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Entries in Bookstores (4)


Black holes, dark matter, Amazon, and other mysteries of the universe

Ardent Amazon critic, Sherman Alexie, has books on display. Ironic photo by the Seattle Times.It's weird. It's mysterious. And it’s official. Amazon has opened an actual, honest-to-betsy, retail location in Seattle—a physical bookstore—the very thing that was anathema to all things Amazon for the last decade.

And no one knows quite what to make of it. 

When looking at photos of the new bookstore my first thought was of the Final Fantasy movies. The producers used the latest, greatest, state-of-the-artiest technology to create what was then deemed to be the most “life-like” animation ever. But the characters on screen, while beautiful and gorgeously rendered, lacked a certain spark. Their souls were missing. One reviewer called them “cadaverous.”

That’s how Amazon’s bookstore feels to me. It appears to be a data driven replicant of a bookstore experience. A facsimile—like Frankenstein’s monster. On the one hand, the sheer audacity and genius is amazing to behold. But on the other hand, you’re left wondering when this creation will break loose and start eating villagers.

And yes, I am colored by my personal experiences with Amazon.

That is to say, I sell a ton of books via the giant online retailer. (So...yay!)

But I also once created a tiny promotion aimed at supporting Indie Bookstores and was told that by doing so I had jeopardized my chances of being one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month. (So...boo!)

And a year later I was curious about all things Amazon, so I flew to Seattle to meet with their head of publishing, who was quite wonderful and told me how much she loved working there. And then she quit a month later.  (So...huh?)

I guess that's a fancy way of saying that I have more questions than answers. Like you, I'm left wondering...why a bookstore?

  • Is it to test drive/sell more Kindles?
  • Is it like sending in the infantry to mop up the retail battlefield that’s been crushed by Amazon's online cavalry charge? 
  • Is it just a PR stunt to further augment stock price?
  • Of has Amazon renewed its vows and actually fallen in love with printed books?

Who knows? I certainly don’t. And maybe Amazon doesn't even know. But either way, I’ll be making popcorn and watching curiously from the sidelines.

What’s your theory, wiseguy?


Why bookstores matter. A biased report

There’s been an ongoing showdown between Hachette Books (the 5th largest US book publisher) and Amazon (who controls 50-70% of the ebook market). What they’re fighting about is up for speculation.

But what’s not up for debate is that Amazon has removed the buy buttons from the books of Hachette authors, like JK Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith) and Michael Connelly, just to name a few. (The Everything Store did this once before, in 2010, during a spat with Macmillan Books).

The knee-jerk reaction from mainstream authors is that Amazon is the one doing the bullying. While those indie-authors who publish with Amazon are naturally claiming that Hachette is the real thug in this first world, corporate knife-fight.

Regardless of which side you’re on, or just an innocent, curious bystander, it’s important to note that Amazon has a valuation of an estimated $58 billion, so this isn’t exactly a donnybrook of two goliaths. This is like an NBA journeyman doing battle with the richest owner in the league. Sure, they’re both wealthy, but one could literally buy out the other 500x over.

Those who know me can guess where I stand on this whole thing. Despite selling a ton of books on Amazon, I do see them as the bigger bully on the playground. But that’s not what bothers me. What worries me is that they’re in a position to deforest the literary landscape. Yes, Borders and Barnes & Noble wreaked havoc on indie bookstores, but at least they replaced them with other bookstores.

The vibe from Amazon, like many corporations beholden to the expectations of shareholders, is that for them to succeed, everyone else must fail. And I don’t think that’s true—furthermore, I don’t think that’s even wise.

Here’s why:

Amazon will always need a showroom. They can do all the database marketing they want but their major attempts to sell their own traditional books have been dismal failures because their books weren’t showcased in physical bookstores. Your average Kindle user might think, who cares, physical bookstores are dinosaurs. They’re not. Bookstores are cultural showrooms and Amazon should find a way to compliment that business model rather than trying to eradicate it.

I’m Batmaaaan. Hear me out on this one (with or without a Batman voice). Comics used to be available at newsstands, grocery stores, 7-11s, basically everywhere. Now they’re primarily available at specialty stores. But when comics were everywhere, Batman’s circulation averaged 900,000 copies each month. Now, even with recent movies, the Caped Crusader is lucky to hit one tenth of that. Physical presence = top of mind awareness = sales.

Boxing used to be the greatest. If you’re old enough to remember watching ABC's Wild World of Sports (for free) then you remember them showcasing Muhammad Ali and boxing as a sport with national interest. Now it’s a niche sport. Not because of Don King’s hair or corruption, but because the pay-per-view model made a ton of money in the short term and shrunk the fan-base in the long-term. Boxing fans gladly paid to watch Mike Tyson, but a generation of potential fans was lost because they were never exposed to the sport.

Still not convinced about the showroom effect? Let’s talk about Apple, which had a superior computer product, a dedicated cultish following, and were widely available on the Internet, but their products didn’t soar into the cultural mainstream until 2010. What happened around that time? Apple Stores.

Bookstores matter because they are a vital part of the publishing ecosystem. Amazon needs them. I just hope they don't grow up and learn that lesson the hard way.


Mrs. Beatty says, “harrumph”

I love bookstores. I love them. So to support fine bookstores everywhere, I’m giving away an exclusive short story to anyone who boldly ventures into their local bookery and pre-orders Songs of Willow Frost (or pre-orders online from an honest-to-goodness brick-and-mortar bookstore).

Just text me a pic of your receipt or order confirmation, or heck—just send me a photo of you smiling with your friendly neighborhood bookseller and I will be delighted to email you a copy of Middle, Lost, and Found, a 7,000-word tale featuring Mrs. Beatty from Hotel on the Corner of You Know What. (And if you include a mailing address I’ll also send along a signed bookplate).

You can text images and contact information to (951) 750-9419 or email your information to me at bookstoresmatter@gmail.com. Name, address, the usual…

Books are a physical record of the human condition. And people who maintain these records deserve our support. Though I’m somewhat biased because I met my lovely wife at the public library and later dropped to one knee and proposed in a bookstore. (You can’t do that on a CENSORED). 


A sad day

Borders is closing. The big liquidation begins today. If you're heading to your local Borders, bring something nice—a plate of brownies, a bottle of something, up to you. Just be kind. You're getting a bargain, but sadly, someone else is losing a job.