(Originally published June 4, 2017 via Medium)
When news broke a couple years ago that Amazon planned to open a brick-and-mortar bookstore, it was met with bemused curiosity from the bookselling world. There was a general attitude of, “Good, they’ll see how hard it is,” mixed with a perplexed wonder at why they would sacrifice their one overwhelming advantage in the book trade (low overheads due to zero rent, shelf space, and until recently, sales tax). But amusement and confusion both belied an undercurrent of anxiety. Amazon had taken out Borders, it has put Barnes & Noble on its last legs. More than a few in the industry saw this step as taking aim at independents. There are now nine Amazon Bookstores currently in operation or with concrete plans to open (correction: there are now fifteen bookstores in operation or in planning). I believe it’s prudent to take Amazon at its word, and trust that the figure originally leaked is more or less accurate. Within a short span of time, we may very well see several hundred Amazon Bookstores across our country. What does this mean for the fate of independent bookstores, whose numbers have been enjoying a stable resurgence in the last half-decade? Are those figures fool’s gold? Are the number of young people starting or purchasing stores misleading? Will we see those numbers dip and a corresponding number of store closures resume when Amazon builds up its arsenal? My answer is no. Amazon is here to stay, and that’s not a point I’m interested in arguing. But booksellers were here to stay first.
Here’s the difference between the new and proliferating Amazon Bookstores and every other brick-and-mortar bookstore that has ever existed to this point: booksellers. I don’t mean this as hyperbole, as in “independent booksellers are better than the people who work at Amazon Bookstores,” I mean this literally. Amazon does not believe in, value, or finance the hiring, training, and development of booksellers. This is not a judgment. I don’t foresee Amazon’s model as one that has the power to supplant the value that booksellers bring to their communities and to the larger literary ecosystem, but I also think it’s naïve to discredit a model that has to this point progressed without hindrance to a position of unprecedented and unparalleled dominance in the industry.
I was visiting family in the Seattle area over the holidays and made it a point to visit “the ingrown toenail of the beast.” My first impression was that it was a tidy, corporate-feeling book space, like a small Barnes & Noble or a larger Hudson News-type convenience store. I noticed the obvious differences: books were displayed face out only. Each book had a shelf talker featuring their online rating and some customer reviews rather than bookseller recommendations. Many books were unfamiliar to me, as this store stocked self-published books created through Amazon’s CreateSpace and other publishing assistance companies, which rarely find shelf space in independent bookstores. So long as their online ratings are inflated to the point of relevance, they have a home in Amazon Books. But then I began noticing, as I meandered the tall, tightly spaced shelves, that I hadn’t interacted with another person yet. It was a holiday weekend and the store had plenty of people in it, but no staffer had greeted me on the way in, nobody had offered to help me find what I was looking for. After a couple seconds of observation, the reason for this became clear. Some of the staff stood behind the registers, but the floor sales team remained in a tidy vicinity in the center of the store. This space was, predictably, stocked with “Kindle,” the Amazon Prime video system “Fire TV Stick,” the Bluetooth speaker system/artificial intelligence/personal information-snatching “Echo.” Every customer within this perimeter of electronics had a salesperson on their hip. Just as their online model used books as a way to enter into markets with better margins, their bookstores seemed to leverage books as enticing loss-leaders that could provide an initial spark of consumerism, which Amazon’s “booksellers” could then use to sell something more lucrative. No surprise there.
As far as the books themselves went, Amazon’s bookselling model in its bookstores appeared to mimic the user experience shoppers will find on its website: display the titles face out, provide some metrics (user ratings and blurbs from online reviews), and let the customers locate the title they went there to buy and possibly stumble onto a new discovery while they’re there. There are a couple of fascinating innovations here: 1) prioritizing the expertise of customer groupthink over the expertise and passion of a bookseller, and 2) glorifying the influence of the algorithmic recommendation system that drives that customer groupthink. The store only displays titles if they’re among the highest rated online, which means that for now, booksellers on the floor have no control over the inventory they sell. They’re not catering to the specific needs or tastes of their specific community, they’re just a physical reflection of the tastes of the overall online Amazon consumer pool. But that pool’s tastes are neither generated nor quantified by mere artistic or consumer-driven impulses. They are actively steered towards titles based on a set of algorithms designed to heighten (or in some cases hamper) interest in other specific titles.
As it has been well noted, most recently in its terms dispute with Hachette, Amazon is capable of disrupting the visibility and sales of specific titles in order to better its place in the market. By signaling a title that is out of stock, or by altering the prices on a title, or by removing listings altogether without warning, the company can drive customers to different titles. When these titles are purchased instead of other titles, this impacts the recommendation algorithms that allow titles to appear in the “customers also bought” listings that show up whenever someone purchases an item, or adds an item to their cart, or explores more details about an item… Another way Amazon can influence sales of specific titles over others is by pricing its proprietary titles (they currently operate fourteen publishing imprints) and/or encouraging independent publishers (self-published authors) to price their e-books at $.99 or $3.99, or any other figure well below the industry standard (and well below cost). This practice, it is touted, will increase sales, which will increase presence on recommendations, which will increase sales, which will increase presence on recommendations, ad nauseam. So while outward facing appearances indicate that Amazon is, as its mantra suggests, prioritizing and reflecting the tastes of the customer rather than the bookseller, the true “buyers” in Amazon Books are substantially influenced by their market-capture obsessed algorithms.
To what end? It seems in my industry, and in every marketplace, people are wary of Amazon’s motives, as though they have a hidden agenda or strategy. I am not one of these individuals. I take Amazon at face value, because their face value has been blunt and consistent from day one. Their only end is to pursue market share as a way of securing capital, period. They are a purely capitalistic enterprise — one to which we have never seen a parallel. They pose many dangers, to be sure, chief among which is that our entire economy is not prepared to deal with a pan-market monopoly. We do not, as a country or an economic system, have procedures in place to depose or delimit a company that is so thoroughly entrenched in every aspect of the consumer economy, as well as the political, civic, and commercial infrastructures, as well as our news media, entertainment industry, and private investment communities. Amazon is by far the most successful capitalist company that our country has ever seen. Some might say it is the first truly successful capitalist company, in that it has succeeded in establishing the dependence of an entire economy.
So what role do bookstores play in this ploy for global economic dependence? Several, to be sure. Any influence that a company with such lofty ambitions can wield as to the quality, quantity, and content of books being published should be resisted in the spirit of free speech. Their forays into the publishing world and their influence over that economy alone has been raising glaring red flags for years now. Opening bookstores is a small extension of those ambitions. Bookstores are the entry into physical retail for Amazon, duplicating its entrance into the online market.
The most likely and direct consequences of Amazon branded bookstores will be the final erasure of major chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble, who simply do not have the capital necessary to compete with Amazon’s price gouging via Prime memberships. Prime is, as you likely know, a membership program for which website customers receive free and/or faster shipping, access to streaming digital entertainment, and lower prices on select items, such as bestselling books. Customers in the physical bookstores can sign up for Prime and receive an instant discount on nearly every book in stock.
Prime is first and foremost a customer retention tool. Paying for membership leads customers to shop at the website first, rather than comparing prices through Google or other online retailers. Brand loyalty is the game, and Prime is the name. Customers know they are getting the best prices available anywhere from among the widest selection, because that is Amazon’s entire identity. They might not realize that the items revealed to them are not representative of total availability or price points, but instead are selected by algorithms based on their average annual income or their postal route’s median home value or how much they spent on their last purchase or the time of day or how close it is to their birthday (fluctuating prices are only the most recent eyebrow raising tactic of Amazon’s capitalist bots).
Amazon is obsessed with customer experience, to the point that it has devoted its bookstores’ shelf space to the titles that its customers have purchased, which are influenced by recommendation algorithms built on customer shopping habits and ratings. It has cut the bookseller out of bookselling. And it’s working, clearly — low prices, unparalleled selection, and an easy, impulse-friendly shopping experience is a good way to build a brand, and now that the brand is ubiquitous, Amazon could open a chain of spatula outlets and probably see success. They chose books in the first place, and they’re choosing books now, and the motivation is consistent. Books define people in ways that no other products can. Books are personal. Books are human. They are not written by committee, and reading — real reading, real understanding and a true, deep connection with a text — occurs only on an individual basis.
I can easily see a world in which Amazon bookstores capture the market for corporate branded bookstores. This is America, birthplace of Starbucks and McDonalds and Holiday Inn. Monotony is nothing new in the American marketplace. But Starbucks hasn’t closed the door to independent roasters or coffee shops. McDonalds is not the only restaurant, and Holiday Inn doesn’t yet list their rooms on Airbnb. And while Amazon’s model will certainly continue to appeal to a subset of readers and bookstore customers, the market for independent bookstores is growing, thanks in no small part to distaste for the canned culture of algorithmically derived recommendations. Some customers will always prefer to buy their goods from people they know and recognize, people in their community, people whose passion they support. Passion for books, that is, not for market share.
I’m the first to admit that I wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to independent bookstores. But if I’m going to take them off, it’ll be because a human being that I know and trust convinces me to, not because my e-commerce shopping cart recommends it.