In certain circles Amazon enjoys a reputation as a slayer of all that is right and good and true. It doesn’t matter whether the topic is publishing, bookstores, or literature, Amazon is responsible for its imminent death.
For example, there’s been a growing urban legend that Amazon is out to kill all bookstores (and doom themselves, LOL). It’s been reported on time after time after time over the past few years. It has been repeated so much that many are taking it as the truth.
Pity there’s no actual evidence to back it up.
I was inspired this morning (last night for many of you) to go dig up a chart that has been floating around. The chart offers clear evidence that Amazon is clearly failing in their role of the Reaper of Bookstores:
Amazon is so effective at killing bookstores that there are actually more indies today than there were 3 years ago.
Update: Or maybe not. A reader on Twitter pointed out that the ABA has been accepting used bookstores as members since February 2011. That tends to undercut my argument. On the other hand, Forbes has documented the growth in indie bookstores so I don’t think I screwed up all that badly.
I don’t know who made it originally, but I do know that it is based on ABA data. I also know that the 2012 figure is still a far lower number than ABA’s membership count in past years. That peaked at 5500 members in 1995 and then proceeded to decline to a mere 2191 members in 2002. The decline continued until 2005, when the ABA says they started gaining members again.
The ABA membership stats are not interchangeable with the real number of indie bookstores, but the decline in membership tells its own tale about why indie bookstores died.
The thing is, Amazon wasn’t nearly big enough in the 1995-2002 period to be responsible for killing indie bookstores. No, that honor goes to the big box bookstore chains like B&N and Borders.
Are you familiar with the movie You’ve Got Mail?
One subplot in that love story was the death of an indie children’s bookstore at the hands of a chain bookstore. Picture that on a national scale and you have a not too inaccurate depiction of the era.
The big-box bookstore chains came along and killed off some indies by being being equally accessible and cheaper, and then Amazon came along and killed off some of the weaker national chains by being even cheaper and nicer to do business with.
And now indie bookstores are making a comeback. Did you ever wonder why?
One of my commenters hit upon the reason yesterday. We rarely see eye to eye, and when he posted a list of reasons to support indie bookstores in their fight against Amazon I realized that he had explained why indie bookstores are going to make a resurgence:
Amazon doesn’t do author events or signings, their discoverability is still atrocious compared to a physical location, and their promotions with smaller publishers are nearly nonexistent. If Amazon is successful in driving physical bookstores out of business (which is their ultimate goal, let’s be realistic), it is highly likely that a smaller-name author would see a drastic drop in sales.
In short, indie bookstores are thriving because they’ve regained and/or relearned the abilities that Amazon can’t match.
And I’m not the only one saying that; Forbes has noticed the resurgence of indie bookstores and proposed the same explanation:
To survive in the age of Amazon, many bookstores are emphasizing what e-commerce has a tougher time delivering: community and a personal touch. It’s not exactly a new strategy. But it has gotten far more attention in recent years.
Amazon’s automated recommendations — couched on its site as “customers who bought this item also bought …” — aren’t quite the same as getting advice from knowledgeable bookstore staff. Nor is Goodreads, the Amazon-owned book recommendation and community site, a substitute for attending an in-store reading by a prize-winning author.
Indeed, many bookstore owners are trying to create a sort of community center amid their shelves. They’ve filled their store calendars with events like author lectures, writing workshops, and children’s camps. Adding cafes also helps to create a scene while also diversifying revenue beyond just selling the latest bestsellers.
Forbes also noted that ABA membership now stands at 1632 members, meaning that Amazon has killed a negative 70 indie bookstores in the past 9 months. This includes booksellers like Copperfield’s Books, an independent chain with six stores in Northern California. Co-owner Paul Jaffe plans to open a 7th store later this year.
And he’s not the only one. “For us who are in the trenches, it’s funny reading about how we’re disappearing when we’re really growing,” said John Evans, co-owner of Diesel, a chain of four bookstores in Calif.
Part of the reason for the revival and resurgence of many of these bookstores is that they have branched out from simply selling books to also selling items like greeting cards and candles. And for some stores this includes selling ereaders and POD books. I myself noted this trend in December of last year when I blogged about Harvard Book Store being:
one of a handful of bookstores which have an Espresso Book Machine. That puts this store in a select group of a dozen US booksellers (including Powell’s, McNally Jackson, and Politics & Prose) which are selling both ereaders and POD books.
You know, for a company that is out to kill bookstores Amazon really sucks at it.
If this trends bears out then there won’t be a need to make up stuff about Amazon killing indie bookstores in order to inspire support for the bookstores. It’s simply not going to be necessary – not IMO unless Amazon leans radical new ways of doing business.
What do you think?
image by Soul Pusher