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
- 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.
- 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!