There's a belief in certain publishing circles that some of Amazon's detractors hate the retailer less for its market dominance than for the fact it sells the "wrong" books. As the theory goes, Amazon sells books that people want to buy rather than the books that meet the approval of (for example) the Manhattan intelligentsia, and that act is a crime that the literati cannot forgive.
I've never really believed that theory, but after reading Rohan Silva's statements in the Telegraph yesterday, I've changed my mind. Silva is launching a new bookstore, and he used the opportunity to take a few swipes at his larger competitor, which he describes as "grotesquely uncompetitive":
In an interview with the Telegraph, Silva – who left Westminster to set up as an entrepreneur – called on the government to refer the situation to the competition authorities, saying it would “make a world of difference for small publishers”.
“The way in which they’re being crushed by Amazon is absolutely heartbreaking,” Silva said. “I’m absolutely aghast about what the government and competition authorities have allowed Amazon to do.
“The government and competition authorities have allowed them to become so dominant and stifle competition. It’s really horrifying.”
Calling on the Secretary of State for Business to refer the online giant to the competition authorities, he added: “It speaks to how weak successive governments have been on competition. As a country, we’re extremely relaxed – to use Peter Mandelson’s phrase – about competition in free markets and the damage that does to small businesses.
“I believe business can be a great force in the world but we should absolutely crack down when businesses are abusing their dominant market position.”
I know dozens of publishers and thousands of authors who only got into publishing after Amazon upset the book market by launching the Kindle Store, so I was frankly surprised to read his complaints.
Far from crushing publishers, Amazon has created more opportunities for independents than any retailer before it. It's easier to get your book on Amazon's site than into indie bookstores, so it's hard to imagine how that net positive could be described as "crushing" anyone.
But then I read the following sentence, and light dawned:
He added the method used by Amazon to recommend books based on what customers had already bought or viewed was "narrow and inhuman".
Yes, Silva is angry that Amazon is not promoting the _right_ books - you know, the ones from the _right_ publishers. Instead Amazon uses its algorithm to predict which books customers might be interested in.
How dare they try to sell consumers what they want. That is simply outrageous, and Silva will have no truck with that practice in his new bookstore.
Later this week Silva is opening Libreria, a new designer bookstore in the heart of London. You can find pictures of the store over on GQ, or read about it in the Guardian or The Bookseller's 1,500 word article (paywalled).
From the description, this 830 square-foot space is almost as much about the presentation of books as the books themselves:
Floor to ceiling shelves, handcrafted by two artists from the Slade School of Fine Art, wind around the walls and emanate a warm, orange glow due to several lights and lamps—all different in style—which spring out from between 6,000 titles. Inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel” and designed by SelgasCano, the same Spanish company that created Second Home, the bookshop has a ceiling covered in an unusual black reflective material called barrisol, along with a mirror at the far end, giving the illusion of extra space.
Helping to conjure a varied bookshop experience, the shop has a whisky bar—free to sup for customers because the venue doesn’t have a licence—and a printing press in the basement, run by designer, printer and bookseller Jessica Fogarty, to really bring books “to life”. The press may one day publish its own titles. In an unusual twist, the books in the shop are displayed by broad, quirky themes and across genres, under which can be found both fiction and non-fiction titles.
While I'm all for the opening of new bookstores, when we combine is hostility towards Amazon with the emphasis on design it comes off as a sense of snooty superiority.
I don't know if that is what Silva intended, but it is off-putting and it would keep me from shopping in the store.
Would you shop there, if you were in London?
The store is on Hanson St in London, and if you do stop by please let us know what you think.
P.S. I dare you to go in and ask for an Amazon title (buy one, and I'll pay you back).
images by Iwan Baan