Monday, 7 January 2013

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Is The Amazon Bubble Bursting?

Amazon clearly didn't use their noodle when trying to launch the Kindle in China
To say I've been a little peeved with Amazon recently would be putting it mildly. This is a great shame, as I've been a very happy customer of theirs for many years, including as college librarian during my time at Oxford. Even without that post, I've usually placed an order at least once a month, whether it's something for work, or just something that's grabbed my interest. Whatever I've needed - whether an obscure Stella Gibbons book or something to help cure my fear of driving - Amazon has been there. And it has many other departments whose surfaces I haven't even scratched yet, such as Sports, and Clothes.

One of the departments of which I was a satisfied user until recently was their MP3 department. Uploads were quick and easy and I felt confident that I was buying legally, with part of my money going to people who had made the music. Even once I moved to France, I continued to use the Amazon UK MP3 site with abandon. However, I recently got a pop-up message denying my purchase on the basis that I lived in France. I then tried to purchase via Amazon France (at Amazon UK's suggestion), which also denied purchase due to geographical restrictions. This is extremely frustrating: I enjoy a wide range of (sometimes slightly off-the-wall) music, and one of the reasons I have used Amazon is its ability to always find what I was after. Other retailers barely leave the Top 40, which is no good for someone like me.

Further investigation revealed that other users had also had this problem, and many suggested solutions (both legal and illegal). I don't like to use iTunes, as I don't currently use an iPod, having opted for a Creative instead (plenty of non-Apple products have problems playing iTunes tracks). However, luckily for me, there are plenty of other legal ways to get music, including Legal Sounds and FairShare Music.

But even though many acknowledge that this is not Amazon's fault, being a problem caused by the record industry, this hasn't made me feel entirely favourable towards Amazon, and along with other news, has caused me to take my custom elsewhere. Amazon have a reputation for innovation, and have a knack for coming up with ideas that people will actually use, such as the installation of Amazon lockers at certain Staples stores in the US, where customers can pick up their purchases from a secure location. I also certainly don't despise my Kindle, which has given me the gift of portability and new books in an instant (a more detailed review of the device, as well as the Kindle Fire, is to follow). 

However, Amazon's recent tax evasion strategies (you know, the ones that have been splashed all over the news recently) and the constant whisper in the background that they are killing independent bookstores (and even the entire publishing industry thanks to their incredibly low prices) are beginning to leave a certain bad taste in my mouth. This is also exacerbated by Amazon's latest antics in China. On December 13th, it gaily announced the opening of its Kindle store there, which would initially sell ebooks for users in China to read on the Kindle mobile app, with a view to launching the Kindle before the end of 2014. However, Amazon clearly hasn't used its noodle and has got itself into hot water already (groan): Cnet reports that Amazon did not in fact secure appropriate authorization to sell ebooks in China before going ahead. According to Chinese press and publication law, Amazon needed to obtain at least one of four licences in order to do this, and instead of doing this independently, just borrowed one from a partner. Can everybody here say oops?
This series of gaffes and criticism could possibly cause people to take their business elsewhere. Independent bookstores still proliferate in London, the US, and Paris, with many having a long history, proving that they too are able to move with the times. Such outlets also offer people a choice: I do worry about what will happen to my Kindle books when or if I ever go for another e-reader in future.

Amazon is still big business, though, and all of those little independent bookstores must feel like very small fish in an exceedingly large pond, especially with such a shark coming up behind them, flashing its black and yellow teeth at every turn. (A wasp, I suppose, would have made a better metaphor, but hey, we're here now - let's stick with it.) So what will the world do? And what will I personally do?

Of course, it isn't possible to make meaningful predictions, even if you happen to be an expert in economics or in the publishing industry itself. One reason for this is the fast pace at which technology moves: ten years is a long time in technological terms, and I can't even remember if Amazon figured so strongly in my buying habits as we entered 2003 (when I was midway through my sixth-form years - eek!). Who knows where the world will be buying from in 2023? For now, though, I don't think it would be realistic to say I will stop buying from Amazon completely. I have, though, already begun to wean myself off them when it comes to buying music, and will try to do this more in future for other media also, out of my love for books, music and film, and my appreciation of the sheer work done by those who make them. 

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