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Amazon Slayed a Negative 77 Indie Bookstores in 2012

23604122_86305d7a3b[1]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:

a noven trend

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 learns radical new ways of doing business.

What do you think?

image by Soul Pusher

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Will O’Neil September 24, 2013 um 12:44 am

I always get a laugh out of all the articles on what book-buyers want. I buy literally scores of books ever year, and the number I purchase had climbed over the past few decades. Until 3 years ago I had a Borders 5 minutes away, and still have a B&N not much further. I also have several good independent booksellers and used bookstores in easy reach. For a long time I visited them all frequently.

And then a funny thing happened: Amazon. When you buy as many books as I do, on a limited budget, price makes a difference. But the thing that really hooked me on Amazon was that I could find the books I wanted. Not the books some clerk who didn’t really know me or my needs though I should read—the books I wanted. I could use its search features to discover if there was a book on a particular topic, and the reader reviews might give me some clue about its suitability. "Look Inside" gives me a good taste of the content in many cases. It was better even than Foyles, a great deal more efficient than searching the shelves of any bookstore, no matter how well stocked. Soon I simply stopped going to physical bookstores. A bookstore is great, I will agree, but being able to quickly find the books I want and need is greater.

I’m not proposing this as a model for everyone. It wouldn’t suit many people at all. But the point is that there is no universal model of the book-buyer, not even close. I can understand that some people don’t care for the Amazon experience. But for some of us it can scarcely be improved upon.

When Amazon was starting up I heard a lot about its limitations and how they would always restrict its market. The company been very creative about finding ways to surmount the limitations so it could expand its reach. Instead of whining about Amazon, others would do well to engage in some thoughtful innovation of their own.

Linda September 24, 2013 um 1:44 pm

When my kids were growing up , we had a great little book store in a plaza called The Liitle Professor. My kids loved to go there all the way thru high school. What was great about it was the personal touch. Cashiers would look up books for us by the isbn and order it for us then call when it was in. College brought amazon to our attention as college book stores have much higher prices than amazon and books are shipped free in two days. U can’t beat that. Now most of us use kindles or iBooks in my family. It seems to be a six of one and half a dozen of the other. We had what we needed but we flocked to something newer maybe the price was better and maybe it wasn’t. A small book store in the the next town over with free wifi and new/used books is now closed. Our community library is reducing hours as the elementary school located next door moved ten miles away. They loan ePub books and have wifi. That’s in a small walking community that really needs that library badly. Right now the closest book store to me is about 25 miles away and it would be so nice if it was closer to just drop by and browse but the demand is not there any more to justify them locally. Our elementary schools have a thousand students, a large library and scholastic book club still for the kids. As adults we gave up our cozy bookstores we loved for the digital life and speed of having a book downloaded at midnight onto our ereader. A giant store saw what we needed and told us, so we followed that lead and like it.

James September 25, 2013 um 9:56 pm

The Little Professor in College Park, MD was the first real bookstore I had ever seen. I bought a book by Carl Sagan.

Ray Kumar September 25, 2013 um 1:27 pm

Will O’Neil: you wrote: ".. Instead of whining about Amazon, others would do well to engage in some thoughtful innovation of their own."

I think the only thoughtful innovation which would help is "Price Matching".

All the other touch-feely, feel-good, sweet nothings attributed to the Indie resurgence entail the inconvenient issue of cost and may help in patronage from price-indifferent and guilt-ridden buyers, but for most, the inevitable showrooming phenomenon will stay entrenched.

Now "Price Matching" coupled with higher costs are a quick route to insolvency unless the Indie Booksellers as a group can negotiate a "Most Favored Nation" relationship with the publishers. Surely, by now even the stodgiest publisher ought to be aware of the existential threat Amazon poses and this "thoughtful innovation" is the only way to preserve this essential component of their eco-system as I read elsewhere that contact with physical books is the kindling which lights book sales, online and off.

Peter September 24, 2013 um 1:06 am

Pish! There will *always* be a need to make stuff up about Amazon killing indie bookstores because Amazon is the root of all evil and the sole cause of everything that has ever gone wrong with publishing ever.

Iaminvincible September 24, 2013 um 6:57 am

Sorry. I can’t see where in your statistics Amazon is mentioned. Perhaps the title should have been 'Indie Bookstores Growing'?

If you want to do a story on Amazon, I recommend 'Amazon are great at tax avoidance' or 'Amazon treat their temp staff like crap' or even 'Amazon: The company that hates to give to charity.' There are so many real articles about Amazon you could write.

Nate Hoffelder September 24, 2013 um 7:05 am

I linked to 5 stories which made the claim. The title of this post is a smart-ass response to the claim.

Tim Moore September 25, 2013 um 8:12 am

Two other factors occurred to me. Websites like allow small bookstores to sell used books over the web, competing with Amazon in that market. Can those sales make a difference in keeping indies afloat? What is the typical proportion of in-store to net-based sales for independent bookstores?
And how does the number of ABA members correlate with the number of bookstores? If five people own a bookstore together, are they all ABA members?

Paul September 24, 2013 um 9:09 am

What I notice when I visit bookstores, is that half the time people are looking up the prices on amazon to compare them (and it was even worse at borders when that was around). The independents may be coming back, but where I used to have 2 bookstores 5 mins walk from where I live (including the 2nd most profitable borders in the country based on cost per sq ft), I now have to drive for 25-30 mins to get to the two remaining bookstores in the northeast DC. (Politics and Prose, and a Barnes & Noble in Rockville). Only bookstores that specialize in niche markets as you suggest, will probably survive, but that means a lot won’t and we better hope state governments don’t continue to close libraries.

Tim Moore September 25, 2013 um 8:02 am

Kramers at Dupont Circle is still a great book store, the kind that makes me wish I had more time to read. I can also recommend the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda.
But it’s OK; on Monday I am moving to Portland OR, home of Powell’s, and can read happily ever after.

fjtorres September 25, 2013 um 8:24 am

I still miss Moonstone bookcellar from Penn Ave…
(Amazon never got a shot at them.)
They would probably be shining today.

Peter Turner September 24, 2013 um 7:46 pm

It’s important to see the trend in the number of physical bookstores not as an indie vs. Amazon but as a physical bookstore of any kind vs. online bookselling. The number of books bought online has grown dramatically in recent years, while the number of book units has remained static. And, it’s not just an Amazon issue. I’ve quized some leading folks in the industry to ballpark Amazon’s online market share of books (print and eBook) and the estimates range from 35%-50%. That’s a lot of non-Amazon online book sales. What’s more, much of this 50%-65% of sales is at a lower discount. It’s worth thinking why this might be.

Rogue Haggis September 26, 2013 um 4:28 pm

I was curious about the relationship of membership in the ABA to the number of actual bookstores on the ground. I searched its listings for Chicago, my city. It comes back with 34 results, which break down into these categories:

8 generalist indy stores.
3 specialist indy stores.
10 listings for a local chain, Barbara’s Bookstore (including 7 locations at O’Hare airport)
2 other chain stores (1 Hudson’s, 1 campus Barnes & Noble)
1 campus bookstore that only sells textbooks (Columbia College)
2 museum gift shops
2 used book stores
1 newsstand
5 things that aren’t bookstores (i.e., there is no place you can go and buy a book)

So the 34 listings translate to ~19 things that we’d call indy bookstores (counting the 7 airport kiosks as 1 store, and not counting the chains or the Columbia bookstore).

It’s a difficult list to parse. Barbara’s has a location inside Macy’s and another in a hospital. I counted those, but do they really count? Then, off the top of my head I can think of two specialist stores (Quimbys, the Occult Bookstore) that aren’t on the list, plus several stores that specialize in non-English books of various stripes. There are two big art museum shops with more books than either of the two listed museum shops, but neither are members. There are at least 3 other campus B&N stores, probably more. I can think of many, many more used book stores, but only two are members. The things that aren’t bookstores include a distribution warehouse for a chain and what appears to be a blog with a Facebook page.

The point is that the actual relationship of ABA membership to indy bookstores is a bit of a guessing game.

Karl October 1, 2013 um 3:48 pm

Where exactly is this chart from? Who carried out the research? If one is going to build an argument based on a graph of information which was "dug up" and "floating around the internet," I’d hope that information has a backbone to support if facade. If facebook memes have taught us anything, there is no validity within statistics that appear without background.

Nicely written piece, but it is not getting me to believe based on a lack of credible evidence. Still believing that Amazon has caused (or helped cause) independent book stores to close, as I have trouble locating neighborhood book stores as easily as I did before the invention of the interweb..

Nate Hoffelder October 1, 2013 um 3:55 pm

The chart is based on data from the American Bookseller Association, and it is corroborated by data that Forbes got from the ABA.

Kasey November 18, 2013 um 6:34 pm

My husband and I own an independent bookstore in the small town in northern PA, where we grew up. We actually started selling books, part-time, online through the Amazon Marketplace, just as a way to supplement our income from our other jobs, and to justify shopping for cool used books we could resell. Eventually, though, we decided our town needed a bookstore again — a real, brick-and-mortar location, for events and browsing. Even after we opened our store, we continued to sell books online through our Amazon Marketplace account…. until, one day in November 2008, we received a form-letter email from Amazon, informing us, simply, that our Seller Account had been permanently closed. We had over 10,000 items listed in our Marketplace store at that time. We had 99% positive feedback. There was no reason for Amazon to shut us down. For more info on our experience, check out my full article at:

Suffice it to say here that I DO believe Amazon shut us down, because they don’t want to help independent bookstores. I have recently learned that one of my favorite bookstores in Vermont, a well-entrenched, well-known indie with many years under their belt, had the same thing happen to them with their Amazon listings.

The fact of the matter is that indie bookstore numbers may be bouncing back, but it is IN SPITE of Amazon, not because of Amazon. Whether Amazon is purposefully trying to destroy independent stores of ANY kind or not, the reality is that their price undercutting, their ruthless business tactics, and their greedy acquisition-focused path DOES hurt small business. Small business thrives despite Amazon’s actions.

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