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
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The twelve tricks in George Osborne's spending review

All Chancellors use chicanery, and George Osborne is no exception.

There is no great shame to a wheeze: George Osborne is no more or less partial to them than other Chancellors before him. Politicians have been wheezing away since history began. Wheezes aren’t even necessarily bad policy: sometimes they’re sensible as well as slightly sneaky. And we shouldn’t overstate their significance: the biggest changes announced yesterday were described in a clear, honest and non-wheezy way.

But it’s fun to try to spot the wheezes. Here are some we’ve found so far.


  1. Give people less time to pay their tax bills. Yesterday the Chancellor announced tax rises that will raise, in total, a net £5.5bn in 2019-20. A sixth of that total – £900m – results from the announcement that, from April 2019, anyone paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the sale of a house will have to cough up within 30 days. Has the Chancellor made a strategic decision to increase taxes to pay for public services? Not really – he’s just moved some tax forward from the subsequent year to help his numbers stack up, at the price of bigger hassle for people who are selling houses. Not necessarily a bad thing – but a classic wheeze.


  1. Dress up a spending cut as a minor bureaucratic change. The Treasury yesterday announced what sounds like a sensible administrative change to the Government’s scheme for automatically enrolling people into pensions: “to simplify the administration of automatic enrolment for the smallest employers in particular, the next two phases of minimum contribution rate increases will be aligned to the tax years”. Nice of them to reduce bureaucratic hassle for the smallest employers. This also happens to save the Government £450m in 2018-19, because instead of paying an increased subsidy into people’s pensions from January 2018, it will do it from April 2018.


  1. “Tuck under”.  The phrase “tucking under” is a Whitehall term of art, best illustrated with an example. We learnt yesterday that “DfID [the Department for International Development] will remain the UK’s primary channel for aid, but to respond to the changing world, more aid will be administered by other government departments, drawing on their complementary skills.” That sounds like great joined-up government. It also, conveniently, means that the Government can continue to meet its target of keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income, without having to increase DfID’s budget at the same rate as GNI: instead, other departments pick up the slack. Those bits of other departments’ budgets have thus been “tucked under” the ODA protection. See also: the Government is “protecting” the schools budget in real terms, while slashing around £600m from the funding it gives to local authorities to support schools, so that schools will now have to buy those services from their “protected” funding – thus “tucking” the £600m “under” the protected schools budget. (See also: in the last Parliament, the Government asked the NHS to contribute to social care funding, thus “tucking” some social care “under” the protected health budget.)


  1. Cumulative numbers. Most of the figures used in the Spending Review are “in-year” figures: when the Government says it is giving £10bn more to the NHS, it means that the NHS will get £10bn more in 2019-20 than it got in 2015-16. Then you read something like: “The Spending Review and Autumn Statement provides investment of over £1.3 billion up to 2019-20 to attract new teachers into the profession.” That’s not £1.3bn per year – it’s the cumulative figure over four years.


  1. Deploy weasel words. The government is protecting “the national base rate per student for 16-19 year olds”. Sounds great – and it will be written up in many places as “Government protects 16-19 education”. But the word “base” is doing a lot of work here. Schools and colleges that educate 16-19 year olds currently get a lot of funding on top of the “base rate” – such as extra funding for disadvantaged students. Plans for that funding have not yet been revealed.


  1. Pretend to hypothecate a tax. The Chancellor announced yesterday that – because the EU won’t allow him to reduce the ‘tampon tax’ – he’ll instead use the proceeds of that tax to pay for grants to women’s charities. This sounds great – but all he’s really saying is that, among all the many other millions of pounds of grants issued by the government to various causes, £15m will be given to some women’s charities, which might have got that funding anyway. It’s not real hypothecation: it’s not as if women’s charities will get more if there’s a spike in tampon sales. See also: announcing that local authorities can raise council tax so long as they use it to pay for social care – LAs would probably have spent just as much on social care anyway (and other services would have suffered).


  1. Shave away a small fraction of a big commitment. The Conservative party made great play in the election campaign of its commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare to 3 and 4 year olds in working families. In the July Budget, it made more great play of re-committing to this. Yesterday, it announced that “working families” excluded any parent working less than the equivalent of 16 hours at the minimum wage, or more than £100,000. That sounds like a fairly small change – but it saves the Government £125m in 2020.


  1. Turn a grant into a loan. If government gives someone a grant, that is counted as spending and increases the public sector deficit. If instead the government gives someone a loan, that doesn’t count against the deficit, because it’s assumed that the loan will be paid back (so the loan is like an asset which the Government is holding). Recently we’ve seen a lot of government grants turning into loans – in the July Budget it was student maintenance grants; yesterday it was bursaries for trainee nurses.


  1. “Reverse” a decision that hasn’t happened yet. In 2012 the Government announced that, from April 2016, it would remove the 3% “diesel supplement” that puts a higher tax on company cars that use diesel than on others. Yesterday, it cancelled this, saving over £265m per year for the rest of the Parliament. People complain less about you cancelling a tax cut when you haven’t done the tax cut yet. (Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as a full wheeze, but there’s something wheezy about it.)


  1. “Protect” things in cash terms. If you really want to protect an area of spending, you should at least increase it in line with inflation, so that it can still buy the same amount of stuff. This government – like the Coalition before it – enjoys protecting things only in cash terms. Examples yesterday included the basic rate of funding per 16-19 year old in education, and the entire children’s services budget.


  1. Freeze things in cash terms. Yesterday the government announced that the repayment threshold on student loans – the level above which ex-students must start paying back their loans – will remain frozen in cash terms for 5 years, instead of increasing with earnings (which is what has happened to date). This saves the Government £200m in 2019-20. In a particularly bold move, the Government has even applied this rule to loans that have already been issued – changing the terms on which students took out the loans in the first place.


  1. Hide all these wheezes in sweeping statements. The first chapter of the Spending Review tells us that “£3 billion [of reduction in the deficit] is being delivered through reforms such as Making Tax Digital and further measures to tackle tax avoidance.” The innocuous phrase “reforms such as” covers the bringing forward of £900m in Capital Gains Tax (see number 1 above) and the £450m saved by delaying automatic enrolment into pensions (see number 2 above).

Catherine Colebrook is chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research