Monday, July 29, 2013

This blog begins to breathe again. Or, swimming against the big, bad, river.

Blogs are like gardens. They need care and attention or they can go feral and get out of control. Or die. So I welcome you back here with some big happenings from the book business over the weekend.

Shelf Awareness is the one thing that almost everyone in the book biz peeks at, if not daily, at least with some regularity. Yet I was surprised when I saw an e-mail from them in our inbox on Saturday morning. Here it was. Since then there has been much heated response and debate about what it means.

And it's funny because one of the main reasons I took a break from the blog is that there was this one post I wanted to get done and get it done right. Not with irony or being glib. Well-reasoned and even-handed with the right amounts of anger, resolve and uncertainty. I couldn't pull that together in a way that made sense to me. So I took a break altogether mostly out of frustration with myself. I had promised myself(and a couple regular readers) that I would get back at it in August. And I do have a yellow legal pad with a dozen or so ideas scribbled down and none of them had anything at all to do with Amazon. Yet here we are again. Here is another summary from Melville House.

If I were to take issue with anything that has been said it would be that this is 'an open declaration of war against the industry' part. Because, to me, that declaration was made a very long time ago. To my mind this is a very specific battle within that war. It might be to go after in part. Mainly, this is Amazon attempting to land the last blows against B&N. Amazon is going big-game hunting and to rid themselves of Borders and B&N in a relatively short period of time would be a major victory for them. Everyone else? Well, I feel the same now as I did then only knowing that this would be much worse for everyone besides Amazon(of course). Because this is about totally securing the sales of the blockbusters to the price-chasers and'ers and smart-phone zappers. It is about getting loyalty from a kind of consumer that has been hard to pin down. It is about nailing the coffin.

There are things that come to mind like: why don't some indies band together and buy these books at outrageous discounts(at least 20% higher than what we get)to resell? The John Green book, in particular, is one that would make the biggest difference for us. Yet that's a simple and not real solution for me. The larger questions are:why did we let Amazon do this to our industry? Enticed by their sales numbers and all-powerful website that could sell anyone anything at anytime of the day or night. So easy to not be bothered with actual store hours--we are now facing the windows being boarded at the two major chains. Here again is the irony--who are some of the biggest supporters of the online sales tax initiatives? Not just mom and pops--but Target and Best Buy. Nearly everyone is trying to stay afloat.

Now, much like the NY Yankees, we're seeing what happens when too many eggs get placed in one basket. Amazon will likely end up being our Alex Rodriguez--once considered the savior, once so young and pretty only to become a broken and overpaid nightmare. And in A Rod's case: a total cheater.

Adding insult to all of this was the news that President Obama would be speaking this week in Chattanooga at an Amazon fulfillment center.

And am I disappointed in Obama? Yes, of course. I'm not sure what adjective to use but his decision or the decision made by his handlers/decision makers shows so little effort or thought about how our current economy does and does not work. And what is and what is not good for small business that it's shocking. Or appalling. Or disappointing. So there are a few to choose from.

A customer asked me over the weekend what I thought the biggest disservice that Amazon had done to the book industry. I said, at the time, that I wasn't sure. After giving it some thought I would have to say that it is the idea that retail is 'way too expensive.' Standard retail price isn't a dirty thing. We're not marking up handbags or watches to make couture items. It's a price that has been decided. Yes, I understand free-market economics and the idea that people can sell items for what they choose. Yet when one group decides to undercut the industry standard in such blatant and far-reaching ways it makes it quite difficult for anyone else to play the same game.


  1. I happen to love an engaging conversation with a local bookseller, in a shop, where new recommendations are made and totally new avenues of reading are introduced to me by an intelligent fellow book lover. The experience of being in the bookshop is exciting, and adrenalin flowed, and the experience was an adventure. I look at the picture above of Amazon central and it saddens me. Is that how we want our booksellers to work their craft? Like industrial mules and robots? Is this where American cultural society is heading? Where will our ideas come from? Where will the inspiring person to person thoughts and conversation come from? From just behind hidden computers where many of us may end up spending our few hours of leisure only to commute to the mind-numbing crunch of packaging books without reading them, selling books without knowing them, and losing ourselves to the technological nightmare where God forbid we will not have to interact, we will not have to meet, we will not have to think, where we can live vicariously and worthlessly behind the electric curtain - our only purpose to factorize ourselves to the online big box, where everything is industrial and ugly, where creativity stops, and quality writing evaporates into the masses of cyber-published drivel, industrially produced waste. Good writers unite. Bookstores fight! We as a population are falling under the pressure of the online big-box dome, and the dome keeps falling and closing us in, and off from the truly beautiful purpose of life.

  2. Definitely not the point but I laughed at sentence one because my garden has gone feral. Feral ever since we opened a bookstore in Hudson. If you drive by Como Lake and glance north you can probably see my weeds poking out above the rooftops.
    Great post Hans. Beyond the weed analogy I'm a bit too sad to comment.

  3. I don't buy bestsellers at Amazon. I use it to find titles of limited circulation. I go to bookstores for serendipity. What do i want that I don't know I want till I walk into the bookstore?

    If the chains fold, let 1,000 indy bookstores bloom in their place. I may be living in a Twin Cities paradise (a bookseller at BookPeople in Austin, Texas, was amazed when I rattled off the names of five indy bookstores in the Twin Cities without coming close to exhausting the list), but I'm optimistic that bookstores will survive.

  4. I am a bookseller at an indy book store in Tennessee, so Obama's appearance in Chatt in support of Amazon was a bit more of a personal affront to me as well as the obvious wrongness of the lack of support to small businesses. However, despite some shoppers who cluelessly and blatantly expound about their kindles, much of our clientele thank us for remaining open and having an interesting selection. My greatest reward is having a client return to ask me for another recommendation, because the last one was spot on. Obviously Amazon, and even big box stores, can't do that. I never see Penny manning the book table at Costco.