Amazon, cross-subsidies, and supply chain management

Jay Lake gently suggests that just waving your hands and saying “Cross-subsidy” is not a complete answer to the notion of what Amazon thinks its doing, and that’s a fair point. I think Amazon’s real objectives have a lot to do with controlling the marketplace. By selling ebooks below cost they do several things at once; in particular, they make it expensive for anyone else to enter the ebook market for new bestsellers.

If they can establish the one true price for the ebook edition of a new hardback, and keep other booksellers out of the market by selling the books at a loss, they’ll soon be in a position to dictate terms to the publishers in the same way that big-box retailers dictate terms to their suppliers in other markets. (Clearly they were supposing that they were already in that position, else I don’t think the “disappearing buy button” fiasco would have happened. Fortunately, it looks like Amazon pushed too hard too early.)

I think the result of an Amazon victory would have been very similar to what we have seen in the big-box stores over the past few years: Consumers would enjoy low(ish) prices while suppliers would see ever-increasing pressures on their profits. (I’m seeing the publishers as suppliers here, although the profit pressure would pretty quickly flow on to authors as well.) Choice would decline as profit pressures forced all but the lowest-cost suppliers out of business.

So, I’m glad that seems to have been headed off, at last for the moment.

Having said all that, though, I think the cross-subsidy analysis is also correct. I think Gillette made its own razors to give away, but it wouldn’t have needed to. Nowadays it would surely outsource razor manufacture, but that wouldn’t be necessary either. It could just as easily announce that it would sell any razor that matched the specs for its blades, and then sell them for less than it paid its suppliers. (In fact, that might be a perfectly viable business model. Surely some shavers would go for a cool-looking limited-edition art razor and accept the resulting lock-in to Gillette blades, as long as the razor wasn’t too expensive.)

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