Imagine if your local bookshop was modelled on a Cash & Carry. Towering 3 storey riveted steel shelving units, housed in a cavernous warehouse unit on the edge of a nameless industrial park, echoing tinnily with the greatest hits of boy band One Direction. It has all the books, but they’re stacked inside cardboard boxes, with just a tiny pixelated cover image and a few sample pages stapled on the front for reference. And the books…well…suppliers who sell cheap get put at the front of the shelves, so most of the warehouse looks like this.
This is the Amazon Kindle store in 2016, the world’s biggest marketplace for ebooks, in which every publisher and author of any note does business. And it has all the charm and wonder of Mike Ashley shouting at his minimum wage slaves in a Sports Direct warehouse, mixed with a low end brothel catering to travelling sales reps. Which is odd, and sad, and self defeating, because books deserve better and if they’re going to prosper in the years beyond 2016 they NEED better.
Take the Amazon star rating system. Please. This is EXACTLY THE SAME SYSTEM used to rate laptops, pet supplies, kettles, and anything else the Amazon warehouse ships. Fine for most of those things, but not for books. Unless of course you interpret this as a cutting insight into the literary qualities of the book it is reviewing.
On a long enough timeline, five star rating systems are statistically doomed to all converge at 3.82. They’re absurdly easy to game, and as seen above, they encourage a utilitarian mindset that ends up with classics of literature being critiqued for the size of their font because the reader doesn’t know they can change that.
But this is only symptomatic of Amazon’s one-warehouse-fits-all approach to retail. One of the reasons people go to bookstores is because bookstores are a nice place to go. Toppings of Bath or Shakespeare & Company in Paris are spaces that people travel to like pilgrims once journeyed to Canterbury. They mean something to people. Ebook stores might never match that, but surely they can do better than than the dank digital spaces, stinking ever so slightly of pee, of today?
Amazon clearly has some sense of this. Its Kindle Devices are all well designed, with the new Kindle Oasis pitched at a luxury brands market. But those light drenched images of models reading in hammocks are rather a contrast to the store the the device opens onto, which is more like a Bangkok lady-boy show than a Bali yoga retreat. So why can’t Amazon polish up its Kindle store, and bring it up to scratch with, say, a bog standard high street Waterstones? In the hope the answer is nothing more ominous than a lack of ideas among the Amazon engineering team, here are three of suggestions.
Let me market my goods damnit!
Digital goods are intangible, which makes the marketing surrounding them all the more important. When I run, say, and online writing course, I’m able to tailor a landing page, to shape the information new students see. Same with platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter, all have a digital marketing focus. Not so Amazon, where it’s needed more than anywhere. I should be able to design and format a beautiful landing page for the stories and novels I sell on Amazon, a page that draws readers into the experience of the book. But, NO, all Amazon gives me is a tiny cover image and a single text block I can’t even italicise!!
Curation, Curation, Curation.
Amazon might not want to curate its bookstore, relying instead on the dead hand of the algorithm, but MANY OTHER PEOPLE would be happy to take the curator’s roll. Stop treating the Kindle store like a monolithic entity, instead let it evolve into the curated showcase of human knowledge it so obviously wants to become. I write one of the only regular sci-fi books column in a major newspaper, I’d curate the hell out of a proper sci-fi ebook store hosted on the Kindle platform. People can carry on pumping seedy erotica into the Kindle store, it’s a free world, and other people can curate a better experience for the majority of readers.
Expand the affiliate scheme for books.
I use the Amazon affiliate scheme on a casual basis, simply because my job entails linking to books a lot. The % are far too low to make it worthwhile to develop any further. But combined with ideas 1 and 2, a nominally higher %, specifically for books, could unleash a small army of enthusiastic book sellers, hand selling to their own niche audiences.
I suspect these ideas aren’t high margin enough to catch Amazon’s eye. But hear is the thing. As gargantuan as Amazon is, they’re no longer the kooky company readers fell in love with in the 90s. And if they don’t recapture the beautiful experience book buyers hunger for, an agile little upstart might just sneak in and take the ebook market from them. And if they do, I have a feeling these ideas will be part of how they do it.