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One Bookseller’s Modest Proposal: Amazon Pay Bookstores an Affiliate Fee

Editorial by Rachel Aydt

Social networking sites exploded last week as Amazon rolled out a new promotion whereby you download a new barcode scanning app from them, walk into a store, scan the book/toy/electronic item that you’re planning on purchasing, and then exit the store, go home and purchase it online through Amazon for a 5% discount of up to $15. Retailers, many of them indie bookstore owners, are seeing red, including Roxanne Coady of JusttheRightBook.com, who wrote a widely circulating open letter to Amazon citing “a modest proposal”:

I have a proposition for Amazon.

Whereas a recent survey by Codex reported that 28% of purchases done online result from information gathered at a bricks-and-mortar stores.

Whereas Amazon totally understands that this is occurring and is offering $5 to gather competitive price information while customers are in aforementioned stores.

Whereas bricks and mortar bookstores spend countless hours writing emails and newsletters and giving speeches and appearing on radio and TV promoting books they love and those books are then purchased at Amazon.

Whereas Amazon defacto sells based on our information and staffing.

Therefore, beginning immediately, we suggest that Amazon pay an affiliate fee to such bricks and mortar stores.  The calculation for such fee shall be equal to 33% of the sales from Amazon customers whose zip codes are within a 20-mile radius of aforementioned bricks and mortar store.

Of her open letter, Coady wrote in an email to me, “The Codex survey confirmed to me what has been general knowledge in the industry. Bookstores are still the best source of discovery. In the past, bookstores have discussed that publishers should pay us for being their marketing arm, but seeing the results of the survey made me think maybe we’re really an affiliate of Amazon; they’re the ones getting the retail sale. On second thought, maybe they can both pay us. If indie bookstores go away, is there something lost in how people discover books and broaden their reading? Naturally, I think so, but that will be the great debate.”

Her thoughtful response could be found online bumping into the ether space of more sarcastic takes on the topic. Novelist Garth Stein (@garthstein) had a tweet retweeted over 100 times:  “I like to do the Reverse Amazon: hear about a book, read about it on Amazon, then go buy it at my local bookstore! It’s fun! #ReadLocal.” Other coverage was painfully straight to the point; one Christian Science Monitor piece was titled “Amazon app will pay you $15 to walk out on retailers.”

Obviously, the savings on Amazon are substantial, as is the convenience. When my kid was in diapers, I ordered giant boxes of Pampers to be shipped directly to my apartment in Manhattan. These cost less than Wal-Mart prices, without a torturous Wal-Mart schlep. Tack onto that the scanning bonus, and you’re potentially looking at premium products being delivered at a near 50% savings.

On Thursday, I dropped by Three Lives & Company bookstore in New York City to pick up a couple of gift copies of P.D. James latest mystery Death Comes to Pemberley (I waited for the release of this Austen/ James mashup for months). My purchase came to about $25.95 per copy, before tax, which felt like quite a dent in this freelancer’s wallet right before the holiday. To research this piece, I decided to go onto Amazon and see what they were charging for this newly minted hardback: $15.57. Amazon’s home page also informed me that I still have “6 days left to order for Christmas with FREE Super Saver Shipping.” Here’s my silver lining, though. When the kind bookstore employee asked me if would like it wrapped, I said “Yes, Please.” It came back beautiful in a burgundy paper with a pretty “Three Lives” sticker anchoring a classy sliver of ribbon. It dawned on me that my particular recipient, my mother, would appreciate that part of the gift is that it was purchased in my little indie store. Perhaps there should be an instantly recognizable wrapping paper printed for the holidays that says “Occupy Bookstores!” Or, perhaps Amazon should cede to Coady’s idea and pay bookstores a premium for doing their marketing legwork. Yeah, right– when Amazon freezes over.

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  1. Posted December 12, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t feel this article was pro-Amazon at all–it simply states the facts. Sad to say, most of us would rather save money, and Amazon is taking advantage of what they already know people are doing by giving us an opportunity to walk out of that bookstore and save even more. Do I think that is very nice of them? No. Do I buy books the cheapest way I can get them? Yes, as guilty as everyone else. However, I would not use this new app because I think it’s wrong of Amazon to take advantage of the bookstores that way.

  2. K. C.
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Leslie. I don’t see this as a pro-Amazon piece. The facts are clear: people like and need to get things cheaper nowadays. I still shop local stores as much as I can, but honestly, with two little kids at home, sometimes online stores are more convenient. I wish there were a clear-cut solution for this problem, but there isn’t.

  3. michael
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    stating some facts but leaving others out is putting a slant on things.

    Nobody should buy at bookstores out of some philanthropic impulse. There are loads of down-to-earth reasons for paying a few bucks more at a local business rather than buying from a slippery online retailer like amazon, chief among them being that in the long-run you will save money. Those kids now at home will one day be off to school. When the local public school, or the buses that should be taking kids to it, or any one of myriad local state-tax-funded services is no longer an option, the convenience and savings afforded by amazon will no longer seem so great.

    @danielle, your husband’s publisher is not doing its job. The problems endemic to large trade houses and in particular their treatment of mid-list authors are many. But perhaps this is not the context… and as someone (?) recently pointed out, in the current discussion of publisher vs. self-publishing, publisher too frequently = trade house, with the smaller independent publisher being overlooked.

  4. Edward Nawotka
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    @Michael…I too fail to see any pro-Amazon spin on this piece. Perhaps you’re putting too much emphasis on Rachel’s use of the word “sarcastic” regarding some of the tweets. Garth Stein was probably being equal parts sardonic and earnest.

    As for our limited coverage, the piece is focused on Roxanne’s modest proposal — which is, ultimately, more interesting in the long run and goes right to the point. As Rachel says, it is a blog post, not a feature. We make a distinction between the two, which is something that the internet tends to blur (to the detriment of everyone, I think).

    As for PP’s stance on the importance and challenges of independent bookselling — and speaking as someone who worked his way through college as a bookseller — tune in tomorrow when we profile a bookseller who is facing far bigger challenges than a mere Amazon marketing ploy and fickle American consumers looking for goods on the cheap. This bookseller is facing a bankrupt government and riots in the streets…because they live in Greece.

  5. Posted December 13, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    What strikes me in this is that there is a competitive approach that e.g. Google could take for promoting its e-Books through independent retailers – by doing exactly as suggested and offer a percentage to retailers for sales generated this way.

    The internet may be a force that is changing the industry, but it is also an opportunity to compete differently.

  6. michael
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    @ed, I understand that the piece was a blog entry and that it focused on Roxanne’s proposal. That was exactly my initial point: why is this the only coverage of amazon’s recent practices to appear in PP? It’s an important story. You should cover it properly. I’m certain your (PP’s) perspective on the debate would interest your readers.

    The situation in greece and the situation regarding retail and the book business in america are two very different things. I’m not sure I get your point. Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t be debating amazon vs bookstores because there are more serious things to discuss? That’s a slippery slope, Ed. Beware.

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