There are some things we just love to hate. A cursory examination of anecdotal evidence reveals filing taxes and text messages written exclusively in emoji are both pretty widely disliked. Another favorite punching bag of the masses, for reasons old and new, is Amazon.
Revelations about the E-commerce behemoth’s treatment of workers, shady environmental track record, and aggressive expansion tactics have rightfully given it a bad rep. Another aspect of its business Amazon gets raked over the coals for is online bookselling. If you already hated Amazon for corrupting the conventions of publishing and selling books, the kicker was yet to come, as we found out this week.
It wasn’t entirely unexpected, but when Amazon announced the launch of its first physical bookstore in Seattle, it was a rather unsavory development for many. The idea that the very corporation that had allegedly led to the mass extinction of mom and pop bookstores everywhere making an entry into the market was just too hard to stomach. Some likened it to Apple opening a record store, or AirBnB starting a hotel chain, or Ford selling horse-drawn carriages (maybe that last comparison was just me).
Since old wounds have been reopened and given the salt treatment, it’s worth assessing if Amazon did after all set off the decline of independent bookstores. And if it did, whether the means it used were fair or not.
Common Foes and Unlikely Friends
Amazon’s effect on independent bookstores is widely debated, but there’s an important third piece in the play – bookstore chains.
Large, corporately owned bookstores were the first real threat to independent sellers since both initially pursued offline methods. The two biggest players: Barnes & Noble and Borders, managed to corner a large part of the market thanks to their large inventories and wider reach. When Barnes & Noble and Borders were going gung-ho in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, independent bookstores took a significant hit. Borders had a total of 256 stores by 1999, a huge increase after having just 21 locations in 1999. Unable to keep up with competition, about 1000 independent booksellers shut shop between 2000 and 2007. After seeing immense growth in the ‘90s, Borders went belly up in 2011. Barnes & Noble also went through a tumultuous couple of years — as much a result of the onset of recession as competition from Amazon — but managed to scrape through.
Coincident with chains being crushed under the weight of competition from Amazon, independent bookstores began a resurgence. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of independently owned bookstores increased from 1,651 to 2,094. So contrary to popular narrative, Amazon in fact contributed to smaller outfits making a comeback, just as it seemed they would be swallowed up by bookstore chains.
A lot of the criticism Amazon gets in the book industry is regarding its disruption of established practices, which is a rather myopic way to view what it does. Nobody writes eulogies for scrolls or woodblock printing anymore because we’ve found better ways to produce and disseminate information, which is what books are meant to do. The nub of the matter is if Amazon is good for books and access to books, and the answer is unequivocally in the affirmative.
Amazon has made acquiring and reading books vastly easier — its prices on e-books and physical copies are generally unmatched. Publishers hate the aggressive discounts Amazon offers because it undercuts their prices. But that’s just how the economy works — competition drives prices down, and it’s up to each player to strike a balance between attracting customers with subsidized prices and making profits.
The only real problem that arises is if Amazon becomes a monopoly. But as things stand, that is highly unlikely. Given the nature of its business, it always needs to be weary of what other substantial entities like Google and Apple are up to, both of whom have a presence in the e-book industry. As long as such competition exists, it will not be possible for Amazon to create a monopoly. With chains duking it out with Amazon, smaller sellers have the opportunity to stand out by doing what they’ve always done best – curation based on an intimate knowledge of customers, and offering the instant gratification of owning a physical copy of the moment customers spot it. As long as they offer that, there will always be a market for the small and idyllic independent bookstore.