While “What’s common between Amazon and Flipkart?” is not the smartest of questions. “They both started by selling books online” seems like a good answer.

Why books you may wonder?

Here’s the man himself – Bezos in a 1997 interview, on why he selected books as the first and only product category on offer in the initial days of what is now the mammoth called Amazon, “I picked books as the first product to sell online because books are incredibly unusual in one respect. That is there are more items in the book category than there are items in any other category by far. Music is number two, there are about 200,000 active music CDs at a given time but there are more than 3M different books worldwide active at any given time across all languages. More than 1.5M in the English language alone. So when you have that many items you can build a store online that you cannot by any other way.”

He was surely pointing out at what we now call the long-tail of books.

A decade later, in 2007, the same Amazon launched the Kindle. An e-book reader.

Although Ebooks were introduced even prior to this especially in academia, kindle and the ebooks took the world by storm. Kindle sales were exploding in the early 2010s. Why wouldn’t they?

Ebooks made a solid case against the traditional hardcopies –

1. Lightweight and easy to carry.

2. Ebooks were priced cheaper, even cheaper than ‘mass-market paperbacks’.

3. Easy to keep a log of what you’ve read or are about to read.

4. Find meanings just by long-pressing the word.

Utility wise, ebooks and audiobooks beat the traditional hardcopies by orders of magnitude. The deduction was not rocket science. When this happens, the industry is ‘disrupted’.

And hence by 2020, there are as many ebook readers in the world as there are mobile phones, those with author-signed bookmarks are the new signed/autographed copies, physical books have become a rare sight. 

Just kidding. That did not happen by 2020. None of that is true. You know that.

Print books still outnumber ebook and audiobooks sales combined on both counts of number and revenue. In 2019, the publishers in the US alone brought in around $26Bn of revenue out of which $22Bn came from printed books.

More than 675 million print books are sold every year in the US.

Ebooks sales have in fact seen years of declining revenue numbers before the pandemic hit. As per the Association of American publishers, industry revenue from ebooks is down 30.8% for the five-year period of 2015-2019. While audiobooks are in fact the fastest growing trend in the world of books with a growth of 143.8% over the five-year period from 2015-2019 as per the same data, it still makes up a tiny proportion of total sales. On the other hand, print books have seen the customary lower single digits of positive growth every year during the same period.

Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.”

– Jane Smiley

The self-publishing revolution is definitely not captured by the numbers here. While a lot of ‘not so famous yet’ authors are opting for self-publishing, they usually start with ebooks given the less capital outlay required. But that either, does not signal towards the victory of the ebook formats as professionally the aim still remains to have the work published by a renowned publishing house. That hardcover with a beautifully designed jacket still remains the “I have arrived” for authors around the world.

But some things did change. The way the world buys books did change. 

Bloomberg estimates that Amazon sold 88.9% of ebooks, 83.6% of e-readers and 42% of physical books sold in the US in the year 2018.

Back in the late 90s, when Amazon started selling books, it did appear as a threat to existing bookstores. As Amazon was majorly an aggregator and did not maintain huge inventories like it does today, some on the other hand thought of it as the catalyst too. The booksellers thought it gave them more avenues to sell. Which was true then and in theory, it is even today.

Data, scale, and popularity made Amazon yield to the tempting process of backward integration. They knew what sells, they knew where to procure from, they knew how to deliver the product quickly to your doorstep.

For the traditional booksellers, apprehension grew and numbers fell.

Borders, once synonymous to a bookstore in the US had 500+ stores at the beginning of 2010. It went defunct in 2011. Barnes and Noble, the other giant chain that ran 100s of stores in the states has been struggling for at least a decade now. It has been closing stores and finding new buyers for the business and even new CEOs. Things are pretty messy for Barnes and Noble, even the Starbucks at their book cafes are ineffective in bringing customers. For a change, let’s not get to the pandemic and lockdowns.

Although we saw how Ebooks and audiobooks still have a long way to traverse before they beat the popularity of the physical book, given that traditional bookstore chains have either fallen or are flirting with bankruptcy, has the world accepted that the best way to get those print editions is by buying online?

Before we answer that. Look at this picture.

Or this,

Well, the company that gave traditional bookstores a run for their money, opened up it’s first physical – brick and mortar – bookstore in Seattle, Washington in 2015. As of September 2020, Amazon operates 24 such stores which are called Amazon Books and had planned to add more before the pandemic hit. Amazon also started opening physical stores in the US named Amazon 4-star, which sells merchandise, devices, and yes, books. The current count of Amazon 4-star stores stands at 31 making amazon selling books at a total of 50+ physical locations in the US.

The bookstores by Amazon, Amazon Books are although a little unique in their own way.

You’ll find most titles shelved face up, unlike the traditional stacking where you only see the spine of the book. You’ll also find ‘If you like you’ll also like’ shelves where the 5-6 titles following the first one are like it. There will be a ‘Most wished for’ section where you find the books that have been in the most wishlists on amazon.com. Pageturners or Unputdownable will be the section that displays the books that kindle readers finished on kindle within 3 days. Most books are either Highly rated, bestsellers or new-arrivals.

Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?

– Henry Ward Beecher

Of course, they sell kindles and echo devices too at this place, and yes the arrangement in the store is made by looking at the data derived from the online business, at the end of the day, it still is primarily a physical bookstore.

When it clearly seemed like Amazon had already won the battle of books, be it the print or electronic versions, then why did Amazon venture into the very way of retailing that it had disrupted.

The story would have been easy to follow had there been clear and consistent data on how books are sold. But surprisingly the knowledge on the things that are supposed to be the store of knowledge themselves, is not so rich when it comes to numbers.

The data on book sales, published and printed is just like an unorganized library, there definitely is something. Finding what you want is not a walk in the park, it’s a struggle through the pages, or ironically enough, through the webpages.

Anyway, the good thing is that there’s a different pleasure of going through a pile of books, old and new. And that is what this story is about – pages, ink, glue, covers, jackets, and how the object that is the book is much more than the sum of the individual elements that make it.

Books have a thing-iness to them, the object has it’s own odor and aura.

People sometimes need a break from screens but do wish to delve into stories and narratives, books provide that escape. Some people like to have a physical record of what they’ve read, it describes what they are. It’s a home decor item. Well, there can be many such reasons where the utility of ebooks fades to the ‘feel’ of the prints.

And that tells us, as dictionary is not language, as facts are not science, so is just utility not customer experience. There’s more to it than just 50% lighter or the ability to change the font size. The touch of the paper, the ability to scribble in one’s own handwriting around the margins, the ease of jumping through chapters with just the fingers, well dear technology, some things are better off the way they are.

Vellichor is the word for the smell of books. This smell has not only managed to push away the competition from ebooks and audiobooks, even the e-sellers are stacking shelves at retail places. The magical word Vellichor might very well also stand for the spell that this smell has cast on us humans.

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