Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of wrath directed toward Amazon.
They’re too big. They’re impersonal. They’re aiming for a monopoly of the book business. They’ve emasculated the sacred world of New York publishing and agenting. And their worst crime of all, they force indie bookstores to close their doors.
Well, I’m going to use this space today to give a little love to Amazon, the Great Corporate Satan of 21st-century America.
Back in 1994, they put up a lot of money to start and grow their business. They didn’t even go online till a year later, when they sold their first book: Douglas Hofstadter‘s Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. Not exactly a rip-snorter, but on the day it sold, it was ranked number one, at least for a little while (ironically, it was first released as an e-book, and is currently ranked #213,493). Of course, Amazon went on to become the world’s largest book retailer.
Then in 2007, they launched the Kindle, betting they could get people to read ebooks instead of “real” books. Again, a costly endeavor. And again, it paid off. They sold 1,000,000 Kindles a week in the months leading up to Christmas, 2011, and in doing so, cemented the role of e-readers in the fabric of our lives.
Basically, what they did was find a need and fill it. The very bedrock principle of the free enterprise system. I for one applaud them.
But I can hear the grumbling now. “What about all those indie bookstores they forced to close?”
Well, the fact is, nobody forced anybody to do anything. Some of those stores probably deserved to close, due to lack of selection, poor management, or some other shortcoming. I would guess, though, that most of the now-defunct stores found themselves completely outplayedÂ by AmazonÂ in the competitive marketplace. Remember, Amazon invested big money in their chancy concept, that people would stop going to bookstores and order from the comfort of their home. In order for that to happen, however, Amazon had to offer their books at a lower price and be able to deliver them to their customers’ doorsteps quickly. If those criteria weren’t met, it’s quite likely Amazon would’ve been the ones to go under and the indie bookstores would be cackling to this day.
Let’s not forget, too, that the undoing of the indies didn’t begin in 1995 when Amazon sold that “Fluid Concepts” book. It started long before that with the rise of Barnes & Noble and Borders and all the other big chain operations, who merely sold the same books at a way lower price. Amazon just took that model and added home delivery to the equation.
Not all indie bookstores wilted in the face of the Amazon juggernaut, however. Books & Books in Miami, long secure as one of the premier indies in the nation, refused to lie down. They added a coffee shop, a full bar, upped their number of in-store events, along with many other innovations, and as a result, they have thrived in the past few years. Their deep, dark secret: bring people into the store any way we can.
Now, it turns out that Amazon itself is opening a brick & mortar store in Seattle. Who knows what it will look like, but it’s a pretty safe bet that the Kindle line will be prominently featured. Once again, they’re risking a huge amount of money on one of their ideas. It’s ironic that they’re doing this, but hey, it’s their money. If they fail, they lose it. If they succeed, more power to them.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on in the writer community these days concerning the closing of beloved indie bookstores versus the undeniable convenience Amazon provides. Many people are claiming to feel great guilt for sitting at home ordering stuff on Amazon when their little neighborhood bookstore has closed. My opinion: no one should feel “guilty” for buying items on Amazon. They’re providing you the products you want at a very competitive price, all without having to leave your home, gas up your car, and go stand in line at a big-box store to be checked out by a 21-year-old for whom “customer service” is a foreign phrase.
And this is not even to mention the boundless opportunities they have provided authors by opening up the world of publishing to people like me, who were long snubbed by New York agents and publishers who couldn’t be bothered.