Why Indies Shouldn’t Worry About Amazon Books

About a month ago, Shelf Awareness broke a story speculating that Amazon might be opening a physical bookstore in Seattle’s U-Village. There had been a cloak-and-dagger air of mystery surrounding a vacant building formerly occupied by a sushi restaurant, and Shelf Awareness learned that Amazon had been approaching local booksellers from independent bookstores regarding jobs it was seeking to fill (but didn’t give much else in the way of information). Several indie booksellers abandoned their posts at local stores for the promising offer of $18/hr. at the new store – well above the average pay of $10/hr. for a bookseller. On November 2, the rumors were proven true as VP of Amazon Books, Jennifer Cast, posted an open letter on Amazon.com announcing the official opening of the retail giant’s first brick-and-mortar bookstore, dubbed “Amazon Books,” (how creative) on November 3.

The gist: Amazon is bringing their online store to life. Book displays include customer review cards, you can “test drive” Amazon devices and they have techs on hand to assist, and most importantly, prices will be exactly the same as online prices. They don’t even display prices with stickers in the store; to see the price, you must use the Amazon app or look it up online. The books in the store are displayed face out instead of spine out, which Amazon is touting as innovative, but really it just means there aren’t as many books as you’d think. Customers are also encouraged to “showroom,” which means browse in the store, buy online – any indie bookstore’s worst nightmare. They seem to have taken an Apple Store-meets-Borders approach, sans the corporate feel. The store only has approximately 5,000-6,000 books, 15 employees, and is certainly striving for the look and feel of a technology-oriented indie.

So why books?

Amazon is the world’s largest retailer (having recently overtaken Wal-Mart). They sell EVERYTHING. So, if they were going to open a brick-and-mortar store, why did they pick books in the biggest trolling act in history? It seems antithetical to what the company has traditionally been about. Some say it’s an ironic choice, considering the commonly accepted perception that Amazon is responsible for the demise of many physical indie bookstores; even our own Maple Street Book Shop claimed that its upcoming closure is due to the inability to keep up with online prices. Some say it’s a vanity project. Others say it’s an experiment, as Amazon has done with other physical stores over the past year or so, to study buying habits of consumers IRL (that’s “in real life”) to get more data on how to tailor the online experience.

Fact: E-book growth has slowed and evened out. Publisher deals are forcing the price of e-books to be closer to the price of paperback books, making it more of a choice for consumers. If a paperback is only a dollar or two more than an e-book, customers are choosing the paperback.

Fact: In recent years, indie bookstores have seen a renaissance. There are things indies offer that online and big box stores do not. People have realized the true value of indies: the staff who love books and love to talk about books, the serendipity of finding a book you never knew existed at the exact moment you need it, the community building, the sensory EXPERIENCE of touching and smelling and seeing a physical book.

These are the facts Amazon had to look at in making their decision to open, of all types of stores, a BOOKSTORE. The data-driven giant has seen the data, and in their world, statistics and numbers rule. Data is king. So they took that data, which showed them that a physical bookstore was warranted to possibly make their book business profitable, and they opened one, much to the chagrin of many in the book industry. And here is where the difference between Amazon Books and indie bookstores lies – Amazon Books is data-driven, almost 100%. The curation of their selection is based on algorithms and data that their online store gives them: customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, online shopping patterns, and Goodreads popularity. Sure, they have a couple of “curation consultants” to help out, but the majority of the decision making is based on pure data. Even the section titles in the bookstore reflect this: titles like “Award Winners, 4.5 Stars and Above, Age 6-12.” They don’t even trust their booksellers to make their own, non-data-informed recommendations. The “staff recommendations” shelf contains staff picks of books from Amazon’s “Top 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime,” along with picks from CEO Jeff Bezos – including his wife’s book. When you don’t trust your own booksellers more than a computer, how do you expect to sustain an indie-feeling bookstore?

Maybe they don’t. Besides being almost completely data-driven, the prices are the same as the online prices, and I’m not sure how that will sustain a physical store with rent and salaries and all the other overhead costs that come with it. Plus, if they encourage customers to browse in the store and buy online, how will losing those sales benefit the store? It all seems so uncreative, stark, and impersonal. These things lead me to believe that maybe they don’t care if this store succeeds. Maybe Amazon is just using this store as additional data collection. If it fails, so what? They lay everyone off and close the store and go back – with more data – to their online world. They aren’t opening this store because they love books. They’re opening this store because it’s what the data is telling them to do. Herein lies my problem.

Every bookstore owner I know owns a bookstore because he or she LOVES books. Every bookseller I know who works at an indie bookstore does so because they LOVE books and the community they support. The people I know who shop at indie bookstores do so because of the experience and because of the PEOPLE they meet in the store. The friends they make. The community they build. That, my friends, is where Amazon’s downfall with this physical store will be. Indies are not data-driven. They’re people-driven. They’re community-driven. If you try to recreate an indie bookstore using numbers and data and algorithms, you’re going to fail. Miserably. Amazon Books doesn’t scare me. They aren’t a threat to indies. Because they have no idea what indies really mean to their communities and to the world. They have no idea how to value people over data. Eventually, they will wonder why they aren’t doing as well as they thought. They will scour the data, pour over it, drink it in. The data will tell them that their experiment failed. And with their numbers and algorithms in hand, they will retreat back to their dark corner of the Internet and resume their rightful place.