« Editorial

Why We Need Independent Bookstores More Than Ever

Reflecting on the Amazon/Hachette battle, Tom Roberge of New Directions notes “publishers simply cannot function without independent bookstores.”

Editorial by Tom Roberge, New Directions

Tom Robere

Tom Robere

Until recently, the reasons that bricks-and-mortar bookstores — especially independent owned ones — feared and despised Amazon were obvious. By virtue of the sheer size of Amazon’s network of warehouses and shipping centers, and because the online retailer is so shamelessly willing to allow books to serve as loss leaders, Amazon has been able to drastically undercut the prices on books, something that physical stores simply don’t have the luxury of doing. Amazon’s model, it has seemed for years now, was designed — though perhaps not as maliciously as we’ve all asserted—to drive everyone else out of business, leaving Amazon as the only fiscally solvent bookseller left standing.

That said, we as publishers simply cannot function without independent bookstores. Apart from the sales revenue (and my employer, New Directions, relies on the these channels much more than any of the Big Five publishers, by a factor of ten), there is the less quantifiable and yet equally important fact that the indies support us in a myriad of ways.

Unlike Amazon’s vaunted algorithm, bookstore employees talk to their regular customers, get to know their tastes, and recommend titles that Amazon might never deem appropriate. Individual book stores and booksellers are the most valuable participants in the crucial search for word-of-mouth buzz, championing our titles on the frontline of literary engagement. I could go on and on. The point is, bookstores matter. To see them slowly and steadily shutter their doors because they couldn’t slash prices enough would be heartbreaking, of course, but it would also be bad for the publishing business as a whole.

Even the Big Five know this: why else would they devote so much time and effort to building relationships with thousands of unique stores despite the fact that those stores represent only 3-5% of their annual sales?

So, yes, all of the vitriol directed at Amazon by independent bookstores is justified, based on their slasher-used-car-salesmen model alone.

But then the Kindle came along, offering readers the capability to carry around dozens, even hundreds, of books at one time, all accessible with impressive ease. E-books have truly revolutionized the publishing and book-selling industries, forcing the former to restructure their sales, marketing, and production forces dramatically, and the latter to scramble to find ways to continue to sell physical books (certain publishers now refer to them as p-books, a term I hope we can all agree is downright odious) oroften in ways that make little to no impact, figure out ways to sell e-books themselves. The Kindle, however, holds the lion’s share of the e-book reader market, meaning that, depending on whom you ask, as much as 85% of all digital book sales may very well run through Amazon.

Amazon positions itself as a consumer advocate. Which is insane.

As a publishing professional, I’ve always said that it doesn’t matter how customers buy our books; we make the same amount of money on both sales, and we’re happy that people are discovering and reading our books. The format doesn’t particularly matter: it’s the words that deliver the message, not the paper. And though I don’t enjoy the act of reading on an e-reader (I for one don’t mind carrying a paperback around in my backpack) I do understand the appeal. To each his own.

If only it were that easy.

On August 8, Amazon sent a now-infamous email to several thousand authors who had self-published through the retailer, evoking — of all people — George Orwell in its attempt to assert that e-books are the future, that print books are going the way of the rotary phone, and that we — the rest of the world, publishers and consumers alike — would do best to get on the bandwagon. Now, dammit

To my mind, the rhetoric Amazon used to exalt the e-book (by which it means, of course, the e-book as read on an Amazon Kindle device) evinced another, even more sinister agenda that goes well beyond simply monopolizing the book market. After spending several paragraphs (the entire letter can be read on Electric Literature) painting the publishing industry as a whole, and Hachette in particular, as a bunch of pretentious luddites (read the letter; it makes sense), the Amazon Books Team states:

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Basically: “The writing is on the wall. Print books are dead. Long live e-books!”

Although the email is ostensibly about e-book pricing, it reads more like a manifesto on behalf of a coup d’etat, the long-oppressed revolutionaries (e-books) looking to supplant the corrupt, anachronistic dictators (print books).

Consider:

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

(The fact that Orwell’s quote was taken hilariously out of context — he was praising Penguin’s paperbacks — has been widely discussed. The New York Times handles it nicely if you’re curious.)

And:

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture.

This last pair of sentences — which helps bring the email to a close and which is followed by a plea to email Hachette’s CEO, Michael Pietsch directly — is interesting because it allows Amazon to do two things. First, by claiming, yet again, that its primary concern is “reasonable” prices for custumers, it positions itself as a consumer advocate. Which is insane, even if this email was addressed to authors and cited some figures that pointed to increased revenue for all parties involved at lower prices. Secondly, and despite earlier derision for those who believe that lower e-book prices will “hurt ‘Art and Letters,’” Amazon manages to position itself as a champion of “book culture” with the second sentence. I’ll say it again: this is insane. Patently insane.

Taken as a whole, the email seems to outline the aforementioned sinister agenda. Not content with merely putting bricks-and-mortar bookstores out of business, they seem to want to eviscerate all print books.

I admit there’s a chance that their agenda is quite as nefarious as I’m suggesting, but isn’t the goal of any corporation to dominate market share, to render all competitors and their products obsolete? Pietsch, in the standardized reply that he’s sending to everyone who emailed him at Amazon’s suggestion, states, after refuting Amazon’s numbers and offering some of his own:

This dispute started because Amazon is seeking a lot more profit and even more market share, at the expense of authors, bricks and mortar bookstores, and ourselves.

Seems like he agrees.

I for one don’t believe that Amazon will ever succeed on either front, whether it’s forcing all other bookstores out of business or convincing the vast majority of readers to do all of their reading on a device, but I do believe that this two-pronged assault will cause a great many independent bookstores to close up shop in the coming decade.

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18 Comments

  1. Posted August 18, 2014 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    I am releasing a new book on 21 September entitled ‘Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing’. It is being published by Spinifex Press and I make much the same argument: that independent publishers are to culture (bibliodiversity) as biodiversity is to ecology. http://www.spinifexpress.com.au (it is not yet announced but will be shortly).

  2. Posted August 18, 2014 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    As it is already happening, and an increasing number of book stores cite both Amazon and greedy landlords for their demise, it is time to reconsider the e-book and return to the surety of paperbacks at least, as a great number of Kindle owners have become disenchanted with the ezperience of owning an ereader or tablet which never allows one to stray too far from the Amazon universe. Remember also that one does not really own the book just bought — Amazon can and will yank the title from the owner’s library on a whim.

  3. Posted August 18, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Amazon (or for that matter any other online store) is a predator by strategy. Bezos said that what he cares for in this world is his customer alone and competition does not matter to him. So,one of the reasons why the book buyer has left the brick and mortar store for an online retailer is the discount.Coupled with this, it is also the change in the reading habit.Consider the digital natives and their views on print. So, I do not see how the independent book store can survive, Amazon or no Amazon, although I would still,love to walk into a book store, chat up those guys who have good knowledge about what they are a selling in the book store and buy some.

  4. oliver optic
    Posted August 18, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    When Jeff Bezos was on his knees in his garage with his wife packing books the ABA had about 4,000 members and a trade show worth millions of dollars. They have failed miserably to embrace every technical innovation that has come along, web pages, online ordering and eBooks. Amazon and Apple invested millions of dollars in research and readers, the ABA zip. I worked in bookstores since 1975, and always wanted to open a store of my own, with the internet that is now impossible but I adapted by selling books online in a multitude of venues including Amazon and I can still say I am a bookseller.
    It’s all about convenience, price, selection. But what is the Indies mantra, they ‘educate and legislate’. When’s the last time you ask a customer checking prices in your store what they were looking for? Ask them what the Amazon or whatever online price was? Then offered them the book at that price? Ever think of selling a used book? For every indie that has gone under I bet two or three have sprung up as third party sellers on Amazon and those sellers sold over a billion items last year.

  5. Posted August 18, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Hi, I’m a buggy maker. You know, as in horse and buggy? I believe we must stop immediately this move toward automobiles. Oh sure, Ford claims they’re doing it just to help people move about from Point A to Point B more quickly, and to provide convenience and productivity to their lives, but I know the real reason: they’re trying to put me out of business and become a monopoly! Please help! We must stop Henry Ford before he takes over the world! We buggy makers must stick together to beat back this demon.

    I’m truly fascinated that publishers are choosing to fight technological advances, rather than adapt to them to make their businesses safe and profitable well into the future. It’s so damned shortsighted. Their stubbornness will be their undoing, in the end. Only those willing to adjust in a way that’s fair to both authors and readers will survive.

    Barnes and Noble is dead. They may still be kicking, but that’s just residual nerves and muscle twitches. The mega bookstore, know also as bookstaurus megalasaur, is extinct. And independents? They’re most likely going to survive as Joe’s Garage, Coffee Shop & Bookstore, or something like that. Stores dedicated solely to the sales of books are on the way out, lest they be high-end collectors’ shops.

    So time for the publishers to wake up and smell Joe’s coffee. Stop kicking and screaming and clawing at the big bad Amazon, and offer consumers a fair alternative. Compete. Or die.

    • Posted August 18, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      I counted to five and sure enough, the “buggy whip” analogy landed in the comments with all the usual talking points attached. There are about four fanatical, pro-Amazon bloggers who created that rhetoric. They ought to copyright it and aim for some royalties.

    • Linnie
      Posted August 19, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      Interesting. I work at a brick & mortar bookstore, and our sales have continually improved (we opened at the height of the recession), despite our lack of hyphens (we’re just a bookstore, not a garage-coffee-shop-clothing-store-bookstore). We sell books; people come in and buy the books. That formula has served us awfully well.

      As for the buggy analogy, I’d say that supply & demand out to iron all of this out. I doubt there was much demand for buggies once automobiles proved more efficient, but obviously there’s still demand for physical books. As a writer, I want to see my work in print (not on a screen). If you choose to go to the Great Online Empire That I Shall Not Name, that’s up to you. It’s simply a matter of knowing where your dollars end up — in your community (where events and physical gatherings might occur) or at a warehouse in a distant state, where authors are simply revenue-generating machines.

    • Karen Hayes
      Posted August 19, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      Publishers have embraced e-books. I used to work for Random House. They take their e-business very seriously. Roberge makes it clear that he doesn’t care how people read, as long as they read. What publishers are, and should object to is being told by a retailer what price they should set for their product, especially when that retailer is often selling that product as a lost leader to bring in more customers who will make other purchases at their site. Amazon is manipulating the marketplace to monopolize it. They are not looking out for the customers best interests, they are looking out for their own.

    • Jock Serong
      Posted August 20, 2014 at 12:51 am | Permalink

      Interesting. “Oliver Optic” and “Lane Diamond” make the same basic grammatical mistakes in their comments, as well as serving up the same dopey talking points. If OO spent all that time in a bookstore (and I’m pretty sure he didn’t) he sure as hell didn’t pick up any English skills.

  6. Tom Lawson
    Posted August 18, 2014 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    2002: 9,021 U.S. bookstores
    2007: 7,775 bookstores
    2013: 7,335 bookstores

    How many were indies?

    2002: 6,000
    2007: 3,500
    2013: 6,000

    Holy shit, eh? I’m not smart enough to explain what this means, but those are the numbers. It appears indies did take a punch, but they’ve gotten back up and are swinging.

    2002 and 2007 numbers are from the U.S. Economic Censuses. 2013 total is from a tally from Publisher’s Weekly. Totals do not include college bookstores.

  7. Bill
    Posted August 18, 2014 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    In all of this conversation, what no one brings up is the New York Times bestseller list. In no other business does a network of retailers who represent less than 15% of overall sales have such an impact on a sales index or reporting measure like the network of independent bookstores do on the NYT bestseller list. While being an Amazon bestseller is beginning to have some cred as is felt by Hachette titles not having pre-order buttons and the impact that has on the Amazon bestseller list, at the end of the day, making the NYT list is the end all for author, publisher and bookseller alike. That is why publishers need independent bookstores!

    • Linnie
      Posted August 19, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      (Echoing that; bookstores influence larger trends in what people read, even if their sales don’t amount to a huge percentage).

  8. Tom Lawson
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Please disregard the hasty comment I made above. I got more accurate numbers. See here:

    https://t.co/D5bpk84Vap

  9. Posted August 19, 2014 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    My book, Yo God! Jay’s Story is both an ebook and in print. I have a small publisher who couldn’t get it on the shelves of Barnes and Noble because they couldn’t afford a buy back agreement. I do believe that the print copies will survive no matter how many have kindles.
    Did you ever try to bring a kindle to the beach? That’ll ruin it. Also carrying one around runs the risk of theft and simply getting lost. So, I leave mine home. i can always run out and order a new printed copy of my favorite book.

  10. Tom
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    I enjoy a good independent bookstore. Unfortunately, no good independent bookstores exist within 100 miles of my home. And it wasn’t Amazon that explains the demise of most of them. Most were killed off by Barnes and Noble. There’s a lot of rewriting of history going on in the campaign to equate Amazon with satan. But as both an author and reader, I think most of it is overblown. A couple of points: 1) My efforts to get independent bookstores in my state to stock my book (released by an academic press) have not succeeded. They all tell me “no one” reads university press books, even ones on popular subjects. Readers who want to get it in a Barnes and Noble are also likely to have no luck, as B&N has a closed distribution network that discriminates against non bog five presses. My book is actually seling extremely well for an academic title, and most of the people buying it are getting it on Amazon, which has faithfully kept it in stock in three formats–hardcover, paper and ebook. 2) Ocassionally a worker in an independent bookstore recommends a book to me that I actually like. But Amazon’s recommendation engine is far superior to even the most knowledgeable bookstore clerk. And its recommendations don’t appear to be biased toward big five titles. The rec engine knows my obscure tastes and is pretty spot on. 3) There are many problems with Amazon’s business model. Their ability to sell untaxed books online for so many years was an unfair advantage, for example. But I wish Amazon’s critics would at least acknowledge that Amazon got so big in large part because it is so good at what it does. 4) The idea that consumers will buy more books if the prices are lower is not a ridiculous one. 5) There are problems with the recent Amazon response, but this article seriously misrepresents what it says. It does not declare the end of the paper book, for example. 6) Amazon got George Orwell’s point only half wrong. Read the whole thing, and it is clear that Orwell is concerned that paper books are a threat to,literary culture.

  11. Posted August 21, 2014 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    I prefer a book in my hands, always have and always will. But I will admit I have a “device” for e-books–my iPad. I strictly order from iBooks. I do not order from Kindle. I will order a hardcopy or paperback before I order an iBook. And I order from Powells or my local neighborhood bookstore. But I NEVER order a book for Kindle. I’m an avid reader of everything, and the only thing I find difficult to find are classics. It would have been nice to take the Hunchback of Notre Dame with me, in all its heft, to Paris on an iBook.

    Amazon is a monster. I realize that I won’t even make a dent in their profits with my tiny boycott, but I don’t see why we can’t avoid them more than we do. They don’t really make life that much easier. And I would rather chat with my bookstore locals about a book before buying than reading a bunch of crazy reader reviews on Amazon that the author either had her friends put on or a bunch of amateurs wrote. Still, I’m boycotting to maintain my own personal integrity.

    Thank you for writing this piece. I have heard that independent bookstores are making a small comeback, and I wonder if we could know more about that. I would also like to see the research on whether or not self-published authors by self-published books.

    • Tom Lawson
      Posted August 21, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Independents have not made a small comeback, I’m afraid. No, they’ve made a kick-ass comeback. Last year, there were more indies in the U.S. than there were in 1997. In 2007, the number of chains and indies was abysmal. If Amazon is responsible for anything it’s the reduction in chain bookstores. These stores just couldn’t stay open. They were too big. And these closures in turn caused a resurgence in local indies. Not everywhere, mind you. Plenty of people are still miles and miles from an indie. There are only 5,000 indies in the U.S., and that means that each state could only have 100 at most. California has 600. So the share of indies is a bit uneven.

      https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/6845850-the-state-of-indies-in-the-states

  12. Posted August 21, 2014 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Amazon can sell books so cheaply ONLY because publishers give them large discounts. Publishers were persuaded to do this in the beginning because they were fixed on the ‘higher print run/lower unit cost/more profit’ model. They believed the promise that Amazon would sell more copies therefore make them more money, completely missing the point that Amazon’s low prices would make it almost impossible to sell at their usual prices elsewhere, and their own sales would die. I know of a sales director from a reputable publisher who once told one of his bestselling authors that amazon was his biggest customer but he made no profit on his business with them. It was always an unsustainable business model, and doomed to lead the publishing industry into disaster. The format argument (print vs ebook) is a red herring. The real issue is discount levels. Because they enabled Amazon to sell books so cheaply, books have been devalued, as has all the professional work behind them, and the people to suffer most are the authors who have seen their royalties disappear as publishers tried to stay solvent. At Vivebooks.com we try to do business on a different model, selling ebooks with embedded video in pdf format so they are accessible on ALL platforms inc iPad, Mac, Pc, tablets and Kindle Fire. They are discounted at a sensible level so they are sold, including the downloads from our website, at a price that reflects the work needed to create them. When you buy a Vivebooks ebook you own a copy for ever and can back it up, print from it, transfer it to your iPad – or even lend it to a friend!

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