Aussie Amazon oi oi oh dear

So has everyone checked out the new Australian store for Amazon.com yet?

That’s a pretty big deal, right? Cheap books and DVDs and games and whatever the hell else Amazon sells, like ride-on mowers?

Actually, no; it just sells ebooks and Kindles.

Oh. That’s a bit less exciting. But hey, that means better access to Amazon’s ebook library, right, and better prices too? I bet Australian authors can start getting better royalties on self-published titles. And we can get our hands on those new Kindles, maybe even the Kindle Fire!

Actually, the range seems no better than what it was, and there are still lots of ebooks available in the US store that aren’t available in the Australian store. Price don’t seem to be improved; if anything, a lot of ebooks are more expensive than they were. You can buy a Kindle Fire, but that doesn’t mean you can use it to access the US media services that have been their big selling point; those are still geo-locked. And while local authors do get a better royalty now on local ebook sales, most Australian customers are still buying them from the US store because that’s where they have accounts. Also, Jeff Bezos is going to buy all of us and farm our organs.

…let’s all go hide in a barn and get drunk.

Thank you all for indulging my hilarious rhetorical dialogue. I bet Socrates would be proud.

So yeah, the new local Amazon store – what’s up with that? Something that could have completely changed – for good or ill – the Aussie book selling/publishing/self-publishing scene is instead kind of a damp squib of underachievement, and it’s not clear exactly what the multinational is actually trying to achieve with this effort.

In the interests of trying to work that out, and of just poking at the site, here are some things/issues/questions that leap out at me as being a bit strange. (Please note that these questions come from a massively uninformed place where I’m just looking at things and wondering, and I make no guarantee that my thoughts aren’t chock full of errors or dumb.)

Book pricing

Obviously, the first thing I did when I looked at the site was check my own ebooks, because false modesty is a sin. Hotel Flamingo, Godheads and Nine Flash Nine are all there and all priced at $1.03 each, which is a fairly nice conversion from 99 cents US. The Obituarist is also there, but it’s gone from $2.99 US to $3.99 Australian, which doesn’t make any kind of sense – why the big hike? And it’s not a one-off, either – I’ve checked a number of titles that are $2.99 in the US, such as Matthew Rossi’s Bottled Demon, Chuck Wendig’s Bait Dog and Kelly Thompson’s The Girl Who Would be King, to name three $2.99 books I’ve bought in the recent past, have made the dollar jump. Why?

It also seems to be just that price point, too – for example, F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep, which is $3.99 on the US store, is $4.16 on the Aussie store, which is consistent with the conversion of other prices. (Although that also raises the question of sales – The Keep was on sale in the US store for 99 cents this week, but that’s not carrying over to here; how are these sales being determined and are we going to see any benefit from them?)

There are also cases where prices aren’t so much ‘converted’ as set by publishers, and there are definitely instances where we’re getting shafted on that. The ebook of Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (which I’m really looking forward to reading) is $5.99 in the US store and a ridiculous $11.99 in the Aussie store; Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, to pull a title from Amazon.au’s front page, is $6.85 in the US and $12.99 here. Why are these books – these ebooks – doubling in price? And why would anyone buy them from the Australian store rather than getting the much cheaper US file?

Geo-locked accounts

Well, they might if that was their only option, which would be the case if they registered their Kindle with the Australian store. Just as folks with US accounts can’t buy ebooks from Amazon UK, Kindle buyers who register their device with the .au store will be limited to buying from that store. But those of us with US accounts – which is to say, pretty much every single person in Australia who bought a Kindle in the last five years – don’t have to miss out on the fun; we have the option of transferring our devices to the .au store and joining the local market.

This begs the obvious question – why the hell would you do that? Why would Amazon’s existing customer base want to deliberately hobble their devices so that they could only buy a limited, more expensive subset of the titles they can buy now? You have to assume that there’s some kind of additional incentive there to switch, but so far I haven’t been able to find it.

Limited range

Oh, and speaking of the local store, it’s not just the price of the ebooks that’s an issue, it’s the number of ebooks you can buy in the first place. It’s a little hard to tell exactly the size of either ebook library, but they seem to be roughly the same – but when you look at the ebooks that the US places in separate libraries, that’s a different story. The US store offers things like newspapers, magazine subscriptions and Kindle Worlds (licensed fan-fiction), but those product categories aren’t available at the .au store – and some quick Aus-searching for random titles under those umbrellas turned up sweet FA. (Sorry, Gossip Girl fans.) You can get Kindle Singles (short stories/essays) in the local store, even though they don’t have their own category – but a lot of those 99 cent singles are $3.99 here and we’re back at the first question.

Limited services

Over and above the simple question of how many ebooks you can buy is how you buy them and what else you can do with them. Amazon has assembled a huge number of services for its US Kindle readers. Kindle Prime gives readers open access to a huge library of titles and lets them stream TV shows and movies; Kindle owners can lend ebooks to each other and borrow them from public libraries; Kindle Fires can buy and download movies to their tablets and watch them offline, with access to iMDB metadata to better search and explore vast film libraries.

Australian Kindle owners couldn’t access any of that before, and we’re not accessing any of it now. At least, not at the moment, and I have my doubts of it happening anytime soon. Sure, it’s a question of demand and supply; Amazon makes a marginal profit on these services, but the sheer number of users make it worthwhile; we can’t offer anything like as much demand here. But why not open up the market to add Australian customers to the potential market, rather than geolocking them off in a corner where they don’t have the opportunity to give you money?

Increased royalties for local self-epub

Okay, enough complaining – here’s a good thing. Amazon offer self-epublishers a base 70% royalty on sales, which is great – but it only applies to ebooks sold in an Amazon territory (and above a certain price, but that’s a separate issue). Outside those territories, authors only get a 35% royalty, which is a bit shit if you’re an Australian writer and the bulk of your potential audience is local. Adding Australia as an Amazon territory changes things; we can get the full royalty on our local sales, and that’s awesome.

Except that, as previously noted, nearly all the existing Aussie Kindle users have .com accounts right now and are unlikely to shift them to .au – and when they buy ebooks through the .com store, it’ll still be at the 35% mark, because only local sales through the local store will gather the full amount. So what looks like a great opportunity for local writers and self-epublishers is reliant on Amazon making the .au store an attractive proposition for consumers, which isn’t the case right now.

(For my part, I’d be sending people to the US store to buy The Obituarist anyway, because I don’t want them spending an extra dollar on it for no damn reason. And I’d really like to know who decided to hike the price of my book like that, ‘cos it wasn’t me.)

Buying a Kindle

Perhaps the one really attractive thing Amazon AU can offer is the chance to buy Kindle devices, including Paperwhites and Fires. You can get those locally too, yes, but Amazon are undercutting their local partners by about 10% or so and not charging for shipping, and we can assume that future devices are probably going to be available online well before Dick Smith and Big W get them.

But still, what are you getting? Compare the services available for the Kindle Fire in the US to those in the Australian store. A device that’s sold more as a media consumption tool than a working tablet looks kind of underwhelming when much of that media is unavailable, and the low price point just makes it a cheap way to do not very much. Amazon is in the business of providing both devices and content for them – so if the second part of that supply is lacking, the first isn’t going to take off either.

I also assume that buying a Kindle Whatever through the Aussie store is going to mean it comes locked to the Aussie store, with all the drawbacks already mentioned. Bugger that, frankly.

This has all been a bit grim and finger-pointy (not to mention very long and wordy), but in truth I don’t mean to be negative. Amazon have their good points and bad, and there are important discussions to be had about their workplace practices, control of the market and the damage they can potentially do to local booksellers and publishers – but at the same time they give customers what they want and provide a service that very few other retailers can match. As a writer, they’ve made it easy for me to get my independent work out there; as a reader, they’ve made it easy (sometimes I think too easy, but that’s my fault) to discover new books and new voices.

So I come not to bury Caesar, nor to praise him, but rather to question his business model. Because if there are all these drawbacks to the local store, what are the positives? What is going to drive Australian customers to this storefront, rather than the American one, and make the exercise worthwhile? What’s the deal?

The only thing that occurs to me is that Amazon will funnel future local Kindle buyers here, rather than the US store, and do that by force – well, by locking access to the US store out for any new user with an Australian address, so that they can only buy ebooks at the .au store. Which sounds like a terrible idea, especially if you want to keep selling physical books and products to those customers, who would then need a separate account for the US store. And if they did that, they’d presumably want to extend it to existing Australian customers, which would be a massive problem for those Kindle owners – and one they’d be unlikely to accept happily.

What else is there? What’s the magic that makes this all work? It’s an important question, because by starting this process of moving into Australia, Amazon is going to permanently effect the local writing, reading, publishing and bookselling world. It would be good if that was a positive effect overall; it’d be a shame if it was negative, but it’s something that could (hopefully) be acclimatised to. But until we actually can work out what the hell they’re doing, we’re all operating in the dark.

2000 words on this topic tonight – the equivalent of an entire chapter of Raven’s Blood. My priorities are dumb.

But my questions, I think, are a bit less dumb. So if you’ve got answers – or indeed your own questions – then please leave a comment. This is something it’d be really good to talk about for once.

12 thoughts on “Aussie Amazon oi oi oh dear

  1. I agree — Amazon are pretty freakin’ evil.

    When you get down to it, Amazon is renting you DRM-locked stuff. You don’t actually own what you pay for.

    Geo-locking just fragments the market further, and means stuff you’ve paid for and put on your device won’t work overseas unless the rights-holders (ie: not you, the customer) say so. I mean, you’d never want to take your e-book reader with you when you travel, right?

    If you have a Kindle, my advice is to throw it out now (throw it in the fires of Mount Doom, for a good measure)…because the more you pay to put stuff on it, the higher you’ll tell yourself the change-over cost is when you eventually ditch it.

    And, if they’re anything like Amazon’s Australian cloud service, they operate some servers Australian soil, employ Australian people, but somehow get away without paying GST and are possibly not complying with a number of other other regulations (the loop-hole is they’re a branch of an American company). Another bonus is, despite being located in Australia, they’re beholden to all the nutty laws imposed by US government on American companies. As far as I can tell, they’ve worked-out it’s more profitable to run this way as as a tax-dodge, and to trade on the gullibility of people thinking they’re buying ‘local’ (whatever that means on the internet).

    In the end, customers and authors/content-creators are getting a raw deal.

  2. I can only assume this is Stage 1 of some master plan, but like you I have bugger-all idea where they are going with it. The only likely direction I can see if region-locking existing Australian customers to the .au store. They would probably lose me as a customer under the current pricing model and range of titles available.

  3. I loved this review of the Kindle Fire from Project Gutenberg:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:Kindle_Fire_Review

    Why would anybody buy a Kindle when they can buy a good tablet instead (and put Kindle for Android or iOS on it to read kindle books if they want to)?

    To avoid “renting” DRM books, strip the DRM from it (just look online for details) and then you can convert it from mobi to Epub and read it on any ereader you like.

  4. To be fair, there are some of us that prefer a Kindle device to a tablet or what-not.
    I need t be able to take something with me with a huge battery life that is small and light, becuase I will be carrying everythinhg I own on my back, and I will have zero access to electricity for weeks at a time.

    Other than that, I looked at Amazons Australia store and instantly dismissed it. Dont really see the point, if it’s limited to just estuff.

  5. Interesting stuff.

    On the price discrepancies (not conversion rate related), I wonder if authors have a say in this.

    If I’ll sell a book for $10 ‘locally’ and get 70% then that’s $7 in my account. If I sell the same book in a different territory and I get 35%, I might still want $7.
    It’s not great for the reader but from an author income point of view I could understand the reason.

    The model itself is problematic. 70% is fine on sale in your local territory. 35% seems like a gouge. I don’t know the numbers but at a guess the US market is the largest kindle market by far. Of course non-US territory writers would, I imagine, have a greater following locally.

    It’s all very interesting.

    Ian

    1. Larger publishers certainly get a say about changing prices for markets.

      Indie writers – well, like I said, no-one asked me whether I wanted The Obituarist to go up by a dollar.

  6. Well, I’m good and furious with Amazon. I’ve got a US account & today they locked me out from purchasing ebooks.

    Why I try to buy, I get directed to a page which says I have to transfer my account to Australian Amazon to finalise the purchase.

    Despite the small print which says I don’t have to transfer over if I don’t want to, it is obvious that Amazon US won’t let me make a new purchase, or download a new sample until I do.

    And, transferring means I lose my subscriptions, periodicals and Audible downloads all of which comprise a substantial part of my kindle library & were major reasons for purchasing the kindle in the first place.

    What amazon employee thought deleting half your customers e-library was acceptable? Goodbye Amazon!

  7. Great article and overview. Some interesting points on comparison. From a self publishing perspective, I was wondering if you noticed if .com.au and .com sales/rankings are based on one database? For instance, if your books sell on .com does this impact book rankings on .com.au and vice versa? Or are these both separate? I’m interested in knowing if you need a separate marketing strategy for each site. Thanks again.

    1. That’s a really interesting question! The answer is, um, I don’t know – so let me quickly go and have a look.

      …okay, I just looked up The Obituarist on both sites, and .com.au doesn’t list a sales ranking at all for the book – the line’s just missing from the bibliographic details. And while it ports over the reviews from the .com store, it doesn’t actually use them to generate a star rating; it’s just a paste-and-dump of the US text.

      Looking at some books from more popular authors… okay, they do have rankings, but they’re totally different between stores.

      So it looks like different databases that don’t share information – and yes, you’d need two separate marketing plans if you wanted to capture audiences in both places.

      Yay.

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