Amazon launches yet another loss-leader, but what is its plan?

The Kindle Owners Lending Library will sell a lot of Kindles – but Kindles don't make money.

Amazon's Kindle Owners' Lending Library (KOLL) is expanding to the UK later this month, according to paidContent. The program allows Kindle-owning Amazon Prime members to borrow one ebook for free each month, and has been relatively popular in the US.

Although it started with a focus on traditional titles, in recent months it has become a key vehicle for promoting self-published authors through a program called KDP Select. The payment model earns authors who opt in comparatively large sums – Amazon says that "in September, authors earned $2.29 per borrow" – and asks for a 90 day period of exclusivity in exchange.

The program is yet another example of Amazon, depending upon your viewpoint, either being a devious long-term-thinker or displaying a foolhardy disregard for profit. Self-published authors who opt-in are paid from a pool of $700,000, and for a while Amazon even put books in the program without the publishers' permission, paying the full wholesale price whenever a customer took it out. Anyone who owns a Kindle and has an Amazon Prime subscription can gain access to it – but both of those are commonly perceived to be loss-leaders.

Amazon revealed yesterday that it makes no profit on Kindle Fires or the new Kindle Paperwhite, with Jeff Bezos confirming that "we sell the hardware at our cost, so it is break-even on the hardware".

Amazon Prime, meanwhile, costs $79 (£49 in the UK), and gives subscribers access, not only to the KOLL, but also to a library of free videos (including AAA, albeit older, titles like the Iron Man 2, True Grit, Sherlock and Downton Abbey) and free two-day delivery on most things the site sells. This last aspect alone is probably enough to make Prime a loss-leader; Amazon is notoriously cagey about these sort of things, but most analysts estimate that the average Prime user buys enough that the shipping costs outweigh the cost of Prime.

Independently, these two loss-leaders make sense. Prime serves to boost customer loyalty, and allows a feeling of instant gratification of the sort which mail-order companies had previously struggled to deliver. Kindles, meanwhile, lock customers in to buying all their ebooks from Amazon, basically forever.

But the KOLL is a loss-leader which serves to boost take-up of two other loss-leaders. It's turtles all the way down, at this point.

The larger battle which KOLL is fighting is against the publishers. By offering up KDP select authors for free, it serves to break the ice between the typical reader and the typical self-published author, enabling Amazon to consolidate its control over the publishing industry.

It's a battlefront which has also seen Amazon move from enabling self-publishers to becoming a traditional one itself. The company secured the exclusive North American rights to Ian Fleming's James Bond novels in April this year for its Thomas & Mercer imprint, which prints traditional paperbacks as well as an extensive Kindle library.

All of these loss-leading strategies mean that the company's finances are not particularly similar to those of more traditional corporations. Amazon's second quarter 2012 sales were $12.8bn; its second quarter profit was just $7m. Although the profit was especially low, because it included the $65m Amazon spent buying robotics firm Kiva Systems, the distinction stands.

And it's not just the revenue:profit ratio which is out-of-kilter. Amazon's price:earnings ratio (the cost of a share versus the earnings per share) stands at over 300:1; a normal value is around 10:1. (Incidentally, one of the noteworthy things about Apple is that despite having an astronomical market cap and share price, its P/E ratio 15:1. The company isn't overvalued, it's just overprofitable.)

The high P/E ratio implies that investors expect Amazon's profit to increase at some point in the future. But there's only two ways that could happen: either Amazon vastly increases its revenue, or it vastly increases its profit margin.

It sounds almost conspiratorial, but the only way the company can really do this – and its actions indicate that it knows it – is by becoming the only player in town. Amazon's success to date has been built around winning every price war going, but once it gains control of a field, then it wins that price war by default.

The problem the company has is that its competitors aren't taking its success lying down. Wal-Mart is the latest giant of Old Retail to attack Amazon on its own turf, testing same-day delivery (£) for a flat $10 fee in a few US locations.

As the New York Times writes:

If Wal-Mart expanded its same-day shipping across the country, it could essentially transform the more than 4,000 Walmarts, along with Sam’s Club and other divisions, into distribution centers. Amazon, by contrast, had fewer than 40 distribution centers in the United States at the end of last year and has plans to add about 20 worldwide this year. . .

Wal-Mart, meanwhile, has been building up its e-commerce site as it tries to do things that Amazon cannot, such as allowing customers to pay for online purchases with cash.

Amazon is in a good place to earn a lot of money. The Kindle dominates ebooks, a growing industry; the Kindle Fire is one of only two serious competitors to the iPad; and for a lot of people, "Amazon" has become to buying media what "Google" is to searching the web. But it's not the only company with a lot of advantages, and it's not guaranteed to own the future just because it was started in the 1990s.

Amazon's opaque network of loss leaders, plans for the future, and smart investments may still be leading somewhere. But it's unlikely that that place is as profitable as the company's investors hope.

A Kindle. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.