Bargain, banned and burned books, or watching the smoke, ignoring the Fire

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So. This is interesting news for the book world: Amazon opened a bricks-and-mortar store this week.

Yep. The online monolith that sells everything from books to bikes, bath mats to baby wipes, and bytes and bytes of music, movies, e-books, and original TV programming, all online, has decided to open a good, ol’ fashioned bookstore.

As a bookseller at an independent bookstore, I’m not happy. Not because big, bad Amazon, the behemoth with the bookstore body count, is entering our turf.

I’m not happy because the coverage of this story is missing the point. Amazon’s foray isn’t ironic, nor is it a retail curio.

It’s the logical extension of every single thing Amazon does: to strategically insinuate itself into all aspects of consumers’ lives to take a larger share of those consumers’ dollars.

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True confession time: this is the post I never wanted to write. I never intended to.

It’s nearly impossible for an independent bookseller to talk about Amazon without sounding like the buggy salesman shaking his fist at Henry Ford.

I’m no Luddite. I’m pro progress. Personally, I’m agnostic on the subject of e-readers, in general. I don’t use one, simply because paper books are more conducive to my lifestyle. I don’t like the planning and care that goes along with maintaining an e-reader. If an e-reader fits your preferences or lifestyle better, then go on and e-read.

At a macro level, I’m pro e-readers. There are parts of the world where it’s impossible, for political, economic or logistical reasons, to get bound books into the hands of people. Technology is wondrous and smartphones, tablets and e-readers open up the possibility to give countless people access to the universe of the written word. This is a good thing.

I’m no book fetishist. Paper and glue and cardboard and twine are physical components of books, but they aren’t the book.   The words and ideas are what make the book. That’s what I care about. They are delivered to me on paper. You get yours delivered how you want them.

I don’t work in a bookstore because I love retail. I am a bookseller because I love books.

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What bugs me about this story is how this new venture is being covered: it’s not about the bricks-and-mortar; it’s about the books inside the store.

What Amazon is touting as its competitive difference as a bricks-and-mortar retailer is its very Amazoness:

“We’ve applied 20 years of online book-selling experience to build a store that integrates the benefits of offline and online book shopping,” Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, said in a statement Monday. “The books in our store are selected based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments.”

While subsequent reports clarify that the store will “consult flesh and blood book experts to curate the selection”, this merely seems to serve the purpose of assuring customers the store won’t be staffed with robotic automatons. It’s unclear, however, if the humans working in the store are the “experts” who “curate” the selection or if they’re flesh-and-blood Amazon automatons directed by some algorithm-based management system.

I don’t dislike Amazon because they’re a competitor. I dislike (and personally boycott) Amazon because they don’t give a flip about books. This isn’t the hermetic rant of an anti-capitalist. It’s fact.

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Amazon Majordomo Jeff Bezos has made no secret of this. He picked books as the first product offering for Amazon because they were easy to ship, impossible to break and, most importantly, he wanted to gather data on the educated and affluent consumers who were the typical book buyers.

Amazon’s commodification of books was starkly illustrated in it battles with the publishing industry. After years of demanding greater and greater price concessions from publishers, Hachette pushed back. Amazon responded by removing books from Hachette authors from its site. If an Amazon user searched for a title published by Hachette, Amazon would take them to the page for some other, “similar” book. While genre and subject matter filters were likely included in the algorithm to suggest “similar” books, I’m not certain that size, weight, cover color and page count weren’t also included.

For Amazon, one book is as good as another. They are a commodity. That’s why I can’t (and won’t) give Amazon a dime of my money (and their well-documented mistreatment of employees only fortifies my resolve). This is principle, not self-preservation.

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When we think of banning books, we think of priggish school marms clutching their pearls and wailing about “the children” or humorless, grim-faced Soviet-style bureaucrats.

In our current times (East Tennessee mothers concerned about teenage boys reading acclaimed history books where a science writer writes clinically about lady parts notwithstanding), the elimination of voices takes a much more subtle form.

Make no mistake, in seeing books as just a commodity like anything else they sell, Amazon’s reach and market penetration enable them to de facto ban books for people who can’t access a local bookstore. As they did with Hachette, they can decide at any moment just to not offer whatever books they don’t want to…or those they don’t make an acceptable (to them) margin off of.

Because, at the end of the day, all Amazon cares about is your money. If they made more money off burning books and delivering the ashes to your door, they would. If they made money off of it, they would deliver buckets of Ebola to you.

In a time when Amazon is focused on ramping up their original TV programming for customers to stream on the same device they use to buy Amazon products, including e-books, a brick-and-mortar store seems an unusual play for them. You’d think they’d prefer for e-books to completely subsume the paper book market.

Their e-reader is, after all, called the “Kindle Fire”.

But, today, Amazon seems to be betting on what we independent bookstores already know: that nothing can replace a neighborhood bookstore staffed with passionate, knowledgeable, gloriously idiosyncratic booksellers.

Amazon’s betting that they have just the formula to replicate that.

I’m betting it’s “similar.”

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