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#Amazonageddon Halts US Online Book Purchase For… Several Hours

At some stage last week while I was asleep, buy buttons were removed from Big 6 (5?) publishers Hachette, Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. What followed was a brief turd storm of concern, blame and speculation about what these publishers had done to bring forth the wrath of Bezos, followed by a ‘statement’ from Amazon a while later saying it was a technical glitch (ie: they sent out an email with ‘technical glitch’ as the subject line and blank body text, probs).

So they didn’t do it deliberately. Obviously, in this case. Amazon does have a history of vindictively removing buy buttons of titles where they have had a disagreement with the publisher (remember the IPG arguments?), so I can see why the immediate reaction was that some back-room deal had gone horribly awry and Amazon was out for blood.

But this assumption ignores two key tenants of Amazon’s modus operandi. First: their primary customers are not the publishers, they are the readers. Removing buy buttons for Big 5 titles is a statement that wouldn’t just be heard in the trade, it would echo across to consumers very very quickly, and they aren’t particularly forgiving of companies taking their arguments public. Agency pricing has proved this. To say that Amazon were using this to give publisher’s a heart attack, or that it proves what would happen if publisher’s mess with them, is missing the point entirely. Yes, publishers would lose a massive retailer. But Amazon would lose the loyal customers that it has spent its lifetime building up, and no retailer on the planet can afford to do that.

Simply, Amazon wouldn’t get away with it.

Second: making money is good times. Deliberately reducing their catalogue like this is so counter-productive to rolling in the cash. It’s business idiocy and it wouldn’t happen.

What I’d like to know is what happened when customers realised those buttons were turned off. Obviously, if you own a kindle, you’re pretty much done – you know you can’t get those books anywhere else. But if you were after a specific book, what is your next move after the world’s largest online bookstore decides to make a huge percentage of its most popular stock available?

I suppose you go to the world’s largest bookshop finding machine: Google.

Google Trends: last seven days

This is a graph of the search queries for these three terms over the past seven days in the US. This data isn’t perfect, and if you plot these terms over the past year, November 8th doesn’t represent a massive spike. But I still think it’s interesting to see on the day the buttons were removed, there was an increase in the number of times these terms were Googled in the US, particularly in the term ‘book stores’.

This suggests to me that the place Amazon represents in the customers’ mind is not necessarily going to be usurped by a startup. If a customer’s second choice to purchase a book is to look for a bookshop in their local area rather than an alternative online bookshop, then a startup’s job is far more difficult than simply making a better recommendation engine or nicer features than Amazon: it is out-branding the high street.

That, or this graph is completely useless and non-representative. I’m open to the fact that that may be true. Still, if I were trying to be a book eretailer, I’d be SEO-ing the living Christ out of my website for the term ‘book stores’, ‘online book store’, and ‘bookshop online’ rather than the more obvious ‘buy books online’.

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Felice Howden

Felice Howden had opinions before she knew what the word 'opinion' meant. She wrote for the publishing and ideas blog Socratic Ignorance Is Bliss, and has had short stories published around the place. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2008 with a degree in English and Philosophy, and now spends her time typing code and hatching brain eggs for the future of publishing in a major publishing house.

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