I was at this grim Helsinki airport hotel two days ago and decided to watch an old horror flick on my laptop since Finnish television stations were running wolverine documentaries and cooking shows. I ended up renting Don’t Look Now for $2.99 on Amazon to figure out whether it really was an overrated piece of pseudo-art or a horror masterpiece. I’m still not sure either way, but the movie was interesting enough.
The hotel Wi-Fi was a bit dodgy, as usual — the movie stuttered three or four times during 90 minutes, though that hardly had an impact on the viewing experience. Yet two days later, Amazon sent me an email notifying me that they had reimbursed me the $2.99 rental cost because I “recently experienced poor video playback on Amazon Instant Video.”
This made a particular impression on me, because I had just paid $38 for six Donald Duck stories collected in an anthology sold by the biggest bookstore in Finland. You see, Amazon never cracked the Finnish market. The insular Finnish book publishing and retailing industries managed to keep the giant out. So Finland acts as a kind of bizarre laboratory: What would an affluent country without an effective book/video/music e-tailing behemoth look like?
It is a grim nightmare of $38 comic book anthologies and $41 Stephen King paperback novels. Yes, you read that right. A pulpy horror paperback novel costs $41 in Finland. I’m not even getting into how much hardcover books cost.
In sharp contrast, Amazon has forced down book and video costs in the U.S. market radically, benefiting consumers immeasurably during a time period when the cost of education in America has spiraled out of control. This feat is now so obvious to American consumers that they may view it as a given. But it is nothing of the sort. Visit Helsinki some day and pop into Akateeminen Kirjakauppa to get a glimpse of the horror that is a book industry without real competitive pressure.
Yet despite triumphing in American retail market, Amazon keeps improving its customer service, lowering prices and even offering rebates to consumers who have not even complained. On an academic level, I get that many book publishers view Amazon as a monstrosity threatening the very foundations of their industry. The vast benefits Amazon offers to regular consumers seem to be overlooked by people who demonize the ambitions of the company.
There may be a theoretical outcome where Amazon becomes utterly dominant and then starts jacking up prices and raising all kinds of monopolistic hell. But right now, the company is under siege by content rivals ranging from Apple and Google to Netflix and Hulu. It is exceptionally difficult to see how Amazon might ever get the luxury of resting on its laurels with this wolf pack nipping on its heels.
After my trip to Helsinki my empathy towards book publishers has hit an all-time low. I have witnessed what happens to a market where publishers and traditional booksellers reign supreme. It is an abomination. It is impossible to envision that Amazon hegemony could ever lead to a worse outcome for consumers.