Why doesn’t Amazon want to sell me books?

I was brought up to enjoy the look and heft – and smell – of books as well as to treasure them as repositories of knowledge. A house without books looks both uninhabited and uninhabitable. If you can’t browse a stranger’s bookshelves, how will they ever stop being a stranger?

So I did not rush to join the e-reader revolution. But having made the leap, there is no going back. E-readers are not without their disadvantages and irritations, but for me the advantages heavily outweigh them. So now our household kindle library has reached 551 titles and I am deeply reluctant to buy books any other way.1

But getting hold of the books isn’t always straightforward.  Perhaps not surprisingly, back catalogue material is only very patchily available, often with weird complexities stemming from territorial based licensing of copyright which is conceptually stuck in the physical world. More oddly, buying very new books, and particularly books not yet published, is also a lot harder than makes any sense.

This isn’t really a post about book buying, it’s a post about workflow and front and back end integration. It’s another example of how having the smartest website in the world can’t save you from weaknesses deeper in the system.

Publishers announce their new books months before they actually publish them. And pretty much as soon as they have been announced and given an ISBN number and a price, they appear on Amazon.2

So here’s a book I have been wanting to read for a while about to be republished in a new edition. It won’t be out until 25 February 2014, which is quite a while to wait, and perhaps I will have forgotten to look out for it by then. But Amazon are far too canny to let a sale slip through their fingers, so I can order it right now, for delivery in five months’ time. Or at least I can if I want the paper version – but not if I want to read it on my kindle. I am fairly confident that it will be made available that way, but past experience suggests that it won’t be visible on Amazon until a couple of weeks before publication (and maybe not until the day of publication itself).3

This makes no sense. Publishers don’t suddenly remember that they are going to need a kindle version when copies fresh from the printer are stacked up in the warehouse. And it’s not that they need the book itself weeks or months in advance, all they need is a catalogue entry and a price tag.

I know nothing about Amazon’s backend systems. But the only explanation for that which I can think of is that the process by which publishers signal the future availability of an e-book is different from the process for printed books. From a producer’s point of view, you can understand why that might be. Books have enjoyed standardisation of cataloguing for longer than any other consumer product I can think of: the ISBN had its roots in the 1960s, with the numbers translated into bar codes by the early 1980s. An entire eco-system grew up round that, and it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if some parts of it were not well adapted to dematerialisation.

But one of the strengths of the ISBN system is that it numbers formats and editions, not titles. That’s because books came as hardbacks and paperbacks, but an e-book can be treated as just another format as far as giving it a number is concerned. Oddly though, while the ISBN of a paper book appears on that book’s Amazon page, kindle books are shown only with Amazon’s internal reference number.4 Publishers are part of the weirdness too: in a random check of catalogue pages for four books from four publishers, only one even admits to the existence of an e-book, and two will tell me about a paperback not available until next year, but not that I can buy it for my kindle right now.

I deduce that both Amazon and publishers think about and manage e-books differently from paper books. I don’t know whether it is by design or accident, how easy it would be to change, or whether any of the players would oppose such a change.

I don’t really understand what’s going on here, and I don’t really care. I am just the customer. But Jeff Bezos has something to say about that:

We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.

And even with those principles, even with a customer interface and ordering system which is endlessly fine tuned to streamline the experience, the mechanics of the supply chain still somehow stops them from delivering the service I want.

This stuff isn’t easy. But in the end, it’s what matters.

  1. Unless there are pictures or diagrams, that’s another story. But plain words now arrive only ethereally.
  2. Which may have something to do with the fact that in it’s very earliest days, Amazon wasn’t much more than a front end to the books in print catalogue combined with proximity to a wholesaler. Or that might be nothing to do with it at all.
  3. Another book I am waiting for has a formal publication date next week. The paper book can be bought right now, the kindle edition observes the proprieties.
  4. Though a search for the e-book ISBN (if you can find it) does seem to end up in the right place.