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
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.