bookstore

At a panel called “Will Amazon Lead Us to the Golden Age of Books?”, Amazon supporter and self-publishing icon, concluded his talk by declaring a new age for the publishing world:

“Right now is a golden age,” he said. “Publishing has never been better.”

The panel was an attempt to discuss, in a public setting, the impact of Amazon on the publishing industry, and featured speakers from legacy publishing, a reporter/self-publisher, and an independent bookstore owner in addition to Mr. Howey.

The bookseller predictably expressed criticism of Amazon, but also noted that chains like Barnes & Noble were causing independent bookstores to close long before Amazon came along.

While there seemed to be general agreement on the fact that Amazon’s size, online platform, and consequent ability to underprice their products makes them a threat to brick and mortar stores, Mr. Howey pointed out that, perhaps counter-intuitively, it’s the large chain stores that are closing faster:

Challenging the notion that Amazon is “crushing” indie bookstores, Howey cited an “8% growth” in the number of indie stores in recent years, and reminded the audience that “all retailers have been hurt by online retailers” but that that “the big book chains seem to be closing fastest.”

The existence of ebooks and the ease and economy with which one can purchase books on Amazon have certainly affected the brick and mortar bookselling industry–that goes without saying.  But people often seem too quick to jump to conclusions about the potential effects of Amazon on independent bookstores.

It doesn’t surprise me that it’s the bigger chains, like Borders and B&N, that have actually suffered the most in competition with Amazon.  They’re big box stores, bulk retailers, not specialty sellers.

Rather than spelling the demise of independent sellers, it’s possible that Amazon’s dominance on the economy end of the spectrum may very well give them a new lease on life.  After all, the experience of buying a book in an indie bookstore is inherently different than ordering one online from Amazon.com.  Independents are never going to successfully compete with Amazon in selling hardcover bestsellers for low prices.  Where they can compete, however, is in the shopping and curating experience.

Many book-lovers love physical books: their design, their smell, their heft, the comforting familiarity and sense of accomplishment that comes from turning a physical page.  I’ve also never met a book-lover who wasn’t on the lookout for a new and exciting read.  Independent booksellers need to stop thinking of themselves as being in the same business as Amazon; they’re not.  They need to embrace the market that has opened to them: that of the boutique curator of excellent books.

Owning a small bookstore is an opportunity to showcase great books people might not otherwise find; to support and encourage independent authors and their work; to present a unique collection of reading material that people would never find in the same place elsewhere.  Amazon algorithms notwithstanding, there’s still no substitute for the experience of going into a bookshop and browsing, especially when it leads you to your next favorite book.  By holding themselves apart from the bulk trade that Amazon represents, indie booksellers have an opportunity to present themselves as experts in the field of book-selling: advocates for the under-appreciated and guides for the curious reader.

By dominating the bulk market, Amazon has given indie sellers the opportunity to specialize in a way they never have before.  Rather than worry about offering the latest James Patterson thriller, which anybody can get faster and cheaper by ordering it from Amazon, they can carry genres and titles that mean something to them and their customers.  We need more science fiction and fantasy bookstores, more horror bookstores, more merchants of mystery and suspense.  I want to walk into a bookstore, tell the clerk what I’ve just read, and have her say “Ahh, then you simply have to read….”

Owning a small business has never been easy.  It’s always been a struggle to compete with larger companies.  But giving up and blaming it on Amazon was never going to be a successful solution.  And the growing golden age of independent publishing is now offering the biggest opportunity in history for independent booksellers to shine.  Imagine a bookstore where you could go to find the latest titles from your favorite indie author, shelved next to well-known traditional titles and piled on feature tables around the store?  Worried about quality?  That’s easy: only pick the ones you like.

We are living in a golden age of publishing and of bookselling, but that doesn’t mean it’s all going to be easy.  Make the golden age yourself, right now.