Beware the Amazon book eater

It is not a good time for opening bookshops and Corina van der Spoel doubts that it ever will be again.

It is not a good time for opening bookshops and Corina van der Spoel doubts that it ever will be again.

Prize-winning author Ann Patchett was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people in April. Last year she opened Parnassus, a small independent bookshop in ­Nashville. When Borders closed and her city did not have a single bookshop remaining, she decided, even though she had no interest in being in retail, that she also had no wish to live in a city without a book store.
Her Time ­magazine nomination showed, she said, “that people are taking independent book stores seriously and that community is important”.

Still, it is not a good time for opening bookshops and I am not sure that it ever will be again. I believe in the value of the independent selections offered by small bookshops that are distinct from the buying patterns of the big chains. I also believe in the value of the communities that can develop around small, independent stores. But I cannot see how a mortar-and-brick shop can compete with the more efficiently supplied, cheaper and wider selection of giant e-tailers such as ­Amazon.

Adding to the predicament is that sales of print copies are decreasing in favour of e-books. By the end of 2012, e-book sales worldwide are likely to constitute 40% of all publishing sales. Compounding the problems facing local book retailers is that, according to the South African Book Development Council, only about 1% of the population buys books.

But what is the particular threat that Amazon poses for bookshops and publishers that causes people like Ann Patchett to “fear being eaten alive by a giant corporation”?

Amazon is now the largest seller of print and e-books. It is increasingly being accused of acting opportunistically and in ways that are unsustainable. By offering books at hugely discounted prices no bookshop can match and having gone as far as offering a free Kindle iPhone app with which you can check a barcode to see whether Amazon has the same book more cheaply, it has cut out all intermediaries in the supply chain. It has in effect made your local bookstore a showroom for Amazon.

Publishers are ambivalent about Amazon. Although it has made it possible, through its hugely effective distribution channels, for any obscure book to be available almost anywhere in the world, Amazon is also demanding increasingly larger discounts from publishers. In February, Amazon removed 4 000 e-books from its site supplied by the Independent Publishers Group after the latter refused to discount its e-books even further. What makes publishers even more vulnerable is that Amazon has locked consumers, through the Kindle e-Reader, into buying only from it. This does not only dictate purchase but also use.

It is not only bookshops and publishers that stand to lose. For all the advantages it offers, it cannot offer the more idiosyncratic, tailor-made collections that are the ambit of bookshops curating to specific audiences. By making it economically impossible to keep bookshops, Amazon is curtailing the prospects of community formation through such stores and destroying the literary cultures they co-ordinate. 

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