Amazon has taken the old adage in retail, “Lose money on every sale, but make it up in volume” to a new level. Who knows whether the strategy works in the long run? It is either a smart business model that forces competitors out of business so you dominate the market; or, you’re a fool and go out of business yourself.
This month we focus on a new phenomenon that we admittedly don’t understand, which is Amazon’s pricing model. Yes, growth in market share is important, and for sure their on-line marketplace is driving competitors out of business. What piqued our interest on the subject is not so much Amazon’s disruptive approach, which is not new news, but rather, the rise of free Kindle books. Each quarter we compile a list of the best-selling golf books on Amazon as a way to track the zeitgeist of the buying public. There are certain books that are perennial favorites among the top ten: Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons, Mark Frost’s The Match and Greatest Game Ever Played. Instructional books usually occupy at least five of the ten slots, as the never ending quest for improvement continues.
Recently we were taken aback because three of the books that made the top ten were Kindle versions, and they were priced at zero. That’s right ‘0’, zilch, nil. We’re not particularly smart, but the economics of zero are pretty easy to understand. With many mouths to feed, including the author, publisher and Amazon itself, how does anyone make money on an item sold for zero and delivered electronically? Okay, we understand that the marginal cost to download a Kindle book is probably close to zero, but still.
Amazon has always been opaque about how they make money (actually, for most of their existence they haven’t). Wall Street has given the company a free pass, buying into the vision of future rewards. The company’s market capitalization is $178 billion. As Dr. Evil would emphasize, that’s billion with a “B”. I have read analyst reports that state that the Kindle itself probably loses money in the classic “razor/razor blade” business model. Assume that is true, how do you then offer your razor blades (downloads of books) for free? Perhaps in the interest of generating excitement and getting customers hooked on a subject, with the bet that they will actually buy or download a book and hand over some actual simoleans in the future.
While we are on the subject, please excuse a minor digression. There are now close to a million eBooks on Kindle. For sure, I’m old school and prefer the real printed artifact in my hands. There is something about the tactile experience of holding a book; appreciating the time, expertise and expense that went into its production and design, and being elevated (if only a tiny bit) by the experience. For me, reading on a computer screen just doesn’t do it. It strains the eyes and doesn’t have the same comfortable feeling. Plus, you can’t sit in the warm snugness of an e-Library. But oh, the joys of sitting in a room lined with books on a rainy day admiring all the varied and interesting bindings and covers, the smell of the leather and cloths, and the lost hours spent randomly browsing.
If you will excuse a further rant, how annoying has it become of late when you search for a real book on AbeBooks (which is owned by Amazon, incidentally) only to have thousands of PDF books and low-quality eBooks pop up in the search results. Like flies that need to be swatted away, please clear the screen of all this drivel. Thank heavens the site has added a filter to weed out ‘Print on Demand’ books. I have been pleading with them to add in a filter to decontaminate the site of the latest detritus: PDF books. So far, without success, although I have taken it up as a personal crusade.
Admittedly, I am a book snob and have never appreciated cheap, preferring the dear. I am sure there is a market for inexpensive reproductions, and electronic reprints provide access to out-of-copyright historic works for people who otherwise can’t afford a vintage first edition. And I do understand it is convenient to load books onto a tablet if you travel and don’t want to carry around a lot of hard covers. I simply raise the issue as a warning flag; that the prominence of eBooks continues to rise as evidenced by the recent top sellers. The ubiquitous use of technology is the defining characteristic of our era, although it is helpful to pause periodically, drown out all the marketing and advertising we are bombarded with and assess whether it is always positive. In my view, it seems like a race to the bottom to go all digital. Producing a quality book is an art, not a science. The best books in a golfer’s library were labors of love, and were not produced with commercial gains in mind. And certainly they were never envisioned to be sold for a penny; or less.
Let us hope that their rise will not supplant the stuff made from trees. Last time I checked, Bobby Jones didn’t sign any electronic copies of books. The sensation of seeing the actual ink signatures of golfing greats, with their personalized inscriptions, can’t be experienced on-line. There are few better small joys than the sensation one gets holding the large-paper edition of the Badminton Library: Golf, with its smooth India paper and spectacular feel. Or, marveling at a nineteenth-century large-paper edition of Hutchinson’s British Golf Links, with its elegantly produced and vivid images of early golf in its ancestral home. And, the art of quality book design is not something that has been lost to the Victorian Era. Case in point, the Story of Golf in the Country Club, produced in our century, and proudly displayed on my shelves it its gilt edged slipcase.
For reference, the dinosaur in the newsletter’s title is yours truly. An old-fashioned, dying breed for sure, but not going down without a fight! I am hopeful that those of us who enjoy book collecting will not go the way of the dinosaur. A more hopeful historical analogy is perhaps that of radio, and not the extinct reptiles. Its demise was widely forecast with the rise of television, but prediction is not prologue—my apologies for butchering Shakespeare—and it still thrives today.
Anyway, thank you for indulging me. My little tirade has been therapeutic and I do feel better now.
— John Sabino
Carl Spitzwig’s The Bookworm (1850)
Website of Valuable Book Group LLC, specialists in golf books