amazonThe real reason that independent bookstore owners and fans are throwing so much shadow at the Amazon Bookstore in Seattle becomes clear, thanks to this article from the Guardian: they’re scared.

The Guardian piece interviews owners and staff at bookshops both near and a few miles away from the Amazon bookstore, and said interviewees are nearly all Viewing With Alarm. For example, the manager of a bookstore less than a mile away has noticed “different spending patterns.”

The article takes the time to wonder why a bookstore would open that only carries 5,000 titles—a mere trifle beside the selections available in independent bookstores or even the local Barnes & Noble. It spends two paragraphs listing all the books you can’t buy there—putting me in mind of those comedy songs about all the things someone hasn’t done, like VeggieTales’s “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything,” or “Never Did No Wanderin’” from A Mighty Wind.

But then we get to the crux of the issue.

[University Book Store manager Pam] Cady calls it “a bookstore for people who don’t care about being in a real bookstore”, adding: “All they sell is the low-hanging fruit.”

And that’s what’s scaring her. Because making money from “low-hanging fruit” – the Hilderbrand beach reads, the latest Pulitzer prize winner, all those adult coloring books – is what enables University Book Store to carry the kind of extensive back stock that makes a neighborhood bookstore a community resource as well as retailer.

It’s funny that people complain about “low-hanging fruit” as if it were a bad thing. After all, if you’re hungry, and the fruit’s right there, what’s wrong with grabbing that fruit? It’s the easiest fruit to get. But the fact that it’s so easy is also the biggest problem for the bookstores—those best-selling books are the books that allow bookstores to stay in business, so that they can carry all the books people don’t want as much. If a store that carries just those popular titles opens next to them, selling  them at Amazon’s low prices, what are they going to do?

Meanwhile, the Amazon spokesperson’s response is telling—“There are limitations to every physical space,” but customers can easily order any book they want from Amazon’s catalog from their smartphones. And Amazon had nothing to say about whether they were planning to open any other branch stores. Not much consolation for the bookstores who worry about Amazon putting them out of business.

The funny thing is that, before Amazon even opened its store, publishing-industry pundit Mike Shatzkin was suggesting that bookstores themselves might want to consider going small, to let them better-compete with Amazon. Carry just the most popular titles and cut the deadwood, because you could turn a tidier profit by having the titles people most want right there for them without having to carry the cost of carrying all the ones they don’t want as often. Ironically, it’s Amazon itself who has adopted this strategy for its first bookstore.

Nate Hoffelder also makes a good point that every grocery store and Wal-Mart that sells books also sells just the bestsellers, and nobody seems to be worried about them. But then, they don’t exactly do much to call attention to themselves, while the Amazon bookstore is shiny and new. It’s unclear how much of a threat they really are. But in the unlikely chance Amazon Books and other small shops like it start to proliferate, maybe those bigger bookstores should consider something similar.

It might be nice that these independent bookstores can have all these books available for their community, but a bookstore can’t be run as a charity community service. It has to make money to stay in business. If that means trimming the selection down, maybe that’s what is needed. It might be a pity to lose the wider selection, but if the stores go out of business entirely they’ll lose all their selections. Perhaps a wider selection of titles is not as necessary in the modern era when esoteric titles can readily be obtained via the Internet.

That said, it’s unclear that those bookstores who aren’t within a mile of Amazon’s new shop have anything to worry about just yet. But if Amazon decides it wants to do more than just gather data on consumer browsing habits with one single storefront, it’s possible things might change.


  1. Chris, you probably haven’t lived in Seattle. I have. For those who like serious books, University Bookstore is a treasure. It’s filled with books on almost every interesting topic you can imagine. They regularly have sales of remaindered books at great prices too.

    In fact, it’s so good that when I lived in the U-district on the west side of the University of Washington, my budget was under severe strain from all the books I bought there. It was and is a book reader’s heaven. In many ways, it was better than the B&N megastore that used to be in the University Village shopping center where Amazon’s micro-store is now located.

    Oscar WIlde was discussing cynics when he penned his brilliant words about price versus value, but they apply so well they can rewritten this way:

    An Amazon fan is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

    Listen to the chattering of Amazon fanboys and almost every other sentence is about price. It’s not just that they focus on price rather than value, it’s that they failed to see the horrible dynamics of a market where price dominates all decision making.

    The bestsellers are where most bookstores make their money. They’ve already been hurt by Walmart, Costco and the like buying those bestsellers in huge quantities and selling them below cost to attract shoppers. They’ll be hurt still more if Amazon does, as I suspect they intend to do, put their microstores in highly trafficked locations. That’s what is meant by cream-skimming. They go for the money and ignore all else.

    The result we be something Teleread claims to be against, a few mega-authors with the name recognition and marketing muscle to get their books into Walmart, Costco, and Amazon’s store. All the other authors will labor in obscurity, unable to get the visibility a University Bookstore provides.


    I’m not sure my remarks will even have any impact. Someone who thinks its merely a “pity” to see bookstores forced to radically reduce stock doesn’t even seem to get what books mean much less the value of bookstores and libraries.. Discovery is a key part of a healthy environment for books. Strip the shelves of all but fast-moving titles and reduce bookstores to mere mini-marts and you’ve made much discovery impossible. Bookstores will be rows and rows of James Patterson-francise books.

    And it’s the geek-fallicy to think that the more technology is involved, the better, that online shopping can better than visiting a bookstore simply because it is more efficient and cost-effective.

    I’m reminded of something that the ultimate geek—Bill Gates—did when he was still single. He and some woman far across the country would both watch the same movie in their respective cities and talk about it on their cell phones afterward. There’s about as much romance in that as there is shopping for books on Amazon.

  2. What Michael Perry is saying above is that he approves of a world in which people who buy popular books subsidise his access to unpopular ones. Others may or may not be happy with this arrangement, but surely it’s reasonable for consumers to be given a choice about this, and not have it forced upon them by executive fiat? Particularly since, I suspect, the people who buy popular books generally have lower incomes than those who buy unpopular ones.