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Building Bookstore Culture Outside of Commerce: Why Amazon is literate culture’s best friend

Readers Internet-wide are fighting about whether to buy books at bookstores or at Amazon. The answer depends on why you buy books in the first place: to support the publishing industry, to support local literary culture, or to connect with great ideas. The answer depends on recognizing that supporting local bookstores may only achieve one of these goals—or none at all.

Amazon really isn’t trying to destroy bookstores. It isn’t trying to save publishing. It’s just trying to make money, and lots of it. In doing so, Amazon is following a principle that was stressed to me over and over in my graduate publishing program at Emerson College: like any other business, publishing is about making money. It’s not about books. It’s not about ideas. It’s not about editorial standards. It’s not about authors. And it’s certainly not about readers, either. All of these elements are just shiny, fun decorations on the publishers’ money train, which was badly derailed by technology and may never get back on track. The big problem (for publishers) is that Amazon has succeeded in making money from publishing and book sales where (many) traditional publishers have failed. Bringing down bothersome distribution and stocking costs through strategic warehousing and inventory has made it possible for consumers to pay less and Amazon to sell more. So what’s at the heart of the publishing problem?

Here’s something you might not know about bookstores: they return a huge number of the books they buy to the publisher, between 30-40%. Any unsold bookstore stock can be shipped right back for a refund (of the price the bookstore paid, which is far lower than the list price consumers would pay, the huge costs of returns to publishers being a big component of bookstore price markup). The publisher may then remainder these books, selling them at a huge loss, or just straight up destroy them. In a sense, then, by shopping in your local bookstore, you’re subsidizing the destruction of trees, printing of books, and shipment of products from publishers to bookstores and back.

Returns are publishing’s catch-22: difficult to make a profit with them, impossible to sell to bookstores without them. Bookstores may over-order titles that have a small chance of selling well, confident in the knowledge that they can return the copies if the book doesn’t take off. The returns system makes bookstore buyers generous and overconfident in ordering—and makes publishers take a big hit. In some sample P&L’s I made in a grad school course, the cost of returns was 160% the total profit of the book. It’s a persistent problem in the industry.

Amazon doesn’t get around the problem of returns—you can return almost anything to the retail giant. It does get around the problem of inventory, at least to some extent. By building a sophisticated inventory management and shipping infrastructure that can get almost any product to almost any place in almost no time at all, Amazon has created efficiencies of scale that smaller stores can’t match. And by selling so many products, it has tons of ways to cover its ass for any one product line that loses money.

If you didn’t know about returns, you probably didn’t know that book publishers tend to lose money on almost every single title they publish. Really. The profits from one or two big authors (think Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling big) often subsidize the rest of a publisher’s catalog. Publishers spend most of their time chasing big hits like this—not promoting smaller titles.

So your local bookstore promotes local authors, provides you valuable book recommendations, thought-provoking author readings, and a fun place to hang out. Great. Why not fund all that, instead of clinging to a clearly broken (and expensive) book distribution framework as the primary financial support for local culture?

In Amazon’s 2010 shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos said, “Many of the problems we face have no textbook solutions, and so we—happily—invent new approaches.” Inventory is the big problem of publishing. It didn’t have a textbook solution, but Amazon helped invent a technology one. People who love reading should take advantage of that solution, and build a new way to support cultural events and authors. The new way doesn’t have to start with the traditional bookstore. It might, but it doesn’t have to.

Don’t get me wrong. I like books. I was an English major (which seems less and less like a wise decision, but I enjoyed it at the time). I then got an even less useful graduate degree in publishing. I read all the time as a kid, for lack of siblings and friends (don’t mock). And I’ve lived in a lot of cities, most of which I can define by amazing independent bookstores: Portland means Powell’s. Austin means BookPeople. Boston means Harvard Book Store and Brookline Booksmith.

In Seattle, however, I haven’t found a favorite bookstore (I know, I know—it should be Elliott Bay Books, or Left Bank if I’m feeling alternative, or BLMF if I’m feeling underground—literally). Is that because Amazon has crushed this city’s literary soul? I don’t think so. I think it’s because Richard Hugo House, Seattle Arts and Lectures, Town Hall, 826 Seattle, and other literate organizations provide plenty of engaging events. I think it’s because I work right next to the (transcendently beautiful) Seattle Public Library, which happens to have an excellent Android app, an equally excellent holds system, and a fair share of e-books (if an initially confusing layout). I think it’s because there’s a coffee shop on every corner where I can curl up with my Kindle (Fire) or a real book (often library). I think it’s because technology is changing my life, and will always continue to do so. But it will never make me stop reading.

I don’t actually think Amazon is so great. I mean, it’s unquestionably great at what it does, which is sell a lot of shit and make a ton of money. But I have no illusions that Amazon is well-intentioned, or that it has any intellectual intent behind its reinvention of the publishing industry. If Amazon is reinventing publishing (and it surely is, in a way), it is doing so in service of one goal and one goal only: more profits for Amazon. None of us can make any mistake about that.

At the same time, shopping at your local bookstore cannot stop Amazon, or e-commerce, or electronic publishing. It can only delay the eventual takeover of local bookstores through weak, indirect financial support that subsidizes a bloated, unprofitable or not-too-profitable industry. Think: would Amazon have been able to take off so far so fast on the basis of bookselling if traditional publishing had been lean, innovative, and profitable across the board? Absolutely not.

Inventing a new system of supporting bookish minds probably can’t stop Amazon, either, but it can do a better job of supporting local literate culture. So why not try that instead? Traditional publishing hasn’t succeeded in saving bookstores, nor in supporting authors. Even Aimee Bender—a real live professional author you may have heard of, who has published some books—says it’s hopeless to be a writer these days. Only the luckiest high-profile authors support themselves through writing novels alone; most have other day jobs, whether as columnists or consultants or insurance salespeople or—commonly—creative writing teachers, teaching others to do what they do not make a living at themselves.

But why should it be a dream to get paid to do what you love?

I’m moving to San Francisco in a few weeks. I’ll be lugging several boxes of traditionally published, bookstore-bought books (almost no books I own are actually from Amazon) with me, but I’ll also be bringing my Fire. I’m excited to bask in the beatnik glow of City Lights, listen for echoes of Ginsberg, and spend late nights browsing Green Apple Books. I’m also excited to circle 1 Infinite Loop, see visions of black turtlenecks, and meet some of the incredibly brilliant people (who are not just at Apple, to be clear) working nonstop to make sure that technology makes us smarter and makes our lives better. Maybe I’ll even join them in that crusade.

If their work—our work—results in more bookstores, great. If it means fewer bookstores, okay. As long as it doesn’t mean a diminished exchange of ideas, information, and even artistic ecstasy. And you can buy as many books as you want from your local bookstore. Just don’t be surprised when that small investment in a broken system doesn’t turn out to be as effective as Amazon’s huge investment in a new one.


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