Another force pushing us towards a single world market in the book business may be identified in the internationalization of book manufacturing and distribution. Now of course publishers have been ordering printing from overseas for years, especially since World War II. High quality color? Go to Italy. Price problems? Or lots of hand work — add-ons? Hong Kong here we come. When I was first in New York, working for Cambridge University Press, it was quite obvious that the tidal flow of manufacturing was governed by £/$ exchange rate fluctuations: now it would be cheaper in the USA, then it would switch back to favor Britain. Work would follow: publishers are always looking for the cheapest way to make their books. The development of digital printing, primarily of print on demand manufacturing, accelerated these options. One of the incidental implications of print on demand is that you can minimize shipping costs by printing a book as close to the ultimate customer as possible. This cost saving may not look like much when you think of one book, but over a year it mounts up to a significant sum.

Local territorial markets be damned! Ingram‘s Vice President of Content Acquisition, Kelly Gallagher, tells us “Sometimes as much as 30 or 40 percent of a publisher’s Ingram wholesale can be to non-US addresses. That’s also very glass half-empty, half-full, because it’s a pressure point for the local retailers and distributors in those countries who used to have a corner on getting books into their market.” From a Publishing Perspectives interview.

Amazon lies at the heart of all this. Amazon’s distribution system is amazingly slick. They fulfill an order in the most efficient (cost and timing) method possible. There’s a cascade of options, which involves answering a series of questions including:

  • Are there several books in this order?
  • If so, where is each of them best sourced —
  • from our inventory,
  • which warehouse is that inventory in,
  • is it here or overseas,
  • or should it come from Ingram’s inventory,
  • from the publisher’s inventory,
  • from any other wholesaler’s inventory,
  • by using POD,
  • and if POD then POD at our own facilities
  • or at one of Lightning Source (part of Ingram)?

All all these steps the algorithm focusses on optimal proximity to the customer and speed of delivery. Amazon is heavily dependent on (or makes extensive use of) Ingram’s services. In many ways Ingram’s stock can be regarded as an extension of Amazon’s stock, as can all the print-on-demand files that Lightning Source maintains. The cascade, regardless of where the book ends up being shipped from, will always result in the books arriving on your doorstep in a grinning Amazon carton. Your order may be split into two or more separate packages — the cascade will have determined which is optimal.

Now this system is beyond impressive: Amazon can get most books to most people overnight. I sympathize with the old guard bookstores, but is it really right to go after a company for having developed a system that’s so efficient that almost everyone wants to use it? Doesn’t monopoly require a certain amount of unfair advantage: using your market power to destroy the opposition. Amazon is merely guilty of designing such an efficient system that nobody else can match it. Surely that shouldn’t be a crime, should it?