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Entries in publishing (1)

Tuesday
May272014

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.