Since Kindle began shipping in China nearly nine years ago, the e-book giant has garnered a loyal following in the country. The journey has never been easy, thanks to regulatory hurdles around digital content. Recently, there are signs that the Amazon-owned e-book business is scaling back some of its operations in China.
Kindle's official store on Tmall, Alibaba's online shopping mall, closed in October. Chinese versions of the e-book device are currently out of stock on Amazon.cn, the firm's localized site for China. Its official store on JD.com remains up, but most of its devices are also out of stock. Some models are still available on its official WeChat store.
In a statement to TechCrunch, an Amazon spokesperson said some Kindle models are "currently sold out in China" but consumers can still purchase Kindle through "third-party online and offline retailers." The company declined to say why its Alibaba store was shut and why its products are not stocked in China.
"We are dedicated to serving Chinese consumers," said the spokesperson. "Amazon's commitment to offering quality customer service and warranty remains unchanged."
TechCrunch has reached out to Alibaba and JD.com for comment.
Amazon reportedly disbanded Kindle's device team in China back in November, according to a social media post by a reporter at BK Economy, a subsidiary of state-owned Beijing News. Amazon China declined to comment on the alleged layoff.
Axing the device team would spell the end of the e-book's localized hardware. Like iPhone, Kindle has been offering Chinese editions of its devices, which function the same as the American versions but come with aftersales service in China. Closing the hardware unit would also mean third-party distributors are limited to importing overseas Kindle models for Chinese consumers.
A key but challenging market
As of 2017, China was Kindle's largest market with double-digit growth, David Limp, senior vice president of Amazon Devices said at the time. Nonetheless, the Chinese e-book market has been markedly different from the rest of the world at the outset.
"If you look at bestseller lists in 90% of the world, e-books are -- at least at the top of the stack -- equivalent to digitalized versions of traditional books. In China, however, traditionally published books, like traditionally published longer-form video content such as TV and movies, are not very interesting because the majority of them come from state-owned publishing or content houses that are constrained in the topics they can cover," said a veteran of China's e-book industry who declined to be named.
It's unclear how Kindle has fared in China more recently and what led to its decision to close its Tmall store. But given the sheer length of time that Kindle has been present in the market and the amount of hardware that has been sold there, it stands to reason that there are still a large number of Chinese Kindle owners who do purchase and read traditional e-books from Amazon’s Kindle e-book store.
Kindle's Chinese e-book store, which is separate from the global one and features a much smaller pool of English-language books, is still available, so current Kindle owners in China aren't affected.
Over the years, Amazon has abridged several waning businesses in China while ramping up the budding ones. In 2019, the firm shuttered its online marketplace connecting Chinese buyers and sellers, a business that had put it in competition with local titans like Alibaba. In the meantime, Amazon has been doubling down on its export business in the country, helping Chinese merchants find customers around the world.
Amazon has grappled with criticism after Reuters reported last month it created a portal to feature books sanctioned by the Chinese government, a project that had helped it overcome e-book licensing problems in China.
This is a developing story...