James BirdleWhat happens when the distribution and retail of books shifts online, and one player begins to dominate? At the PublishingNext conference held in Goa last week concerns were raised about this shift, and panelists from the UK in particular pointed out the dangers of a power shift. This is important, particularly given the impending launch of Amazon, and the reportedly staggering growth of Flipkart.com in India; one panelist said that Flipkart sold as many books as the Crossword bookstore in 2010, and it is growing faster. Some notes from what was said about online bookstores at the conference:

– Shift In Power Balance: James Bridle, a director at Bookkake, said that Amazon has been slowly eating its way up the value chain, especially because it comes with a huge amount of power and knowledge. Being a digital store gives Amazon an incredible amount of information on readers and users. “Publishers have some data, but we really don’t get anything from them. We know so little about when people are reading. Through the Kindle, Amazon knows how people are reading, and it affects how they recommend books to people. They’re changing the format of books themselves. They noticed that a lot of people weren’t finishing books – we’ve all secretly know about, but don’t say it – so they launched Amazon Singles, dedicated to shorter books.

 

– Barnes & Noble vs Amazon: This understanding of the selling and reading of the books can be beneficial to publishers, but it also gives Amazon a large power, which is growing with electronic books. In the US, publishers saw that Amazon was becoming dominant, so they used agency publishing. This gave Barnes & Noble time to get their act together, and the Nook is a serious competitor to amazon. It allowed publishers to prevent a monopoly, and they didn’t want to be at the mercy of a single retailer.

– Distributor Or Publisher? Elin Haf Gruffydd Jones pointed out that Amazon recently announced that it will concentrate on six languages. “Because the tech market is dominated by Kindle, and because there is an over dominance, it stifles the growth of reading in Welsh (ED: as well as other languages). They don’t have the in-house services to support Welsh language publishing. That says to me that Amazon thinks of itself as a publisher not a distributor. There are the same hierarchies in the digital world as the analog world.”

– Not Online Only, But Offline Declining: Radhika Menon of Tulika Books said that while she sees online sales as a real hope, because it allows them to reach readers and buyers, they can’t be exclusive to online sales. “It cannot be, given the Indian content, and the kind of readership that we are addressing.” Mandira Sen of Bhatkal and Sen said that they’re selling online, and have noticed that the retail orders from bookshops are coming down to a trickle, and old bookshops are saying that there are no footfalls. “It’s like they’re chasing flies. Retail is just as much under threat here as in the West, and online has to lead. Where we are less surefooted is -ebooks. we have started doing it and print on demand is a good thing. We are going to have shake off our hesitation”.

– Discovery & Promotion: echoing Radhika Menon’s views on discovery, Michael Bhaskar, Digital Publishing Director at Profile Books said that the online doesn’t allow for the serenditous discovery of books in stores, and there is an evidence of dominance of certain platforms and the hierarchy that it creates. “It is feedback effect. People arent looking much on the Kindle, and if Amazon promotes it and you’re in the charts, you get more promotion. Because of that, you stay in the charts, and because you’re in the charts, you get promotion. More often than not, those (promoted) publishers are not alternate.

Disclosure: this writer was a speaker at the Publishing Next conference in Goa at the invitation of the organizers, with costs of attending covered.