Friday, March 19, 2010

Invaded by Amazon?

There's been some news recently about Amazon setting up shop in Canada. Amazon.ca already exists, but it's operated from cyberspace and distribution goes through Canada Post. Understandably, Amazon wants a physical presence in the country. Also understandably, Canadian booksellers want to keep Amazon out. So where does that leave book buyers?

For one thing, you'd have competition for dollars. In one of the more intelligent pieces written so far, Roy MacSkimming likens the possible shift in bookselling to the Wal-Mart effect. The immediate benefits for consumers would be lower-priced books, at least for a while. Independent booksellers already find it difficult to compete with online retailers and Indigo, the biggest bookseller in Canada. Amazon could cripple them further, but hey, people will save a few bucks on their purchases.

Now assume that precedent is set, and foreign-controlled companies are allowed to operate in the Canadian bookselling business. Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo, said: "Supposing I should decide three years from now that, in order to expand some of my capability, I'd like to partner up with a foreign company [...] I do not want to be disadvantaged." Reisman could partner with a client such as Borders, like she tried to back in the mid-90s before buying Chapters, resulting in even more competition.

MacSkimming writes: "Decades of public investment in the industry would be lost. And for what?

"Abandoning the book industry to the free play of market forces would result in Wal-Martization, the law of lowest cost, lowest common denominator. This would be portrayed as a victory for the consumer but would, in fact, be the very opposite. Readers would be able to buy all the imported bestsellers they wanted, very cheaply, but would be deprived of the current rich choice of Canadian and international titles."

If MacSkimming is correct, that means there would be cheaper books, and more choice, but a smaller Canadian percentage due to increased volume of foreign content. Years of investing in Canadian culture and authors would be undone, all to let one retailer in and drop the price of books by a bit.

So, is it worth it? My mind isn't made up on the issue. It probably depends on vested interests. This arguement is more about business and less about culture, but I think the culture arguement is a valid one.

One more thing to note about the cost of books in Canada: It costs more to have books in Canada because of the country's small population and large land mass. Fewer people means smaller print runs which actually cost more than the larger print runs because it costs less to print in bulk. And because most warehousing is in the Toronto area, it costs more to ship and distribute over a territory as large as Canada. So, blame higher Canadian prices on geography.

If it's not one thing, it's another.

2 comments:

mel said...

i am also on the fence about this. there have been many a time when i've found something amazing on the amazon.com site and not in canada. but for the most part those were not books.
i don't think my love for places like bmv will die. maybe the little local bookshops will suffer, but then again, i can't even think of one that's not used...

Errant Knave said...

Well, availability wouldn't really be affected, because either a publisher has rights to sell a specific title in Canada, or it doesn't. The bookseller (any of them, including Amazon.ca) has to abide by those rules. You can get around that by using a US or UK online retailer (i.e. Amazon.com), but you'll have to pay the extra shipping costs, and you'll have to pay in pounds or US dollars.

Funny you should mention BMV. For one thing, they're about used books, so there are no royalties received for those sale. For another thing, they still manage to carry a few new books, something that no one can explain, but it's believed to be a fell-off-the-back-of-the-truck situation. That said, I still go to BMV when I can.

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