read nothing but those genres.


    Comment by mrdisvan — January 9, 2012 @ 10:33 am | Reply

  6. Discoverability seems to be the main obstacle for indie authors. Can you explain further how “I began to explore the indie world and found numerous gems.” Where were you looking and what criteria were you using for sampling authors unknown to you? Thanks.


    Comment by Laura — January 10, 2012 @ 9:48 am | Reply

    • I began at Fictionwise before B&N bought it. Then I moved to Smashwords where I found what appeared to be interesting and free ebooks. Many of them were poor to mediocre but there were some gems and whn I found a gem, I bought whatever else the author wrote unless it was a novella or a short story. I tend not to enjoy those forms.


      Comment by americaneditor — January 11, 2012 @ 6:40 am | Reply

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