One of my favourite authors is Hugh Howey. He writes dystopic science fiction, like the Wool series, which is fantastic reading. One of the other great things about Hugh is that he is self-published (using Amazon's CreateSpace) and is the most vocal authors about the problems in the traditional publishing business. He writes thoughts on publishing and the writing process regularly on his blog, and a few days ago put up a great post arguing that Amazon isn't actually the evil monopoly that many people decry them as.

Like many businesses, we have a complicated relationship with Amazon. The typical party line is that Amazon and iTunes are responsible entirely for the demise of the Christian bookstore (and many other niches of bookstore), but I'm starting to question the validity of that judgement. Amazon has made things difficult for bookstores, but really only because they introduced competition on price, selection and delivery in a way many of couldn't keep up with (the same goes for iTunes). The result of that is the fact that a city the size of Toronto only has 2 notable Christian retailers today. However, as Hugh points out in his article, this kind of competition was inevitable, and our market was ripe for disruption.

What do I mean? Well... here's an example: the majority of Christian bookstores I go into still have demo systems playing CDs. You've no doubt seen them before, they store 3 CDs, and have headphones attached. Bigger stores may have a wall of these demo systems, since each one can only take a few CDs inside. Do you have any idea how cumbersome or expensive those are to maintain for the store? Or how annoying they are for customers? No one likes them, but few retailers have done away with them. We dropped these demo stations a long time ago simply because they were too expensive to operate, and we did without for a little while, which had a negative effect on CD sales, I'll admit, but then we brought in iPad listening stations. These haven't been without their challenges either, though the costs are low and maintenance relatively simple. The really interesting thing is how difficult we found it to stop people from browsing other things online via the iPads... kids kept playing games and someone even configured the Mail app for their own email. (I know.) But in the last few months we've seen something really interesting. People have begun asking us to go to YouTube on an iPad to listen to an album, or to see a band performing live, before they buy the CD. They don't care about the music we've stored on the device, they want to do it their way. Those who don't own smartphones are basically expecting us to provide a similar service to them in-store, and they see our "Listening Station iPads" are being improperly employed.

Refusal to deal with this kind of change is the real reason that so many retailers, Christian and non, have had challenges in the past few years. As Hugh says though, with the slow collapse of the big book retailers to the likes of Amazon, many small independent retailers are in fact thriving. And many indie authors, using self publishing tools are able to make a living wage as well, when they couldn't from the big traditional publishers.

It's giving me food for thought. I've always said to my team here that competing with Amazon or iTunes is a losers game, we simply need to provide a service that they can't provide. But what I hear Hugh hinting at is that that should have always been our game, and thanks to the shuttering of a number of big book retailers, there's actually a better opportunity for us now than before. This is new thinking for me, and I'm going to see where it leads.