According to a recent article in The Bookseller, Amazon is considering charging customers for the use of its Look Inside! feature. Apparently they are tired of hosting a free browsing service. Well, Amazon, so are booksellers in the physical world. Not only do high street booksellers have higher overheads in order to cover staff and rents, but they also have to contend with browsers who come to look at the books, damage them, and then purchase pristine, unshopworn copies on Amazon, “because it’s cheaper”. And actually feel no embarrassment about saying so. The problem is, Amazon already gets a browsing service from its competitors, and it’s the competitors who have to pay for the costs this incurs.
Like Google, Amazon is one of those internet companies whose rapid and slightly sinister market dominance is overlooked because many people still view them as the new kids, the plucky outsiders. In the row over e-books (of which Amazon had an eye-watering 90% of the market in 2009), people often believe that Amazon is looking after their interests in the face of the big bad publishing companies after fatter profits. The role of the publisher is often forgotten in this squeeze, and the bulk rates Amazon demands as such a prominent buyer are a real difficulty, especially for independent publishers. But without publishers, Amazon would not have books to sell. Amazon doesn’t invest in new literature, new art, new products (unless they have very obvious benefits to Amazon as with the monopoly-enhancing Kindle). They aren’t looking for the next big thing or the key niche title themselves, they just want to offer it a massive Amazon discount.
Amazon has simply conditioned people to expect to pay less for books. A mere fifteen years after the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, people are often astounded when they are asked to pay the full cover price for a book. So when it comes to Look Inside! I don’t imagine they would take kindly to paying for what they used to get for free, or the implication that they have been parasites on the site, using the service but not paying their way. One wonders, if this move goes ahead, whether Amazon would take all the money raised on the basis that it covers the hosting costs for the service, or whether publishers would demand a cut for the use of their products. There would clearly be consequences to the introduction of this measure; it would provide financial incentive for people to go down to their local bookshops and browse there (too bad for people with limited mobility), and perhaps the increased footfall would help physical sales. It would make people aware of the costs to companies of browsing; there is a loss, even though nothing physically is taken. It could also be bad for physical bookshops, furthering their use as museums of display copies, while customers return to Amazon, having gleefully outwitted both retailers.
As a bookseller, I read this story with a distinct sense of schadenfreude. If put into place, this proposed move would provoke an outcry among online shoppers, would show that profits are more important than providing a good service, and would be a terrible PR move for the company. It would make one thing very clear: Amazon is only interested in looking after Amazon.