Well, I’ve tried to ignore it but it won’t go away. I’ve tried thinking that sooner or later things would go too far, the monster would flounder and sink under the weight of its own inflated ego and its attempts to be the answer to all problems. Or everyone would just get disgusted with the constant barrage of its intrusion into every aspect of our daily lives. Donald Trump? No, he’s not going away either, but my topic here is Amazon (my fingers cramped even typing that!) and specifically its adventure into bricks and mortar bookselling.
I find it amusing that several years ago Jeff Bezos vowed that he would do away with the paper book; it was a technology past its time, and by now everyone would be reading on electronic devices. Apparently that hasn’t worked out to his plan; people have this stubborn attachment to the look, feel and even smell of these antiquated contraptions. They like to collect them. They like to share them with their friends. They like to decorate with them. Not only that, they like to buy them in actual shops from booksellers who listen to them, guide them, and love books as much as they do. Thus paper books are still here, and bookshops are beginning to thrive again.
A (can I just call it that? I’m having a hard enough time thinking about them!), being A, cannot let any area of commerce exist without trying to dominate it. Even if it meant conceding that paper books are not going to be shelved (pardon the pun) anytime soon, they saw that there was a growing trend toward physical bookstores, so they had to open one too. Last November, their first shop opened in Seattle, and it appears that there will shortly be another in San Diego. Although the rumor that they were planning ultimately to have 400 or more physical bookshops turned out to be hype by an owner of multiple malls with vacancies, it does appear that there are plans to expand the franchise.
As I did some searching to find out how this first bookshop from the behemoth that has worked so hard to put me and my kind out of business was being received, I turned to another mystery bookshop owner’s blog. JB Dickey, of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, has over the years been much more outspoken (and much more articulate) than I about his near neighbor. In searching the archives of his blog, I was momentarily confused. No category for A? Ah, I should have known. It’s under “SPECTRE.”
SPECTRE could not be a more apt name. It is in every aspect of commerce that I can think of. Books, of course, where they started. Food. Clothing. Housewares. Television. Electronics. Cloud computing. Smart phones. Furniture. Jewelry. Toys. Publishing. If they don’t sell it, they control other on-line retailers who do. Last month, Bloomberg News reported on A’s project “Dragon Boat,” a fulfillment service that would control delivery of goods from factories in China and India to doorsteps in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere. So UPS, FedEx, and even China’s Alibaba will have a new competitor. Why would I ever think that they would leave book retailing in shops out of the empire?
This all may sound like the rant of a frustrated small retailer trying to survive in a new economy. And some of it is. I see the view of the other side. What’s wrong with economies of scale leading to lower prices? Why should a busy person trek all over hell’s half acre when she can sit home with a cup of tea, or something stronger, and shop for all her needs? Why shouldn’t a less well known author whose books might never make it onto the radar of the buyer at a little independent shop have a chance to be reviewed to death and sell books to the whole country? And honestly, I am getting older and am not going to be selling books here forever. As far as I know, A, or SPECTRE, has no plans to put a competing store in Flemington, New Jersey, or anywhere close by. My customer base is growing as people tire of the on-line “recommendations” based on some programmer’s analysis of people’s preferences. But I still harbor some fears.
Reading some of the commentary on A’s first foray into bricks and mortar bookselling initially gave me some hope that they might actually fail for once. (Well, not for the first time; there was the Fire Phone). Books are stocked based on the same algorithms that are used in the on-line store. SPECTRE knows what you should read. All the books on display have 4 or 5 star ratings online. No obscure title recommended by the bookseller which turns out to be the best book you read all year. The personal touch is still lacking. There are actually fewer titles than one would find in a typical independent bookshop. Books are all displayed face out, ten or more deep. No crawling down to the lower shelves to find those hidden treasures all book lovers dream of. (I might mention here that, had I the space, I would display all my books face out. But that one copy of what I may actually consider a mistake I made in ordering is spine out, on a lower shelf. A prize to be unearthed by some lucky browser.) You would be amazed at how many people spend time going through all the shelves where the spines are the only part of the book in view. Rather than handwritten shelf talkers from the bookseller’s own knowledge, Amazon and Good Reads reviews are printed for each title. I could write another post solely on what I think of the value of these online ratings and reviews. Authors have asked for reviews saying just do one, doesn’t matter what it says, it’s the numbers that count. Many reviews are by people who openly state that they haven’t read the book! If someone tells me a book has 5 stars on A, my response is “So?” (For the record, I never review on A, and gave up Good Reads when they became part of the Empire of A. I also do not sell books published by A.)
All of that sounds very encouraging for us independent booksellers. Most of it came from articles or posts written by booksellers. I think they are whistling past the graveyard. A is not known for perpetuating its mistakes. They can always hire all the unemployed booksellers at slave wages to give their monopoly the aura of the personal touch, and rearrange their shelves to look more “homey.” If I sound bitter, it’s because I fear that A will do everything in its power to be sure it is the sole source of books.
One interesting aspect of the A book store is that there are no prices on the books. The customer can find out the price either by using an APP on his phone, or by scanning the bar code at a kiosk. More data to feed the algorithms. Not only do they know what you buy, but what you thought about buying. Certainly A is not the only company gathering data from every move we make; all I have to do is look at the ads tailored to me on Facebook, or Google, or any other online service I use to see that my every action is recorded. When I do a Google search, I don’t get a complete picture of the topic, I get what the algorithm thinks might interest me. But I am a perverse human being, and my purpose in searching may not be what they think it is. Will a monopoly bookseller offer only what a computer algorithm thinks is what you want? Will those serendipitous finds disappear forever? Or, worst of all, will books that aren’t “good” for us, which cause us to think independently or even rebelliously, be hidden from view?