I was an early adopter of Amazon.com. Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.com in 1994 and the service was launched in 1995, and I think my first order at Amazon.com was made in 1995 (or 1996) from here in Seoul. Once or twice in the early days, books came torn or damaged. I remained as a customer because they made sincere efforts to fix the problems. Over time, they became better and better. The packaging has become notably good, and now I never worry about the condition of the ordered books. And they have been introducing innovations continuously, including very intelligent recommendations, what others bought, rating, digital media, used books, Amazon Shorts, etc. And many of them have inspired current Internet economy.
One idea that I hit upon a few years ago is POD(print on demand) for international buyers like me. Actually, I had not heard of POD back then(around 1997). I just thought "why don't they send files electronically to Korea and print it here?" Currently, when I order a book from Amazon.com, the book comes from somewhere in the US. To reach a buyer in Korea, the book is first printed in the US, goes to the Amazon warehouse, sits there for a while, gets packaged, takes an international air flight, and takes a truck (or maybe multiple trucks). Well, I thank the efficient network of international distribution system for making this possible at all and making the total cost of delivery affordable to me. However, it still has inefficiencies. See the information from Amazon.com.
It still takes quite a long time to receive a book. Yes, I can get it in a week (i.e. 2-4 “business” days), but it becomes expensive. So usually I would wait for a while to order together with other books that I want to buy, to save the shipping costs. But note that I pay another cost, which is “waiting time until I bundle,” a different kind of waiting time. In summary, I still feel pain as an Amazon.com customer.
Alternatively, this could happen. Amazon sends (or just gives access to) the digital file of the book to a POD contractor here in Korea, the POD contractor prints out the book, package it, and a truck delivers it to me. Or, if the POD contractor is nearby, I could stop by and take the book. If we compare all the resource used until I get a book from Amazon, I think the difference is clear. I have a table here to analyze this.
I have not done any calculation of the costs, but it seems clear to me that POD in Korea will make it much cheaper for Amazon and for me. I don’t know why an innovative company like Amazon has not tried this yet. Is it because they may not have come up with this idea? I think it is unlikely. I believed (and hoped) that no one had thought of this yet, when I first imagined this idea a few years back (sometime 1997-2000). But time has changed, and a lot of things pointing to the possibility of this are happening in and around Amazon.com.
Second, they may have thought about it, but the target market is too small to bother to make this change. But this does not sound like a good reason. They already go through all the complex logistics to sell and deliver a book to me in Korea. And economically POD makes more sense in a smaller market. As the volume grows, the traditional way becomes more efficient. In fact, for a big market like Japan, they can set up a subsidiary and have its own inventory to make the shipping time shorter for customers. (I have a strong belief that even in the domestic online bookstore case, digital + POD should be more efficient eventually, but I don’t want to deal with that issue now.) The point is, a smaller market where Amazon needs to send books one by one cross-continent is where the POD method can have more value.
Lastly then, they may have operational headaches to implement this business model. A trustworthy POD partner is one. But Kinkos, a Fedex division and provider of copying and binding services, is operating well in Korea, and they already have an alliance with Yes24, a Korean online bookstore, for providing POD service for out-of-print books. And there are other companies that seem capable. Then what other problem is there? I am guessing that their main issues are about copyrights, dealing with book publishers. The book publishers may be scared about this idea, just like they are scared about any “digital” distribution. And the fact that a POD player, like Kinkos, is an industrial “photo-copier” probably makes it even scarier. Imagine one customer orders a book from Amazon.com, print it POD, and before it is bound she photo-copies the book to sell to others! How horrible!
If these things are what Amazon is worried about, my advice is "do it anyway". If this idea is any good, somebody will do it someday. And that will win eventually. You could start from a limited area, where the risk is small, like non-bestsellers or non-textbooks. Yes, I am biased as I will benefit from this change. But I am confident that it will be good for Amazon as well. I hope that Amazon will consider this.