Now Amazon's on the run from e-publishers

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The Independent Online

The story of Amazon is known to all Internet users. Out of nowhere, it has emerged as the powerhouse of Internet book selling in less than three years. After a number of failed attempts to fight back, its biggest competitor, Barnes & Noble, has thrown in the towel, with its CEO resigning to "spend more time with family".

For a while Amazon looked like having the whole Internet books market pretty much to itself. However, Jeff Bezos, Amazon's illustrious leader, didn't allow for the unpredictable spirit of the net. No sooner had his brick-and-mortar competitor quit the online fight, than a new enemy emerged. Now the book publishers have decided to fight back, and a number of publishing houses have made aggressive moves to online selling.

The most recent and highly successful example was Simon & Schuster, a well-respected if rather traditional publishing house which débuted on the net with an exclusive online deal for Stephen King's electronic novella Riding the Bullet. For a mere $2.50 per shot, King fans could access the book, print and read it instantaneously, without having to wait 24 hours for Amazon to deliver the physical product.

Needless to say, on-demand delivery with no time delay and a keen price has created massive demand, and in only 24 hours more than 400,000 customers voted with their wallets to read the book. Softlock.com, a company that creates copyright protection software, has co-operated on the project, providing the framework for the publisher to manage the integrity of the distribution process.

The book has become an overnight sensation, with many a digerati rushing to Simon & Schuster's site (www.simonsays.com) to download the book before their peers did - a decidedly positive score on the snob value of online literature. I had a look as well, and although I am not a big King fan, I found the story compelling, readable and the whole experience not only exciting (hey, somebody is doing something exciting online again) but also rewarding in its own literary sense.

Simon & Schuster was clearly on to a winner, with the ever-more-impatient Internet crowd fed up with waiting even 24 hours for a physical book delivery, and supportive of a solution that gives instant access to the online literary goodies. Also, since no print or distribution costs are to be absorbed, the pricing of the book was very aggressive and, according to the publishers, there is more to come on the radical price cutting front.

However, this great day for the publisher meant a dark day for Amazon. From an established near-monopoly position, Amazon has been relegated to a lowly has-been in a matter of minutes. That is the glory and power of the Internet - that it allows new technology to turn today's emperors into the dust and a fertiliser of tomorrow's industry.

What is Amazon to do? Clearly, Simon & Schuster has proved that publishers are a lot better positioned to run e-commerce for books, as, owing to their close ties with authors, they can offer better pricing. With a bit of a copyright protection technology behind them, they never have to build a single warehouse and employ a single pick-and-packer. A click of the mouse and voila, your book is available on your desktop, with no delays, no risks of wrong delivery, essentially a perfect experience. Basically, when you take away the need for the physical book delivery, Amazon somewhat loses its unique selling point, which is its expert logistics knowledge and warehouse set-up. Its other strong points, namely a good search engine and reader reviews, are easy for a decent-sized publisher to copy or recreate.

Large publishers such as Random House have recently made fast progress with digitising their books and with on-demand book distribution. Their massive catalogue of hundreds of thousands of titles will put them in an excellent position to attack both Amazon's previously unchallenged territories, both in America and Europe. Not for nothing has Paul Allen (of Microsoft fame) recently invested over $30m into FatBrain, a company that through its eMatter technology allows authors to sell digital copies of their work online. Allen rarely backs wrong horses, so I suspect it is only a matter of time before physical distribution of the printed word will become a relic of the past.

The WH Smiths of this world will tremble, replaced by publishers and, eventually, authors, publishing directly via their online co-operatives - a formula that has been popping out of San Francisco over the last few months.

Authors can now band together, buy cheap copyright protection technology, pay a small fee to a jointly owned e-commerce website and publish their work without the hassle of a middle man.

It's been pathetic to watch the online book retailers competing to see how fast they could get a book to your doorstep when what was really needed was simple, instantaneous access to the product that so perfectly lends itself to electronic distribution. Getting the book now and cheaper is better than getting it tomorrow and more expensive.

Amazon has had its run, now it is up to the publishers to run with a ball that in the e-world rightfully belongs to them. Jeff Bezos must now move over and make space for the arriving newcomers, as the power of the net wins over yet another over-confident company.

eva@never.com

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