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.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.