There were two dueling posts in the Internetosphere about Amazon and independent bookstores yesterday that took vastly different approaches to the value of bookstores and Amazon to literary and reading life.
First, in a provocative broadside against bookstores called “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” Slate’s Farhad Manjoo tackles what he sees as misplaced nostalgia for bookstore culture, the economic efficiency of Amazon, and argues that selling boatloads of books (which Amazon does) is more important to literature culture than setting up folding chairs for book readings:
It’s not just that
bookstores are difficult to use. They’re economically inefficient, too…
I’m always astonished by how much they want me to pay
for books. At many local stores, most titles—even new releases—usually
go for list price, which means $35 for hardcovers and $9 to $15 for
paperbacks. That’s not slightly more than Amazon charges—at
Amazon, you can usually save a staggering 30 to 50 percent. In other
words, for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy
I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay
extra to shop there…
And that’s fine: In the same way that I sometimes wander into Whole
Foods for the luxurious experience of buying fancy food, I don’t
begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they
What rankles me, though, is the hectoring attitude of bookstore
cultists like [Richard] Russo, especially when they argue that readers who spurn
indies are abandoning some kind of “local” literary culture. There is
little that’s “local” about most local bookstores… Sure, every local bookstore promotes local authors, but its
bread and butter is the same stuff that Amazon sells—mass-manufactured
goods whose intellectual property was produced by one of the major
publishing houses in Manhattan. It doesn’t make a difference whether you
buy Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs at City Lights, Powell’s, Politics & Prose, or Amazon—it’s the same book everywhere.
In the other corner you have Bookavore, the manager of indie bookseller Word Brooklyn, who has… well, pretty mild-mannered words for Amazon and a list of ways she feels they could be a bit less evil:
I don’t want to
make lists of the reasons why Amazon sucks because I feel like I’m
handing them a blueprint for rehabilitation.
Many people want so, so badly to like Amazon, and many people already
do. (See: comments sections on any article talking about Amazon.) Any
effort they made towards making the world a better place would be
embraced wholeheartedly by consumers and publishers, who mostly, when it
comes right down to it, just want things to be convenient and cheap. If
Amazon started reversing any of their more unsavory decisions, they
might lose money in the short-term, but I think they’d end up making
more money in the long-term, by cementing the loyalty of an entirely new
set of consumers who always sort of want to buy things from Amazon, and
sometimes give in and do, but feel guilty about it.
We’re at a major turning point in the book world right now and the future is going to be decided by our collective decisions. Are bookstores going the way of record stores and will they fade into Bolivian or do they provide such a service to the community that people will be willing to pay extra to keep them around?
Whose side are you on, not just in terms of sentiment but in actual dollars and cents? Or is this really even an either/or debate?
I tend to be the type of person who thinks they can co-exist. I love the convenience that Amazon provides. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t have a bookstore, and I didn’t grow up with the same kind of nostalgia that many people have for dusty aisles of books. But I’ve fallen in love with enough bookstores since then and am thankful enough for their role in literary culture to think the great ones have to have a place somehow.
What do you think?
Art: “Knowledge Bursts the Chain of Enslavement” – Aleksej Radakov
R.J. Keller says
I'm on the side of co-existence. I love going to my favorite local bookstore (quick plug for Bull Moose Music and Books in Bangor Maine…they rock!), but speaking as a book-lover who lives in the boonies, Amazon fills a definite need. I don't always have the time to travel the hour-and-a-half round trip, and I can't always afford the gas money.
Heather M. says
Amazon = Freedom to authors and customers alike. I'm always on the side of freedom. People who hate Amazon do so because it makes them feel superior to pay more when the rest of us are paying less.
Kristin Laughtin says
Amazon is just too cheap and convenient–although Manjoo's article makes it sound like this is somehow the bookstores' fault, that they're holding the books hostage at high prices, when I've more than once heard that Amazon's low book prices are unsustainable. Nevertheless, I've been able to buy a greater volume of books through Amazon than I would at any print bookstore.
I think both can coexist, but like libraries, physical bookstores are going to have to become more than just places to get books. And physical bookstores, I think, might have a harder time adapting, because libraries can provide the same atmosphere and browsing opportunities (provided they receive the funding), host author events, and so on, and many are starting to emulate the book cafe experience by putting in coffee shops, etc. And they give away the books for free. Everyone points out how Amazon sells books cheaper, which accounts for their prosperity, and you can't get cheaper than free. (Of course, like I said, libraries' ability to do this depends on funding, which is always an issue of contention…)
Jasper Youngfield says
In this time of confusion and economic downturn, as a previous small business owner, I can attest to consumers not being willing to pay a premium on "environment." It shouldn't be a battle, as everything is now. It should just be everyone reading how they want to read. But I do think that unless publishers and bookstores get a little more competitive with pricing, instead of just relying, as was said, on "nostalgia" or the loyalty of their "followers" (who probably come to hang out and read without buying), they will eventually end up in Bolivian.
Sometimes, I get the feeling that many think Amazon is trying to put bookstores out of business on purpose. I have my doubts they're that conspiratorial. They're a business attempting to make money. Their method is to make things as easy and inexpensive to get as possible. They take certain things at a loss in order to build customer loyalty in the long term. They're big enough to afford this practice. It's not evil. It's just good business sense.
Digital has changed the publishing landscape. Forever. Amazon is attempting to capitalize on this sea change by attempting to make digital reading a more viable, worthwhile option than paper. A certain segment of the population embraces this. You can't really fault Amazon for pursuing this avenue for all it's worth. There's money to be made. Are they doing it at the expense of bookstores? Probably. Where else are they going to lure readers from?
That being said, I don't even own an ereader at this point. I like paper, and to be honest, I haven't been able to afford one. I'll likely have one at some point. I like the convenience they offer. All nostalgia for paper aside, they're pretty cool. I also love bookstores. The shopping experience is far better, and always will be relative to online shopping at Amazon, no matter how many titles they offer. It's impersonal, while bookstores are not, good ones anyway.
In the long run, I imagine bookstores will become more niche, more specialty, an experience dedicated to the smaller audience willing to invest the time and money in it. This will become the minority of readers. For better or worse, our culture is built on convenience. In all aspects of life, people want what they want, as fast and as inexpensively as possible. This is not a bookstore. Likely never will be.
In the long run, I believe there will be more readers. More books will be sold. This, by itself is a good thing. This country is sorely lacking in its levels of readership. We need more interest in books, and if Amazon paves a path toward that goal, I can't say I am against this overall. Are they bullying their way along that path? Probably. There will always be a need and desire for paper books. It's just going to become the minority method of reading stories in the future, and it does suck for the bookstores losing out on this change. Unfortunately it's rather unavoidable at this point.
Could publishers do something to alter this? I have no answer to that. They need people to buy the books they produce. If there was a way to make it possible for bookstores to sell books at the same price as Amazon, this would deal with the consumer need for price, but really, I don't see any way bookstores will ever be able to compete with convenience, not on the level required to compete against the Amazon's of the world. For better or worse, that is the state of affairs we must live with now.
Perhaps I'm out of the loop on something, but I just don't see what is so "evil" about Amazon. As a consumer, I am able to get books and other things that I want or need at the lowest prices on the planet. Since I got my Kindle, I can have my books without leaving my house or waiting and I get them at a lower price than the bookstore. As a consumer of products, what's the downside for me?
As a writer (or if you are a musician), I have the opportunity to publish my work and build an audience. I get to go directly to the reader. Amazon has made that possible in a way that has never existed before. As a writer, where is the downside?
If a person likes to spend 30-50% more on their books just for the experience of standing in an aisle and browsing covers and the first few pages, all the more power to them.
As for me, I love that I can be on a beach in Hawaii, decide that I'd like to read a saucy summer read, browse on my Kindle, download some samples then hit buy and get the book I want instantly, and never spend more than $10 on a book.
Those that spout how evil Amazon is rarely back up their rhetoric with any specific examples. It feels a lot like kids getting trounced on the ball field complaining that the other team cheated when in fact they lost because the other team was just better. Maybe there's something I don't know about Amazon and their business practices, but if their job is to sell stuff, and they provide the same product faster and cheaper than anybody else, that just sounds to me like their better at the game.
I love bookstores. I always have. But I don't think it's going to matter much in the future what I, or anyone else, thinks.
They are going to disappear as technology advances, unless they can come up with a viable means of survival. And I don't see how that's possible right now.
And this is nothing new. Small bookstores started going under when large chains like Borders opened. I could list ten people I knew who lost nice next eggs on bad business propsitions when they opened a small bookshop and it failed.
At least digital has engergized readers, which is something the large publishers and bookstores were not able to do.
Laurie Boris says
Why can't we all just get along? As a small press author, I need online outlets for sales. As a reader and writer, I want to go to book signings and meet authors. I wish it were the case that local bookstores were truly local, but I would pay a few dollars more to keep more business in the community. Communities without bookstores make me sad.
Stephanie Barr says
I've bought books everywhere. I have a tablet that has an ap that does books for the Sony eReader, which I had before, and, of course, the Kindle and Nook. So I can read any for electronically.
And I have gillions of paper books, too (and keep buying them). Currently, I'm on a serious manga kick and that means more paper.
BUT, I am much more likely to buy from Amazon than anyone else. Convenience is a big part of it. So is price. I've been a Prime member since they've started that and I've more than made it worthwhile.
I can find the books I want right away. If it's out of print, I can usually get a used copy (often from those same indie bookstores). I can look up everything the author had and have it delivered to my door while the urge is on me. Make me get out the car, pack everyone in and go to the bookstore, I wont' buy nearly so much. I have to chase small ones and the bookstores, even Barnes and Noble, won't have the off the beaten track books I like best.
I've bought some of my favorite authors from a used bookstore that looks for her books for me. And I'll do so again. I'll pick up books in grocery or department stores if one catches my eye, but Amazon gets the bulk of my money not just on books but on nearly everything I want.
I grew up in a small town with no bookstore too. I learned to love them as an adult and felt deprived that there wasn't one in a 90 mile radius of me when I was younger. But as the last writer without an e-reader, bookstores are the only way I can get something I have to read right this minute without waiting days for shipping. And maybe it's because YA hardcovers aren't the expensive but I've failed to see significant savings on amazon. Not to mention, bookstores do a lot to promote writers that amazon never will.
Terin Tashi Miller says
The problem isn't nearly as cut-and-dried as either Slate or others make it. The first attack on the "neighborhood" or "local" bookstore was chain warehouse stores, like Borders, and then Barnes & Noble got into not only selling books but publishing them.
You yourself published that fantastic itemized list of the cost of producing books–paperbacks, versus ebooks, I think it was–identifying, for the first time I'd seen it, the amount of a book's cover price assigned by "traditional" publishers that goes toward "distribution," which really appears to be essentially institutionalized kickbacks. Publishers PAY bookstores to carry their books?
No wonder self-published writers can't compete in terms of publicity or placement.
There is no such cost to Amazon, I might add. Which is probably why they can publish (through CreateSpace, or Amazon Encore) books that cost less and still return more, in terms of royalties, to their writers.
So, if a local bookstore can't survive–or compete–with a warehouse chain store like B&N or the now defunct Borders, because they can never generate enough in these kickbacks–not, I'll note, actual book sales–and so go under, it isn't Amazon's fault but the fault of a "literary" (publishing) culture that dictated popularity and tried to actually manipulate rather than identify tastes or even new or exceptional writing with their kickback scheme.
I don't believe it is "Amazon v the Indies" in the sense that any lover of books loves bookstores, while any passionate reader is far less concerned with where or how they obtain something they want to read (did lending libraries put bookstores out of business?) and may not give a hoot to wander through stacks of books glancing at prominently-placed best sellers or publishers' hopeful best sellers based on the attractiveness of their researched and focus-group tested covers or paid-for placement and advertizing.
It's not like "traditional" publishers, or the few remaining "indie" bookstores, for that matter, couldn't see this coming a million miles away and years ago when Amazon started offering books for sale online and set up its own distribution system and then progressed to creating an ereader that set an industry standard, then made an agreement with readers to get an application for the Kindle on their pc or handheld device, then purchased and promoted the most easy to use Digital Text Platform and bingo-bango-bongo, became the world's largest, and most accesible to readers, publisher and bookstore virtually overnight.
I love wandering in a local bookstore and seeing what they have, and having a place to give a reading or meet with readers, and seeing my books displayed there prominently.
But I ask about some of my friends' books, even (mostly) those published by traditional publishers, that weren't invested in with promotion by the publisher, or likely kickbacks, and I'm frequently told "we don't have it" because "it wasn't selling."
Whose fault is it that a book doesn't sell, either on Amazon or at a local bookstore? The readers'?
I despise Amazon. And Walmart. I think that their size and power do much more harm than good. But I do business with them because I can't afford to be principled.
D.G. Hudson says
I don't care for Amazon, and only use them when I can't find the item anywhere else.
I order through Chapters online, or go into the Indie store nearby.
Kai Strand says
I admit that when I see the 'don't support Amazon – they only support themselves' attitude, my first thought is about all those authors who now have a chance because of Amazon. They aren't all bad, though I don't like their recent marketing ploy. Slimey.
My guess is those of you who think Amazon and bookstores can co-exist, live in larger cities. My town isn't so large. We are now down to one chain store and one indie (and several struggling used). Towns smaller than us are likely to be down to less than that. They will co-exist, but not for everybody. I don't WANT Amazon or the internet to take over book sales, but I think that's where we're heading – fast.
Philip Stephens says
I believe Amazon is acting as the 800Lb Gorilla. They are treating authors and publishers very badly, looking for more profit. I do NOT like this, but that is business, unfortunately.
I own a Kindle and buy E-books from Amazon, as well as other suppliers.
I do NOT buy physical books from Amazon. If I cannot find them in a local bookshop I go to: bookrepository.co.uk and they will deliver them to Australia cheaper than Amazon will sell & ship.
I have bought thousands of books over the years, and most have been donated or sold. I am now, as I get older, more selective in what I buy. I tend to borrow first, and buy once I decide a book is a keeper, or buy an E-book and then buy paper once I decide I cannot live without my own copy.
I read Cory Doctorow's books as E-books first, free from his web site and then in 60% of cases, but the paper book as well.
E-books will change the face of publishing, and unfortunately many authors have been sacrificed upon Amazon's altar or profit. I do not have much love for the publishers, who have dealt badly with authors for decades (read Robert Heinlein's memoirs) but I do feel for the authors who are caught in the crossfire.
As an author about to publish to the kindle, I feel like it's a great situation for first-time authors, especially indie authors.
I can't hep but think about "You've Got Mail", where Meg Ryan's character's "Shop Around the Corner" gets taken down by Fox books — because the books are less expensive there. I see both sides. We like the indie stores, but I think they're definitely a luxury not everyone can afford — including authors. I once read what percentage of the list price authors receive from the brick and mortar stores, and I was shocked at how low the profit was. If anything, amazon offers authors a chance to take more control of that profit margin.
Just my two cents, anyway.
How can easy and inexpensive access to an unlimited selection of books from anywhere on the planet be bad for reading?
Amazon POD technology and ebooks have exploded the old model–and good riddance!
Publishers and bookstore chains had been digging their own graves for years with mergers, consolidation, focus on short term results, pandering to the lowest common denominator and best seller mania. How was that good for readers–or authors?
The tragedy is that so many bookstores have physically disappeared. That is bad. How are children to learn to enjoy browsing through shelves, picking up a book, flipping through it,getting absorbed and finally excited about the printed page?
It is my hope that Great Indie Bookstores (I think of Changing Hands in Tempe; Powels in Portland) will survive by offering readers something more than just books which have become a commodity, like wheat or oil.
Let us have the best of both worlds.
I love bookstores and hope that they never go away. My dream is to walk into a store and see my own book. When I was an "active" musician, my dream was to hear one of my songs on the radio. I realized that dream and I'm confident the book image will also come to be.
But, in the past couple years, I haven't bought any books there; I buy from Amazon.
Like many, though, I'm rather upset with the prices at Amazon. The latest Koontz – kindle version – $13.99? I know Amazon doesn't set the price and I should be directing my ire at the publisher; but Amazon is visible and "touchable".
These days, I mostly buy indie authors and I've found some great ones at better than reasonable prices. I wouldn't have discovered these in a bookstore and that's a shame.
Sean F. Roney says
The dinosaurs known as bookstores are on their way out. Like all niche specialties, there will be a few here and there. But like record stores, they will remain limited to communities that suffer incredible nostalgia for them. They cannot coexist with Amazon, because the mass consumers know that Amazon is a much better deal, being speedy and affordable. Amazon will eventually kill the so-called indies that sell almost nothing but the same New York books Amazon does. Besides, there are plenty of books ready for loving and nostalgia down at the library.
Dennis Beery says
I really don't see this as a debate. The "debate" will be decided by market forces. If indies find enough loyal customers, then they will get the cash flow they need to survive. I wish them all the best. As for me, I've moved on, and, IMHO, Amazon rocks!
Bethany Joy Carlson says
I think independent bookstores need to adjust their business model to avoid being put out of business. It's not a question of evil or not evil. People need value for money beyond nostalgia.
*Embrace the internet. Have a good webstore for physical and especially eBooks (through Google eBooks, for example).
*Have other reasons for customers to come to the physical location and spend money. Coffee shop / wine bar / art gallery / writing workshops / book club etc.
*Feature unique merchandise that customers can't properly evaluate on Amazon: foreign books, photo books, art and architecture books, and minimize expensive physical costs like space and inventory for books that are easier to buy online.
If Amazon is the Costco model, then independent bookstores need to be more like higher end or luxury boutiques. If the service model and customer experience is basically the same but just with a higher price, that business is going to go out of business. Since indies can't compete on price they need to realistically compete with something else.
Matthew MacNish says
Nathan – thought so, and: agreed.
For the people saying that they don't see what is so "evil" about Amazon…I'm sorry but you need to read more about it. It is NOT just because they sell cheap books and are putting bookstores out of business. I agree, that is just business.
But please read about the controversial Kindle Lending Library and their shady price-scanning holiday schemes…and see if you still feel that Amazon is still in the right.
Big difference between Amazon and my local bookstore: my local bookstore employs people from my neighborhood. Some of the money I pay goes to a New York publisher (and from there to the writer, agent, etc.), but some of it stays here, where it pays the wage for a couple of people who live nearby and buy groceries at the local store… which also employs some local people… and so I get to see my money support people I know.
With Amazon, I support a handful of people I'll never meet and who don't much care about me outside of customer sat… and I help Jeff Bezos embed himself a little deeper in the 1%. I don't actually want to pay to enable either of those things if I don't have to.
I am guilty of purchasing more books through Amazon than my local bookstores simply because I can get more for my buck. I do, however, frequent local used bookstores because of the pricing and the possibility of finding a First Edition tucked away. I also make a point to visit and purchase at my local, new-book, bookstores. Although their prices are higher, I am willing to pay for the ambience and their staff's knowledge. Purchasing at a bookstore is an event. Some people enjoy barhopping, I enjoy book stores. It makes me quite happy to spend a Friday or Saturday night browsing the stacks.
Nick Rolynd says
Well, I love bookstores. It's just the ability to go in and actually browse all those different books, wandering through the aisles, etc. etc. I like that experience.
But the problem is I can't afford most bookstore prices. I just can't do it. Amazon's discounts are what allow me to actually read what I want to read. If it wasn't for Amazon, I wouldn't own over half the books I own. It would just be impossible with my budget.
So, I mean, there's really no answer here. Both Amazon and bookstores have their own merit. I hope there's some way they can coexist, but I'm not entirely sure that's going to happen.
I agree with Amber Storytime's comments.
Further to the conversation, I'm glad to see this huge elephant in the room addressed in a realistic manner. Like it or not, the way we read and purchase books is changing.
Melissa Adams says
I'm grateful for my local indie bookstore, The English Bookshop (https://shop.englishbookshop.nl/), which brings together the literary community in Amsterdam and saves me international shipping fees.
Yeah, well some folks will always take shots at something "too big to fail."
I love Amazon although there are some policies that need revamping
It doesn't matter what you buy; books, toys, TV's or games — Amazon does it better than your local store.
I wasted 3 hours in local stores NOT finding the toys my kids wanted for Christmas. Stopped by the house and checked on Amazon and found everything they wanted in 15 minutes.
Overpriced retail storefronts are a dinosaur.
am i the only one who agrees w/ manjoo's article? sure, i have some bookstore nostalgia in me, too. but honestly, i don't understand all the hostility against amazon. it's using aggressive business practices? isn't that what businesses do? the business world isn't exactly known for its niceness. what's that saying – "it's not personal, it's just business."
Mark Asher says
How's that local stores vs. Wal-Mart thing going? Yeah, that's Amazon vs. indie bookstores.
Indie bookstores will survive if they can manage to get by on 20 – 30% less revenue, because ebooks are going to eat away at their sales.
My guess is many will go under, but some will survive. I'll be sad to see some go, but look at what e-readers give us – instant access to a huge selection of books, including tens of thousands of free classics to download. What a fabulous gift to future generations to put entire libraries in their hands with inexpensive e-readers. If the cost of doing that is seeing a lot of bookstores close that's unfortunate, but I think free books and removing the stranglehold the publishing industry has on authors is a good thing for readers.
Rachel Ventura says
Boy, does this guy make me mad, and Amazon too. I know, this is going to sound absolutely horrible, but with a name like that, he probably works a tech support hotline for Amazon in the Sultanate of Ali Bin Outsourced. XD
All kidding aside, though, Amazon was initially thought to be the liberator of frustrated authors who believed themselves to be "shut out" of the big leagues that the Grishams and Pattersons had "grandfathered" themselves into, pre-Internet and conglomerate era. Now Amazon is set up to be the Web 2.0 equivalent of the corporate cannibalism that's overtaken the pub. industry, taking advantage of gullible, desperate sheeple so desperate for immediate publication they sell out their creative souls to this conglomerate monster. "Publish America," anyone?
Don't forget, too, that you don't pay state sales tax with Amazon. States can't charge sales tax over the Internet because even though you, yourself, live in the state where your physical computer is, Amazon distributes globally, and for whatever reason can't be held to the same standards as even your local Wal-Mart. I don't care so much about Amazon as a writer and potential publish-ee, but as a citizen and a consumer of the corrupt digital global economy. If Amazon were forced to charge sales tax it would go the way of CD Now.
Sanjaya there or whoever he is can go bury his head in the sand wherever he's from. As long as there are printed books, I'll keep buying them and renting from the library. At some point I'll be the Burgess Meredith librarian with all the books in my house, a custodian of history like the "Anonymous" antihero in V for Vendetta… Doesn't anyone see the bitter irony in something like Fahrenheit 451 being "burned" to the format of a "Kindle"? A pox on Bezos and his money-grubbing, technophile ilk; may he get fed to the Amazon crocodiles and go up Digital River without a paddle. >:(
Rachel Ventura says
Oh, by the way: Sorry for the double post, but I just had to include the second word verification that I saw.
"Tradi." Which is exactly who the hero, albeit maybe not the winner, of this publishing battle is clearly cut out to be. 🙂
Serendipity, anyone? 😀
Sean Roney says
Wow, Rachel, you pretty much nuked any credibility you had when you opened with a mean-spirited racist attack on a writer based on his race.
Traditional/legacy/dead tree stores aren't going to win the battle. Some will survive as a niche market, but they won't be mainstream. Amazon is taking over the mainstream, thanks to the power of the mass market.
Now as far as their being unfair, we can thank the money-fueled American political system for that. Our law makers are as much to blame for letting Amazon get away with things as Amazon is for being bad and then bribing them.
Here's the thing: you can't really reverse the "progress" that's occurred already. I worked for a fairly successful small bookstore chain that seemed to do all the right things to maintain their foothold. The bookstore I worked for was THE FAVORITE in the town at the time. They built a superstore with a cafe in anticipation of the coming B&N and they maintained for a while, until management changed. Once things changed, as far as I can tell (I wasn't working there anymore) the customers moved on. The store I worked in was always a wreck after that and people stopped buying their books there. I think one of the things Independents have that's both their achilles heel and their asset is…independence. This is the thing that aesthetes everywhere prize. The distinct, unique point of view. Personality. But in marketing, uniformity works. The same message over and over again seeps in. And, as consumers, most people like to go for what they know. That's why Starbucks works, same roast, same system, no matter which city. I can understand it and I think that's a very difficult thing to fight. But I also think it would be worth it to sacrifice a little independence for the sake of a few good small chains like the one I worked for. I think Indiebound and the ABA could be used better. They could share more resources for one to enable stores to charge less and offer more. I miss my little chain. I'd love to resurrect something like it.