Bookstores vs. Amazon Blog War

Istanbul BookshopBookstores vs. Amazon Blog War

There’s a blog war going on about the future of the independent bookstore, and it touches issues very important to me, so I’ll weigh in.

In a Slate blog I felt seemed inadequately researched, Farhad Manjoo raged against the “high prices” of books in bookstores, termed the marvelous essay by Richard Russo in the New York Times “hectoring,” and called books published by major houses all “mass-manufactured.”  Mr. Manjoo displayed no evidence that he had investigated what actually determines the pricing of books in bookstores, and I disagree strongly with his contention that traditional publishers–or anyone–is capable of “mass-manufacturing” quality books.

The kindler, gentler bookstore owners responded:

Word Brooklyn:

“If Amazon started reversing any of their more unsavory decisions, they might lose money in the short-term, but I think they’d end up making more money in the long-term, by cementing the loyalty of an entirely new set of consumers who always sort of want to buy things from Amazon, and sometimes give in and do, but feel guilty about it…’

And Lacy Simon of Hello Hello bookstore wrote in her blog quoted by Mr. Russo:

“If you let me, I’ll get to know you through your reading life and strive to find books that resonate with you. Amazon asks you to take advantage of my knowledge & my education (which I’m still paying for) and treat the space I rent, the heat & light I pay for, the insurance policies I need to be here, the sales tax I gather for the state, the gathering place I offer, the books and book culture I believe in so much that I’ve wagered everything on it” as if it were “a showroom for goods you can just get more cheaply through them.”

And Nathan Bransford posed the question to others today in his as-usual evenhanded and civil blog.

Here’s my take, from my comment on Nathan’s blog.  What do you think?

“… there’s a larger point to be made than selling “boatloads” of books.

The issue is fundamentally about a system of commerce that either supports or works against the promotion of quality literature. At the moment Amazon and its price wars are tipping the scales toward production of poor quality work.

No major house can consistently “mass-manufacture” or “produce” intellectual property–with the exception of predictable bestsellers, which take years to build. To exist, publishers have to find, hone, build and endorse new talent, and promote that talent through reliable outlets, ideally staffed and handsold by knowledgeable salespeople.

Sure, you can mass-produce some genre books following rules & conventions, but that’s where Amazon excels.

And sure, that model is disappearing. But I’m not willing to let it go without a fight. Let’s reframe the conversation–what can we do to keep quality literature alive if Amazon drives out of business all the places that publish and sell it?”


  1. It’s really interesting how so much of this conversation feels like a few decades ago when the Borders and the Barnes and Nobles were moving into the neighborhoods of indie bookstores. They were being perceived (which, they were) as pushing cheap books on people and undermining the hard work of the booksellers around the corner. Now Amazon, perhaps the biggest of the Big Box Store because it’s box can know no bounds.

    But here’s the thing: the indies still exist. Yes, in much lower numbers. But they are still alive.

    Amazon: look at Borders. Don’t make so many enemies that when you are sinking, no one will offer you a hand to pull your head back above water.

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