Oh, Internet

I’m really, really not sure why newspapers and news websites keep publishing articles about how print books/publishing/bookselling are dead by journalists who know… absolutely jack about the industry. And don’t bother to learn along the way.

I think I’ve got the steps down, though!

Step 1: Decide on inflammatory thesis statement
Step 2: Present opinions as facts
Step 3: Back up the opinion-facts with equally-uninformed-man-on-the-street/concern troll quotes.
Step 4: Under no circumstances speak to anyone who works in the industry on any level unless you can massage their information to agree with yours, or you can take a quote way out of context.
Step 5: Publish!
Step 6: Giggle as the hits pour in.

You get bonus points if you’re a tech or business writer who thinks the book industry is 100% analagous to Apple/the RIAA/Wal-Mart, thus explaining why you don’t have to do any research. (Spoiler: the book industry is different.)

So, of course, yesterday I started seeing this article on Slate linked around, trashing indie bookstores and proposing that Amazon’s better for everyone all around. And here we go again.

Cats ‘n’ kittens, I hadn’t even had my coffee yet. This was not fair. You can’t get a proper frothing going without enough go-juice in the veins.

First off, hie thee over to this excellent response by an independent bookseller. It’s a line-by-line of the Slate article, and it’s spot-on.

I would like to point out, by the way, that the author of the article wrote a book entitled True Enough: Living in a Post-Fact Society. (Link, of course, goes to indiebound because fuck you, buddy.) Part of me is hoping we’re just being trolled, or that he’s trying to pull a Colbert on us. Alas, signs point to him just being a shit-stirrer. Either that or he’s hoping to get some more mileage out of a book that’s three years old.  (Or perhaps his publisher is putting the hardcover out of print and has declined to produce a paperback version, so he’s buddying up to his favorite online superstore in the hopes that he can garner some Kindle sales…)

Anyway, a few points I’d like to make/respond to:

 When you walk into Best Buy and get a salesperson to spend 10 minutes showing you a television, then leave empty-handed so you can buy the TV for less on Amazon, you’ve just turned Best Buy into Jeff Bezos’ chump.

Actually, when you walk into Best Buy — knowing that you’re going to leave and buy the item from Amazon instead — and still spend 10 minutes asking a salesperson about the product you know you are not buying from them, you’re an asshole. Because you’ve just wasted that person’s time. The product specifications are listed on every item on Amazon. If you have questions about it, there’s a little linky that says “Not enough product details to make a purchase? Tell us what you need to know.” You click on that and… oh, wait:

If you can’t see the teeny-tiny print beside the submit button, it reads: “We won’t be able to respond directly to the feedback submitted at this time, but we’ll forward it along to the right people.”

In other words, if you have questions, there’s no one there to help you right this second. Maybe someone will get back to you, at some point, though no promises that the question you’re actually asking is the one that will get answered. Oops!

Mr. Manjoo goes on to discuss Richard Russo’s excellent December 13th op-ed in the New York Times,“Amazon’s Jungle Logic.”  Says Mr. Manjoo:

Russo and his novelist friends take for granted that sustaining these cultish, moldering institutions is the only way to foster a “real-life literary culture,” as writer Tom Perrotta puts it.

There’s plenty to unpack there. Start with the looking-down-the-nose phrase “his novelist friends.” How quaint! How twee! Novelists. This is the part where I point back to the Slate author’s three-going-on-four year old book, and its lack of transition from hardcover to paperback. Most books, if they’re ever coming out in paper at all, do so within a year. If the hardcover sales tank, quite often the publisher will sell down the hardcover stock and quietly put the book out of print. We’re probably awfully close to the time where that decision will be made. Hmmmm, I say.

Next, suggesting that independent bookstores are cultish and moldering. Does he back those adjectives up with facts? Or expound upon why he feels that way?


Of course not.

Mr. Manjoo goes on to claim that “no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books.”

Facts! Show me them!

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection,

Wait, what? I want to see what this guy’s local bookstores look like, both indies and B&Ns nearby. Because I’ve never seen a bookstore with a paltry selection. Is his local indie a specialty store? Like, is he going into a shop devoted to children’s books looking for computer manuals? In which case, it’s not the bookstore that’s doing it wrong. Pairing up “humongous Barnes & Noble” with “paltry selection” is equally as ridiculous. It’s a big store. That means a lot of books on the shelves. Oh, but wait! He used the qualifier relatively. So, in other words, you might not be able to walk into a B&N that is ten times the square footage of your house (with room leftover for a couple of garages and a park), and find an obscure medical text from 1998. Being surrounded by tens of thousands of other books doesn’t count. Also, god forbid you ask the staff at either the tiny indie or the superhuge B&N to special order the book for you, right?

Honestly, I suspect this guy is counting the book section at his supermarket as his local indie.

no customer reviews,

Funny, because I’ve been to bookstores that DO have shelf-talkers with customer reviews on there. Also, a lot of bookstores have staff picks sections. And store newsletters. And access to the IndieNext list. Plus, Amazon customer reviews can be awfully dubious. They allow one-star reviews that state “I AM ANGRY BECAUSE THERE IS NO EBOOK” or “THIS BOOK HAS A TYPO ON PAGE 34” to stand beside actual, legitimate reviews. Also? Harriet Klausner loves fucking everything.

no reliable way to find what you’re looking for,

Aside from, y’know, asking the staff, who were hired and trained to know their shit.


Oh god, he’s that dude who walks in, gestures around vaguely, and says, “I was in here last month? And there was a book over there? And it was blue? Do you have it?”

and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like.

Seriously, you’ve walked up to the register at the Piggly Wiggly with a bag of oranges and asked the beleaguered clerk to recommend a book to you, haven’t you, Mr. Manjoo? Sure, a local store’s staff picks section will recommend what the booksellers have read and enjoyed. The point of that is to showcase books that people might not have previously considered. They’re not intended to be specific, personally-tailored recommendations, because they’re for everyone to ponder.

Now, if you walk up to a real-live bookseller and say, “I’m looking for a book,” they’re going to ask you what you like to read. They’ll ask what you’ve read recently, who some of your favorite authors are, and base their recommendations around that. Flesh-and-blood booksellers are capable of making these decisions without the support of an algorithm. And if you’re someone who comes in regularly to buy books, they’re going to remember you and your tastes. Y’know, kind of like Amazon does.

Back in my bookstore days, we had a customer who only liked to read medical thrillers. Once a month, she’d come into the store and make a beeline for the register because the staff always knew which new releases would be up her alley. She got to know the names of two of our booksellers: “Are Dave or Mark here? I need a book.”

And you know what? If they weren’t scheduled for that night? They’d probably told the rest of us what she might like. Sometimes they’d even tucked a new copy away behind the register for her.

Dubious recommendation engine. ‘Kay.

It’s not just that bookstores are difficult to use.


They’re economically inefficient, too. Rent, utilities, and a brigade of book-reading workers aren’t cheap,

Mmmm, concern-trolling.

so the only way for bookstores to stay afloat is to sell items at a huge markup.

Look, Mr. Manjoo, clearly you don’t get it. Selling something at retail price isn’t a markup. It’s the price recommended by the publisher. A markup would be selling a book with $9.99 printed on the cover for $15.99. What you’re complaining about is that the bookseller isn’t marking their stock down to your satisfaction. Clarity in writing is important. Especially for a journalist.

A few times a year, my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist—drags me into one of our supposedly sacrosanct neighborhood booksellers, and I’m always astonished by how much they want me to pay for books. At many local stores, most titles—even new releases—usually go for list price, which means $35 for hardcovers and $9 to $15 for paperbacks. That’s not slightly more than Amazon charges—at Amazon, you can usually save a staggering 30 to 50 percent.

This has been pointed out a million-and-ten times on the internet, but let’s say it again: Amazon sells their books at a loss, and they can do that because they make a profit on other, non-book things which booksellers do not sell. Like those TVs that Best Buy carries, and streaming television shows, and I don’t know, monkeys. In fact, two years ago, Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart started a pissing contest to try and see who could sell hardcover bestsellers for the least amount of money possible, all of them setting the books at prices that meant the retail giants would lose money. But booksellers can’t compete with that. If you don’t understand how bookseller discounts work, clicky the link. I went into it. It’s not a big secret. So uh, hooray for capitalism? I guess?

In other words, for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy two.

Bolding mine. Sure you could. You could buy two books for the price of one, or four books for the price of two, or or or…

But will you?

Amazon’s betting you won’t. That instead, you’ll spend that money on something else. Some Pocky to munch on while you read. A new recliner in which to read your loss-leader book and eat said Pocky. Or a monkey to feed you the Pocky while you sit in your new recliner. Better hope that’s chocolate on the Pocky.

I’d love to see numbers on how many people do, in fact, buy more books from Amazon because of their prices. Solid numbers, not just anecdata from a dude writing an editorial for Slate as though it’s a real article. Numbers from Amazon themselves. Except, oh, right. Amazon doesn’t release information with real sales figures. Instead, they speak in relatives — this year we sold more books than last year. Without two concrete numbers to compare, that statement tells us absolutely fuck-all. Of course, with the relatively paltry example above, we can see that Mr. Manjoo is okay with made-up statistics.

There is little that’s “local” about most local bookstores. Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house, an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community.

Except for the part where book buyers know their customers and order books according to what people in that community read. You’re not likely to find an altar to Rush Limbaugh books in the northeast. Nor will you be likely to find President Obama’s books prominently displayed in more conservative communities. Do you have gamers in your community? The buyers know it. Does the town census skew older or younger? The staff knows what will best sell in that store. Seaside community? Holy excellent selection of beach reads, Batman.

And the beauty is that, if you don’t see what you want on the shelves, not only will your local bookstore order it for you, but in the future they’ll remember your preferences and order accordingly.

Also, and probably the bigger point here:

It’s not just about the books you see on the shelves.

Bookstores support local schools, ordering books on their summer reading lists so the kids can procure them when they rush in the day before Labor Day. They support local book clubs, local anything-clubs, really, if there’s a book relative to the group’s interests. They hold author signings and poetry readings, and are there to partner up with other local businesses to help events succeed.

Which, if Mr. Manjoo had bothered talking to a bookseller, he might have discovered.

With the money you saved by buying books at Amazon, you could have gone to see a few productions at your local theater company, visited your city’s museum, purchased some locally crafted furniture, or spent more money at your farmers’ market. Each of these is a cultural experience that’s created in your community. Buying Steve Jobs at a store down the street isn’t.

There’s the concern-trolling: “I don’t know why you’re supporting X when Y needs your help so much more.” Usually it’s more along the lines of “I don’t know why you feminists are wasting all your energy getting offended at this sexist ad when there are <insert political cause here.> In this case it’s, “You people who spend extra money by paying retail price in your local indie bookstore are hurting your local theatre company.” I would like to know how much of the money Mr. Manjoo saves by shopping at Amazon goes to his local community.

Relatively, even.

Say you just care about books. Well, then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read.

Remember your seventh-grade algebra tests? Please show your work. Or, as they say over at wikipedia, [citation needed].

Amazon has said

I will not Godwin my own post.
I will not Godwin my own post.
I will not Godwin my own post.

that after people buy a Kindle reader, they begin purchasing e-books at twice the rate they’d previously purchased print titles. (And they keep buying print titles.)

Relatively. Again. No concrete numbers, just ratios. Finally we get some links, and it’s to Jeff Bezos’ squirrelly math. Sigh.

Amazon has also been instrumental in helping authors create more books. With the Kindle, it launched a self-publishing system that allows anyone to sell a Kindle book.

Sweet zombie Jesus, this is a whole other post in and of itself. Short version: “more books” doesn’t necessarily translate to “quality books.” Sure, the KDP program made it easier to get your self-pub book out there, but it’s in proprietary Kindle format, so someone like me, who does not shop Amazon, will never read your book. Oops!

There’s also its Kindle Singles program, which transforms stuff that the book industry wouldn’t otherwise be able to sell—shorter-than-book-length magazine articles, essays, and fiction—into material that can be sold for money.

Uh, so acknowledging that this is stuff the book industry doesn’t sell makes it a strike against the book industry? The book industry doesn’t sell TVs, Pocky, or monkeys either. This argument does not support Mr. Manjoo’s case. I mean, I dunno. If the article is still in a magazine, bookstores can still sell the magazine, I guess. But if a customer walked up to me and said, “I’d like to tear out pages six through thirteen and just give you fifty cents for them,” that would be awfully silly.

It’s great that authors can release their shorter fiction as single-hit epubs. I bought Chuck Wendig’s novella Shotgun Gravy in digital format (though I think that likely falls under the regular Kindle publishing format, not the Singles). Pretty keen! I also read short fiction at Ideomancer, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, lest you think I’m a total Luddite. But I’m still unclear on how the Singles program is a strike against booksellers. Apples and oranges, man.

In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it.

Dear journalistic institutions, both print and intertubes: please stop letting people who know not a goddamned thing about the book industry make statements like this. A little bit of research goes a long goddamned way.

YA isn’t the realm of the devil. Publishers aren’t crashing and burning or quaking in their boots (they’re adapting! Maybe you could do an article on how!)

And above all, bookselling isn’t dead.

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2 Responses to Oh, Internet

  1. glossaria says:

    Amen. (Also, if you replace “indy bookstore” with “local library” it works just as well. 😉 ) Pardon me, I’m going to go share the heck out of this now.

  2. Sara Leigh says:

    Great response, and rant!

Comments are closed.