Capitalism Versus the Independent Bookstore

(image courtesy a feather adrift)

Seattle Mystery Bookshop created quite the tempest in a teapot this past week. They’re a small independent bookstore in, you guessed it, Seattle. Seattle is also the home of, and it’s clear from SMB’s attitude that they are not happy to have Bezos and Company in their backyard. In fact, Seattle Mystery Bookshop so thoroughly hates that they refuse to carry books or handle author signings by Amazon-published authors. Why? Because Amazon is a Big Evil Corporation.

To best illustrate this debate, you need to start with the email exchange between the bookshop and the unnamed author. The author emailed the Seattle Mystery Bookshop asking about hosting a book signing there. The bookshop explained that because the author is published through Amazon’s publishing arm, they did not wish to host the author. This led to the author explaining/enumerating all the ways Amazon has been supportive, including offering huge marketing pushes for in-store appearances at independent shops. Rather than quote the whole blog post, the meat of the bookshop’s reasoning for turning down the signing is quoted below.

What you say is all well and good but you’re looking at it from your perspective.

From my perspective, this is a huge corporation that has not only taken massive amounts of sales away from me over the years but also sales reps (which means the attention of publishers) and has waged a price war with the NYC publishers over their e-books. Remember when they removed ALL St. Martin’s titles from their site in retaliation for St. Martin’s insisting that they no longer undercut the price structure for e-books that the others were observing? Remember, too, that Amazon is the company that reached into the private devices of individuals and deleted e-books (one of our very good/long time customers is a computer worker and had downloaded a technical book from Amazon and make copious notes in her reader – Amazon deleted the ‘book’ and she lost all of her notes/ and then they also deleted – what was it, 1984? – from people’s e-readers). And let’s not forget that they appeared to buckle to outside pressure to remove gay and lesbian fiction and, when caught, blamed technical problems, not mendacity. I cannot tolerate censorship of any kind or by anyone. If these people are not intentionally evil, they come damn close to it by their actions and policies.

You want me to buy books from them? Pay them money to continue their efforts and to have books in my joint that clearly say “Amazon”, to give them free advertisement as well?

If they’re like NYC publishers, they’d demand that I open an account with them. That means giving them my personal info (this shop is a sole-proprietorship), tax numbers and bank accounts and, probably, the account information from three other businesses (either publishers and/or wholesalers) as references. Sorry – not a chance in hell I’d give all of that to Amazon. I do not trust them.

Even if I were to consider it, I haven’t heard enough about their policies: what is the discount structure? are returns allowed and in what time frame? are they selling the same book at a discount that I can’t/won’t match or are they selling the books at the same price as I would?

I don’t doubt that they’re doing good things for you authors. It is fully within their interest to do so. First of all, they’re launching a mystery/crime imprint and want to do all they can to promote it and its authors. Secondly, they want you to promote it and talk about it and to have more authors want to sign with them and to make more and more sales. I would bet that the intent is to take more and more business away from the major publishers who are very good at letting sales slip through their fingers.

Neither of us will change our minds. I’m the owner of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. You are working for Mr. Potter. And Mr. Potter is always buying.

No one else may share my views. We’re all doggedly independent. It might be that I’m extra-sensitive about Amazon since they started here. If it works for others and you, great. But it is not for me.  ~ JB

Whether or not you agree with Seattle Mystery Bookstore is up to you. But SMB is really enjoying playing the martyr in this drama of their own making, and I feel it’s only right to set the record straight in a few key areas.

1) Yes, Amazon removed 1984. And they apologized for it. Profusely. Since then, they have not reached into anyone’s Kindle and removed books. In fact, I received this email from Amazon regarding a book that was updated with a replacement option:

We’re writing about your past Kindle purchase of Suck It, Wonder Woman!: The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek by Olivia Munn, Mac Montandon. The version you received had Missing content that have been corrected.
An updated version of Suck It, Wonder Woman!: The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek (ASIN:B003KVKQBE) is now available. It’s important to note that when we send you the updated version, you will no longer be able to view any highlights, bookmarks, and notes made in your current version and your furthest reading location will be lost.
If you wish to receive the updated version, please reply to this email with the word “Yes” in the first line of your response. Within 2 hours of receiving the e-mail any device that has the title currently downloaded will be updated automatically if the wireless is on.
You can find more information about Kindle related topics here:
We apologize for any inconvenience caused and thank you for your business with Amazon.
Customer Service Department

(emphasis mine)

So not only is NOT reaching into my Kindle and removing a thing, they’ve warned me that accepting the update means losing old notes. Gosh, that sure is evil of them to go out of their way to be helpful isn’t it? Yes, Amazon made a huge mistake with the 1984 debacle. But that mistake was apologized for and corrected. On top of that, I firmly believe if Amazon hadn’t been the ones to make that boneheaded of a decision, B&N or some other eBookstore would have done something similar. But Amazon did, and they’ve paid the price ever since. But let’s not spread lies. Amazon will not and does not pull titles from your Kindle without your permission, and they make the risks of agreeing to swap out a book for an updated version very clear.

2) As far as Amazon playing around with how they list gay and lesbian titles, no, that wasn’t cool. And yes, I definitely raised an eyebrow at the shenanigans. But let’s look at the company as a whole. is rated a 95 by the Human Rights Campaign, meaning they are an extremely gay and lesbian friendly company for which to work. They miss out for not having transgender rights-specific training (hence the lack of a 100%) but they score extremely well. I don’t know what happened with that listing problem, whether the company was actively being homophobic or if they genuinely messed up somewhere, but it’s important to note the company itself is not homophobic or discriminatory.

3) Not wanting to do business with Amazon is one thing, but not trusting them with information is a little bit tin foil hat. Meanwhile, Seattle Mystery Bookshop is on Facebook, a company that has a more flexible view towards privacy than anything Amazon has done. So it’s okay to ask their customers to be on Facebook, sharing THEIR personal information with a company that has a spotty track record with respect to privacy, but the bookshop does not trust Amazon?

4) It’s pretty clear what the issue is here. Seattle Mystery Bookshop doesn’t like Amazon because Amazon is the opposite of an independent bookstore. But it’s not like the “traditional” publishers have given independents special treatment, and discount clubs, B&N and Amazon have been undercutting smaller bookstores for years before Amazon went into publishing. The truth is, this has gone on in every retail category. Before Amazon there was the Sears Catalog. Wal-Mart pushed out the dime store, but now Wal-Mart is being pressured by dollar stores. Best Buy pushed Circuit City and CompUSA out of business (and they pushed many nascent computer stores out of business) but Amazon, Target, Wal-Mart and club stores keep pressure on Best Buy. The company that’s going to put pressure on Amazon may or may not already exist, but it will. That’s the circle of business life. Even if ebooks drive physical bookstores away entirely (which is dubious), Amazon is not the only player in that market, if anything they’ve been steadily losing ground to B&N and other competitors. And, again, in the history of retail, no company has won so thoroughly and completely that they could turn around and raise prices and harm the producers in their supply chain. Even the almighty Wal-Mart is under pressure, despite being the one doing the pressuring for years. It’s really a stretch to think that Amazon will go from roughly 60-70% of the ebook market to 100%, AND that nothing will stand in their way.

Now, that doesn’t help Seattle Mystery Bookshop much, especially since all their rants (and I’m including their subsequent ones here, here, and here) basically boil down to being angry that independent bookstores are struggling against bigger competition. eBooks changed the rules, and that’s just made it worse. But, and I’m really not as cold-hearted as I’m about to sound, but that’s the nature of a capitalist market. Buggy whip manufacturers probably hated Henry Ford. I’m sure the typewriter companies kept IBM’s logo on a dartboard. But that’s the nature of innovations; someone, somewhere, is out-innovating you, outselling you, outpricing you. If you offer something worth buying in person, people will come. If you respond to adversity by posting long, bitter rants on your blog, you’re not fixing anything, all you’re doing is tilting at windmills. And if you really believe buying books from Amazon is evil, then say so. And maybe start carrying only  books from independent publishers, since the big publishers are probably giving Amazon better deals, thus benefiting Amazon as well…it’s inescapable!

What’s your take on the Seattle Mystery Bookshop vs Amazon debate? Am I being too hard on the Bookshop? Share your take below!

Found via ebooknewser

Categories: Editorials

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2 replies

  1. Excellent article, and I agree with your key points. One minor quibble… IBM actually made (excellent) typewriters for years. :)

  2. I have to agree with your comments as well. While I sympathize with the plights of the independents vs. the big guys”, the independents that survive do so because they find a niche or something that they do that the big guys don’t. If all you do is carry the same commodities as everyone else, then the bigger guy will almost always win because, in a capitalist society, they will get the better price breaks and be able to pass that on to the end consumer. The little guy can’t compete on those terms, so they need to find their own space – their own niche that the big guy doesn’t compete will in.

    Unfortunately, in this case the owner was ranting and not really making complete coherent arguments in many cases. They were blending the issues of eBooks (and their affect on the larger book market) with the issues of the big guy vs. the little guy and it left the arguments a mess. By the way – I remember the “1984” incident, but I never heard of the “technical book” being pulled that the ranter mentions. I buy a fair number of technical ebooks from Amazon and others, and I have never had one pulled or even had the situation that you mention either. And, like you, if that did happen, I’d appreciate them telling me that there was a publication issue and I could “swap” for a good version. I’ve had numerous issues of print books with publication errors/issues and never had a bookstore/publisher contact me (or publicly make any announcement) offering to swap the problematic publication! :)

    In any case, the industry is changing fast – some of the changes are good and some are not, but every form of media is seeing dramatic changes in content creation, production, and delivery right now and each is having to come to grips with those changes. Again, where I feel sympathy for people on the down-side of the changes, I also feel pity for those who refuse to make the necessary changes to secure their own place in the changed world and instead simply rail against it. It’s sad and has usually predictable results. I don’t know the financial state of SMB, but I sincerely hope this time, the owner figures out what they need to become to make it rather than break it!