Thursday, December 15, 2011

How Amazon AND indie booksellers can succeed without trying to murder one another

I found an infuriating link on Twitter this morning entitled "Don't Support Your Local Bookseller."

I'll let that sink in for a minute.
Obligatory shot of a bookstore. Image by Polifemus on Flickr.

I was and will probably always be an advocate for indie booksellers because a) I always believe in supporting local businesses and b) I've enjoyed being an employee and a patron of indie booksellers for years. However, I'm also a huge fan of Amazon. It's convenient, it has a lot of great interface features, I can get books that would be impossible to find otherwise, etc. etc. etc. So I find it difficult to compare the two. It's kinda-sorta-but-not-really analogous to comparing, say, Wal-Mart and your local clothing store. Wal-Mart sells convenience (okay, they sell cheap plastic crap) in large quantities; the local clothing store may buy small quantities of quality product. Amazon and indie booksellers generally sell very similar or identical products, but the difference is the venue and the experience.

Customers of indie booksellers often don't go into the store with targeted intent. They go to browse, to see what's on the shelves, to handle the books. It's a tactile experience. Customers on Amazon may browse too, but more often I think people go on the site in search of something specific. They may find impulse buys and recommendations, so to speak, but mostly it's a targeted experience. I have to speak anecdotally, of course, since I haven't done any consumer studies.

There are a few factors working against indie booksellers. The first is, of course, Amazon's ability to stock huge quantities of millions of books and distribute them internationally. Indie stores are limited to a smaller, local group of patrons. The second and maybe more salient point is that Amazon can do a passable-to-good job of emulating the brick-and-mortar store experience. Notice the very slick visual displays of products and recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history (creepy but useful). It's super easy to browse, but importantly, super easy to find what you want. An indie store can't compete with Amazon in that regard. Customers have to rely on the booksellers themselves to find a certain item or to recommend books. This is hardly a travesty, but as the linked article mentions, human employees can't match computer accuracy.

A notable exception to the indie seller's local patronage is its seller's ability to distribute through Amazon's marketplace. Both the stores I worked in did up to 10-15% of their daily business this way (very rough estimate based on personal experience). All of these books were used copies of mostly out-of-print books that Amazon didn't stock. This is the indie seller's strength. Amazon's Marketplace virtual storefront is driven largely by these indie sellers. Amazon makes a tidy profit from commission on these items. I think this is actually a great concept: out-of-print and rare book distribution in one central location. Indie sellers can (and do, to a certain extent) use the Power of the Amazon Megalith (tm) to their advantage.

The problem is that indies just can't compete with Amazon when it comes to the biggest part of the market, which is new and recent releases. Indie booksellers do not "mark up" their product. They sell books for the list price, which is set by the publisher. Amazon marks products down. For every indie that can sell one copy of Dean Koontz's new novel for $25 (which they bought for not much less), Amazon can sell it for, say, $17, because they bought a bajillion and they have a distribution agreement with the publisher and so on.

All this means that indie booksellers are going to have to evolve. I'm not arguing that they're in some ways outdated and outmoded. I'm saying they shouldn't have to compete directly with Amazon. Why not work with the ways they can be successful? There will always be room for second-hand books and out-of-print books. Why not also take a cue from indie clothing stores and acquire small quantities of quality books--from, say, indie publishers? Wouldn't that be a match made in heaven? What if every indie bookseller only acquired books from indie publishers? Potential exposure and business for everyone. Indie booksellers can carry beautiful special edition hardbacks--pieces of art for book lovers who enjoy having physical books. There's a market that hasn't yet been tapped, and Amazon hasn't made special efforts to do so.

I'm really not here to debate the worthiness of Amazon as a business entity. I'm wary of it. I have a lot of problems with any company that seeks to create a monopoly. But I also think that because of its size and frankly genius business policies, it's provided some fantastic opportunities for consumers. I mean, you can get a Kindle for $79 now. A lot of people can benefit from this: people who don't live within easy driving distance of a bookstore, for example. They don't have to pay shipping on an e-book. A more significant example is visually impaired people who can't read print books. E-readers, Kindles in particular, provide a viable, cost-effective alternative to traditional book distribution. They make it so people who may not otherwise have opportunities to do so can have access to readable material.

I don't understand the Slate article writer's claim that consumers should not support local businesses like bookstores. Buy from corporations, fine, but the idea of avoiding a small business because hrr drr they're not Corporation X wrongheaded and frankly stupid. As an author, I would rather you buy my book from a local business or (gasp!) directly from my publisher. Supporting small/local businesses is better for the economy and better for you--ergo, better for authors.

Don't get me started on his last line, which claims that Amazon is "saving literary culture." Literary culture is not just one entity. It is possible to enjoy the convenience and accessibility of Amazon while also purchasing quality product of a slightly different kind from your local bookstore. Literary culture will evolve, survive and thrive even in a terrible economy because people need books. It's true that consumers require different things now and indie bookselling is a little slow on the uptake--but it needn't always be that way.


  1. I agree. People need to support the local bookseller. Amazon already has too much power.

  2. We're on the same track here. I've been writing about how indies can support each other. There are big misconceptions on both sides. It's fascinating, and I'm glad to be in the author category, because authors are in the driver's seat. For a change. A huge change. Keep talking about it. Indie booksellers have an important role. But they sure do have to evolve.

  3. One advantage to indie sellers IS community support. Amazon has plenty of corporate support, but small businesses can create powerful and influential networks too, just on a smaller scale. There's no reason why an indie seller should have to compete on the same playing field as Amazon, but they continue to try. That worries me.