An Amazon Problem: The Book Is Dead, Long Live the Book

Unlike other industries, where supply and demand regulate prices, publishing houses in Germany can set the prices of their books. No matter where they are sold, books cost the same. It will be enormously difficult if not impossible to maintain this system with e-books. The problem for publishing houses is that fixed book prices for printed books could also decline in the long term. After all, what bookseller would still perceive the fixed price as a privilege if his customers are going to Amazon en masse to find e-book bargains -- and he isn't even allowed to participate in the price war?

Is Amazon Single-Handedly Destroying Book Culture? In the soap opera that pits making money against the love of books, and tradition against calculation, Amazon is the perfect adversary of the literary aristocracy. However, Amazon engages globally in the game with which someone like Hans Barlach merely torments the Suhrkamp establishment. The Seattle-based company is a troublemaker of global proportions.

Ralf Kleber, the online retailer's head of German operations, meets with visitors at something that looks like a store counter in his Munich office. Amazon isn't an enemy of the book, but the company wants to have the business to itself, if at all possible, and preferably on its own terms.

Amazon customers discovered this when they closed their accounts and realized that they had suddenly lost the e-books they had purchased from Amazon. Publishing houses discover this when they sell through Amazon. They are forced to give the company large discounts. At the same time, they have to accept the fact that, as publisher Christopher Schroer says, "new, freshly delivered titles turn up as defective copies" on Amazon Marketplace, the company's fixed-price online marketplace.

But the conclusions about Amazon are paradoxical. Many like to argue that the company is in the process of destroying book culture, but the success of its own Kindle reading device is itself an argument that the book is unique and will never disappear.

Millions of Kindles have already been sold, especially in the United States. The e-reader has been available in Germany since 2009.

"With the Kindle, we have tried to achieve the same effect as with a book," says Kleber. "There is nothing to distract you from the text -- no music and no emails. The book disappears during reading. You no longer perceive its existence. It's exactly the same thing with the Kindle."

This is the one good message Amazon has for the industry: The book is indeed unique. It's the only medium that apparently needs a separate device to replace it in the digital world. And it is sufficiently valuable to millions of people that they actually buy the device so that they can continue to read in the future in their electronic books -- quietly and without distractions.

Driving Publishers from their Ivory Towers

The paradoxical conclusion -- the book is dead, but long live the book -- is confirmed by the numbers in the marketplace. It isn't just that people read a lot. They are also untiringly writing books, and they are publishing more than ever before.

There are many literary forums with subsections for all kinds of specialized subjects and genres, visited by countless people searching for communities of readers. And it's never been this easy to publish a text as a book, at least in electronic form. All it takes is a few clicks, and it's as easy as buying a book.

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