The Compulsive Reader: Reading Rants: Balancing Amazon and the Local Indie

Monday, January 2, 2012

Reading Rants: Balancing Amazon and the Local Indie

A couple of weeks ago I read an article that really, really upset me about the issue of buying books through Amazon versus a local independent bookstore. I didn't want to jump in with my opinion with the whole rush and cheer of the holidays, but I also really don't want this issue to fade away without offering my perspective--that is, one of an avid reader and book-buyer who works at an independent bookstore, and is also an Amazon customer.

You can read the article to which I am referring to here. The writer, Farhad Manjoo, doesn't seem to have actually spent a whole lot of time in a indie store, so I'd like to point out some points of his argument with which I take offense with.
  • Bookstores have a "paltry" selection
Implying that bookstores have insultingly small selections is actually pretty insulting. Not every store can stock everything in the entire world, and you can't get everything from Amazon. No matter which way you look at it, Amazon is always going to have a larger selection because they aren't limited by their customer base or real estate. Yeah, it's pretty nice, but...guess what? If a bookstore doesn't have something in stock, there's a very good chance that, unless you're looking for Obscurist Quarterly, they can get it in the store for you, and I've never been into a store that has charged extra for ordering something (unless it's out of print, self-published, not available in the US, etc.). In the case of my bookstore, we get books in within 2 days of placing the order, and we won't charge you shipping for it! Amazon won't do that for you unless you have Prime membership (which costs about $80 a year).
  • Bookstore clerks only recommend books they like
Ha and HA! And this is the moment when I knew that Manjoo has never worked in a bookstore.

What he's arguing here is that Amazon offers better recommendations than actual people with actual minds who work around actual books and actual readers for a significant portion of their days. This is where I have to disagree with him. Amazon's recommendations are computer-generated based on what you've purchased in the past, what you've rated, and your browsing history. I have such an eclectic browsing history and have purchased so many gifts through Amazon that my recommendations are utter crap and after tinkering around with the "fix this recommendation" feature, I haven't been able to fix a thing. The only thing that the Amazon feature is good for, in my opinion, is what I call book-hopping--quick clicking to browse through titles and covers and authors to see if there's anything intriguing or new coming up that will grab me. Which, you know, is a lot like window shopping or browsing bookstore displays. That is, they can both be very hit and miss.

When you go into a bookstore and you talk to booksellers, you have the benefit of talking to people who observe trends on a first-hand basis. As a bookseller, I listen to what people say about books, what they like, what they're excited about, what they hated, and I see what they buy. Oftentimes people will come back and tell me what they think about the books I've sold them. Based on that, I can say I'm fairly good at listening to what people have enjoyed lately and pointing them in the right direction of something that they would be interested in (and I have co-workers who are even better at it than I am). Am I sometimes wrong? Oh yeah. But the difference between me and Amazon's recommendations feature is that the customer can tell me WHY I am off, and I can re-evaluate. You just can't do that with a computer. You need an actual human brain for that.

And I don't just recommend books I like. If I did, I'd force everyone to leave with Rebecca or Please Ignore Vera Dietz or Daughter of Smoke and Bone. But I have a brain, I know that not everyone is into those sorts of books, and I know my stock and customers fairly well--I want people to leave with something they're excited about, not what I'm excited about (though sometimes we're both excited and those are awesome moments).
  • Bookstore prices are too high
Oh God, I don't think I can even touch this because this part of Manjoo's argument is so, so, so frustrating and so, so off-base. 

Bookstores don't price books. Publishers price books. We sell them at the list price because that's the only way we can make money. Amazon sells them at ridiculous discounts because they're so damn big that through some sort of financial/accounting system, they can do it and still make money. I don't know a lot about the economics of businesses, but my dad has managed and owned various retail stores for the past 30 years, and one thing that he's impressed on me is the importance of quantity. The quantity of sales is, in general, more important that the size of sales. Amazon can sell books at 45% off because they are selling thousands of copies of that book. Independent bookstores don't because our customer base isn't that huge and we can't afford to.

This is not to say that bookstores can't or don't discount items. But if Manjoo is going to make the argument that books cost too much, he shouldn't be unjustly shifting the blame on the retailers. To thoroughly discuss how books are priced, we need to start with the publishers. That is a way bigger issue than Manjoo understands, and I don't have the time to go into (my limited understanding of) that.
  • The bookstore is "inefficient" and doesn't benefit the community
Oh yeah, because supporting local authors, organizations, and other businesses is detrimental to a community. The sales, business, and payroll taxes paid to local, state, federal governments doesn't help a single bit. Better take your business to Amazon, where they can sell you a cheap book and where absolutely none of your money ever has a chance of making it back into your region or community to benefit schools, roads, law enforcement, parks, libraries, hospitals...do I really need to go on?

Now here's the thing...I can actually sort of almost go with what Manjoo is saying when he points out that by purchasing books at much lower prices, you can buy more books. And that's a good thing for you and authors and publishers. But Manjoo is seriously naive if he thinks that Amazon will keep their 45% discounts when all of the indies are closed and everyone in the country is forced to buy from them. It's just not realistic.
  • Bookstores don't have much to do with the community
Bookstores host authors events, sell a lot of books by local authors, host community events, have community boards, spread community news and opportunities. Oh yeah, and they pay taxes. WHICH BENEFITS THE COMMUNITY.
  • The bookstore is "cultish"
Damn, the secret's out. I belong to the cult of Great Lakes Book & Supply. Someone stage an intervention.

And finally...
  • We should thank Amazon for crushing that local indie
Oh yes. When I lose my job and am unable to buy books from Amazon (because that will be the only place left for me to buy books), then I will be sure to send them the loveliest of thank you notes written on the last sheet of stationary I own. It will be the last nice thank you letter I send because I won't be able to buy any more of that stationary, as the only store in town that sells it will have just gone out of business.  

Reading all that you have (because if you've made it this far, I really commend you), I can only imagine what you are thinking. You are squinting at the screen, confused. You think I hate Amazon.

I DO NOT hate Amazon. I actually really, really like Amazon, and if one day I woke up and they had vanished from the internet, I would be very sad.

It is true that I don't use Amazon for print book purchases very much anymore. The fact of the matter is, buying from my employer is not only job security for me, but it also tends to be cheaper because of my employee discount. But Amazon doesn't just sell books, and they are an extremely useful resource and very easy to use. (Want to know a secret? When a customer comes in and only has an author or partial title, Amazon's search box is the first place we go to. The page is always up on our computers. As a book search engine, it can't be beat.)

With Amazon, I buy a lot of TV shows, DVDs, music (easier to download to my Droid and they provide some really nice discounts and offers that iTunes doesn't), and Kindle e-books. 

My parents purchased a Kindle for me for Christmas last year, and I absolutely love it. The device is wonderful to use, I've run into very, very few problems with reading my galley and ARC content on it, it's easy to travel with, and who wouldn't love the great deals on e-books that Amazon offers? Because of my Kindle, I started branching out into other genres of literature. For a lot of books, I'd prefer to have a print copy, but there are many that I am glad to put on my Kindle.

I am also an Amazon affiliate. That means that with every link that takes you to Amazon from this website and results in you purchasing something, I get a teeny-tiny percentage of the sale. It's usually no more than a few cents. When I receive those payments at the end of every month, I put that money earned into a fund out of which I purchase the Monthly Commenter Contest books--new releases, usually hardcovers. Those books are purchased from the bookstore I work at, and are sent Media Mail to the winner. Whatever the difference is, I pay out of my own pocket.

I also have a Prime membership. Because I am a student, the cost to me was $40 for a year. Whatever I buy gets free two day shipping, which is nice because I loathe paying shipping and I hated always trying to reach a $25 minimum. But what really sold me on the Prime Membership was the free streaming of so many movies and TV shows. It's true that I could have probably found Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica free somewhere online, but this is legal and it's simple. I love that more and more videos are added monthly. 

So what does this all add up to? There's a place for Amazon, and there's a place for independent bookstores. I don't want to tell you where you should spend your money--that's not right, nor fair. But I don't want anyone to be swayed by Manjoo's faulty argument and circular logic.

The fact of the matter is, I know that 99.99% of my blog readers are probably not millionaires, and I know you all can't afford to spend money like water. You have to do what's right for your budget and your lifestyle. I totally and completely understand that. But just because you are on a tight budget DOESN'T mean that shopping indie isn't a possibility.

Here's what I recommend:
  • Buy paperbacks from your indie. Amazon hasn't applied their 45% discounts to mass market paperbacks or YA paperbacks.
  • Know your community deals and specials. My town has something called Band of Locals, and for a one-time $10 purchase of a blue rubber bracelet, I can get discounts at almost all locally-owned businesses. My bookstore gives a daily 20% off discount on books (which make those paperback purchases cheaper than Amazon prices).
  • Does your indie have customer loyalty programs? See if they do! Also, if you make friends with the clerk, they can oftentimes fill you in on special deals and coupons.
  • Browse often. The most wonderful thing about bookstores is there is always something unexpected to be found that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Plus, you might get an actual brain to help you pick out your next read.
  • Know what else your indie sells besides books. Shop there for cards, calendars, stationary, journals, bookplates, games, planners, gift wrap, and more!
There are always going to be readers and stories. How we get them may vary, especially with new technology. I will thank Amazon for the amazing and diverse services they offer, but they will NOT be shutting down my bookstore if I can help it.

Leave me a comment or shoot me an email if you have anything to add!


Rebecca Herman said...

I hate Amazon so much! The only bookstore here now that Borders closed is Barnes & Noble. Personally I buy from them because they still have physical bookstores. I feel like Amazon mainly cares about ebooks and would be happy for print books to just die.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your explanation about the high prices! I usually prefer buying my books from Amazon or Book Depository because it's cheaper. I'm not sure if the bookstores here price according to the publishers' list price... all I know is that they price it at a ridiculously high price. Shipping might possibly play a role in the price (I live in Southeast Asia).

I wish the book clerks here recommend books! Some of them don't even know the type of books they are selling so it's mostly pointless to ask them to recommend books.

Rebecca, I don't think Amazon care enough about eBooks. If they do, they should start making them available for residents of Asia & Pacific! They should also start making Kindles available to internationals if they really care about eBooks and eBook sales. As an international reader, I definitely don't think Amazon is making much of an effort to stop being so US-centric with their eBooks.

Mandy said...

Amazon and I have a love/hate relationship. I use Amazon for nearly everything sometimes. But I have a local book store called Chamblin's Book Mine, and it seriously is a mine. If it went away I'd be VERY sad because it is an awesome place! Used and new books!

But a lot of times I don't have time to go to the book store so I'd just order it off Amazon. They have awesome stuff, not only books. Also a lot of times nowadays, I go to Book Depository instead of Amazon. But when I want to look up a book or author, I always go to Amazon. Always.

The person who wrote that is very infuriating. Thank you so much for writing this post. =) I will definitely be sharing it.

Rachael Stein said...

all I really have to say is...Go Tirzah!! You rock :) Thanks for telling it like it is!

Melanie said...

The nearest bookstore to me is over an hour away and it's a chain, so I use Amazon to buy most of my books/DVDs, basuically most of my entertainment.

I know what you mean about amazon recs, though. They can be way off.

I buy so much stationary and random knick knacks at bookstores! The nearest store has nearly an aisle worth of random stuff. It's addicting!

Amy @ bookgoonie said...

Great rebuttle. Wish we had a bookstore anywhere close. Great recommend on balancing the two.

ryanandmindy said...

i've always been intimidated by independent book stores. but i haven't used amazon to purchase an actual book in years. i only go there for my e-books now because half the time i was paying more for shipping than the actual book. i don't even know if i have a local independent book store close by..but your arguments made perfect sense. i'll have to search one out.

The Compulsive Reader said...

Indies don't always look like what you expect a bookstore to look like when you step inside because they're able to display things the way they think is best, not how a corporate office thinks is best.

And I believe that if you visit indiebound.org, you can find an indie near you.

April (BooksandWine) said...

I use and balance both, like you. I go to amazon for ebooks. For print copies, I usually pick them up when I go to book signings -- several hours away.

Also, I like ordering books from Better World Books because a percentage of every order goes to charity.

Pam Pho said...


Hannah Lorraine said...

This is so wonderfully said! I work at an Indie so I relate to a lot of what you are saying and I feel your frustration! Of course we don't recommend the books that only we like - I often wind up recommending books I haven't even read - I can point the customer in the direction of these because I know what a good portion of the books are about and what is being said about them. And of course I have a frustration with this because if my local indie closed I'd be losing a place that has been a haven for me for about 10 years now. Thanks for writing this - it makes me happy to wake up and read something defending indies.

David Downie said...

Thank you for this (long and) thoughtful piece, which I have shared on Twitter. We will miss Indies when they're gone. To prevent them from disappearing we all need to give them our business, link to them, suggest that people buy our books (I'm an author) from them first and resort to on-line retailers only when local bookstores are no longer reachable. In Paris, we send people to The Village Voice. It's not just a store, it's a slice of life, a public service. David Downie (author of "Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light", http://www.davidddownie.com)

Cat @ Beyond Books said...

I didn't read all of that and think you hated Amazon, in case you were worried. :) I read that and thought you thought that guy's ideas were moronic. Heh.

Whereas I can see what he means in a few of his points (which I do not agree with, by the way) I can't possibly fathom why he thinks a BOOKSTORE wouldn't benefit a community or know about it. Does he think Amazon would? Amazon is a faceless, cyber black hole that doesn't have roots in any community! Good grief.

I used to work in book retail (and I miss it terribly) and I would much rather walk into a store and buy books than shop online. These days I do buy the bulk of my books online because the prices in *Canadian* stores are insane. I will impulse buy at a local bookstore, but in Montreal we don't have many indie stores with decent *English* selections.

In Canada we also can't partake of the awesome Amazon DVD/music deals. Our amazon isn't as awesome due to various laws and whatnot.

I think this was a great post, well said and well thought out. Thank you for writing about it!

Clare said...

I'm confused.... It's ok to buy music and films from amazon but not books?! Do we not care about the independent record stores?

The Compulsive Reader said...

Clare: I'm not saying we shouldn't support other local businesses over Amazon--we should. The reason I focused on the books and bookstores is that they were what Manjoo was attacking in the article, and they are what I know best.

Unknown said...

Wow, this was a very insightful read, and I thank you for opening up my eyes to the industry a bit more. I now sheepishly admit that I held some of the original author's beliefs, but your breakdown has changed my opinions.

I'm a student that usually just searches around for the cheapest price, and often that is Amazon (although as Cat says, they often aren't as great as in other places because of Canada's rules and regulations). But I really liked your list of recommendations, and the idea of balance. I'll now be checking out my local indie bookstore more often! Thanks for this excellent post.

Deepali said...

What a well articulated post!
I have my fav Indie store in Bangalore, but still use amazon for my ebooks.

How are you reading galleys and arcs on the kindle? I have to Use only adobe Digital editions to read NetGalley epubs and haven't figured out yet if I can transfer them to my kindle.

Dee from www.readseverything.blogspot.com

petite said...

Thanks for this thought provoking post. I enjoy going to Indies because of the selection and the atmosphere. I don't like sterile B & N. I do order from Amazon infrequently but sometimes there is no option.

Alexa S. said...

This is definitely a post that got me thinking, and I love that it was on the second day of the New Year! Despite enjoying the convenience of downloading books to my Kindle from Amazon, I think I always have a soft spot for indie and chain bookstores. There's something different about going to a bookstore and finding new books in the shelves or having a bookstore clerk recommend new titles :)

Anonymous said...

I love amazon and actually have a book pre-ordered on there (I have to wait till the book comes out to get it however) I also love going to amazon to look in a book and read a page and see if I should added it to my list or not when google reads isn't there/doesn't work

Where I am I have no book store close by the closet is barns and noble and I hate that store (in that area) because it's hard to find anything I would support indie book stores if there were any near me

I get my books from the library more often then anything

Anonymous said...

A good alternative to Amazon for those of you who would like to shop and sell at a non-corporate version of their marketplace is www.gemm.com . Read about how they got started and their relationship with Amazon's start-up funders here: http://gemm-ayudahelper.blogspot.com/2009/10/interview-with-gemm-ceo-roger-raffee.html

Esther Shaindel said...

Thank you for a very informative post! To be quite honest, I've been using Amazon (and ABE Books) mostly because it's easier to shop from my own home than actually going out to a physical store. Besides, I'm not at all familiar with indie bookstores in my area. But after reading your (intelligent) rant, I think I'm going to find indies nearby and start frequenting them. I can totally relate to the weird recommendations - I used Amazon to buy a physics textbook (bleh) and now it pops up with things I'd NEVER be interested in! Now I just HAVE to experience getting recommendations from a real live person.

Anonymous said...

I think you make very good points.
I don't actually use indies because the few that do exist in my country simply don't have the books i wanna read, and yeah, sometime they'll order it for you but the way the exchange rate is right now, it's a pretty pricey proposition.

So, I use Amazon.

I use it because they were the first to ship internationally - before Book Depository even existed - and they are of the few retailers that take int credit cards without making a big to-do about it.
And because you can't beat their costumer service, which is prompt and at least in my experience almost always awesome.

I know they can be big bullies, but as a costumer, Amazon has been great to me. and now I use BD too and I'm happy even if their shipping can take a while. It's all good, because bottom line I'm getting books, and that's always a plus.

I still would love to have a local indie I could trust, I just don't see it happening soon in my country.

The Compulsive Reader said...

And for you international readers who can only get your books at decent prices from Amazon, I don't blame you. I would feel the same way.

Anonymous said...

I like to think of Amazon as the fast food giant of books and indie bookstores as fine dining. While I love going into an indie bookstore to browse books painstakingly curated by a passionate bookseller, my wallet allows me to purchase far more from Amazon. I save up to purchase from an indie bookstore and hunt down rare titles.

Amazon's "recommendations" is a nice feature but it's a heartless robo-curator that merely calculates what it thinks you'll like. It's really hit or miss and you can't tell the robot that they've completely missed.

Amazon has forced the remaining indie bookstores in my area to become more service and community oriented. And this is a good thing! I think there is a place for independent bookstores but they'll have to fight hard to survive against Amazon.

On a side not, somebody make a "I'm Not From Amazon" book bag.

Miss Haley said...

the USA runs on local economy. Without small jobs at small places like bookstores, half of us would be unemployed.

Mary @ BookSwarm said...

Great point-by-point post. I adore Amazon, am part of their prime membership, and keep a constant wishlist. That being said, I wish we had our local indie around still. It went out of business a couple of years ago and it's sorely missed. Indies keep diversity in book selections. Amazon makes some of them very cheap. However, left to its own devices, I fear Amazon would winnow down the diversity of books--not so much on purpose but just because of what they are--and we'd be left with the same offerings as can be found in those airport newsstands.

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I too balance Amazon with Indies. I'm not international but I live in rural MS so the nearest Indie in any direction is 1 1/2 hours :( I still visit there whenever I'm going through town or there's a reading/signing I'm interested in, but it's not feasible for me to go there to browse...and that makes me sad.
I absolutely hate Christmas shopping so most of that is done via Amazon...I am a Prime member as well and boy oh boy does that free shipping help out with Christmas shopping :):)