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Telegraph: Literati Bookseller Bemoans Amazon "Crushing Small Publishers" by Selling the Wrong Books

810There’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.

810Later 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

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Chris Meadows February 22, 2016 um 1:09 pm

I’m honestly surprised you didn’t take more notice of the free whiskey bar. I mean, there are so many things you could say about that. Like:

"Amazon might drive some booksellers to drink, but it’s driving at least one to give away free booze."

Or "London bookseller takes cue from pick-up artists, 'negs' Amazon while attempting to push books on customers by getting them drunk."

Or maybe "Judging 'Civilised Saturday' prosecco giveaways too timid and brewery bookshops too uncultured, London bookseller decides to offer free whiskey instead."

"Bookseller skirts liquor laws by giving booze away, but hopes to make it up in volume."

Seriously, I could go on and on.

Nate Hoffelder February 22, 2016 um 1:22 pm

I was focused more on his words about Amazon, and only brought up the store because I thought it added important context. But you’re right, that would have been a great line.

Gbm February 22, 2016 um 1:52 pm

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.

So he is gone to deliberately make it hard to find the book you are looking for.

Nate Hoffelder February 22, 2016 um 2:26 pm

That’s kinda the point, yes.

Sebastián Lalaurette February 24, 2016 um 4:13 pm

Are you trying to emulate’s Amazon search box or recommendation system? If you know what book you want, you can look for it in the bookstore’s computer (or have an employee look it up for you). The displays are more akin to the recommendation system, where the subjects books are grouped by match your potential interest. It’s much better than having five or six company-preselected options, and one of the ways bookstores still kick Amazon’s ass.

Jon Jermey February 22, 2016 um 2:27 pm

I give the bookshop six months.

I give the free whisky bar six days.

MKS February 22, 2016 um 2:40 pm

so… Speaking of unfair competition… What do all the licensed bars think of his speakeasy? I’m assuming the markup on his books will make the unselling of booze profitable?

I must say, it is difficult to think if a more unprofitable business model than small, arty bookstore in high rent district giving away hard liquor. Maybe he should add some private reading booths in the back for special one-on-one tutoring sessions and an opium den in the basement with live music.

Mackay Bell February 22, 2016 um 5:54 pm

I don’t know why you find it hard to believe that a big issue (perhaps the biggest issue) with Amazon and those screaming about “literature” is that Amazon is selling the “wrong” books.

This is a common, very human pattern in entertainment history. Somebody does something creative and fun, the masses love it and it becomes popular. Powerful people become involved (seeking to benefit from the power/money and prestige) take it over, and slowly take out the fun until no one is interested anymore.

For example, Kabuki theater started with women (prostitutes?) dancing in river beds as they told stories. Women played both the male and female parts. It became wildly popular and took off. Then the government got involved, started building huge theaters and decided that women shouldn’t be involved and then all the roles were played by men. Rich academics got involved, starting saying what was and wasn’t proper Kabuki “art” and eventually the theaters started going empty and closing. Kabuki today is dying. More and more government money needs to go into keeping it alive, or money from rich patrons who make up for the loss of general popularity.

Same thing happened with Opera, Ballet, painting, sculpture, European art films, etc. Usually it’s when the rich people get involved, finance academic programs to teach the proper arts, and then rich kids want to express themselves (in the right way) and the public is cut out of the fun. Once the public abandons it, there is call for government action to keep it alive.

This is exactly the pattern followed in “literature” where a very popular form of art, novels, which was supposed to be about telling grand wild stories in a fun way, was pressured by universities and big publishers to become about artists expressing themselves and readers improving their minds by forcing themselves to read boring stuff.

So, yes, that’s the big issue with Amazon. It’s making it easy for audiences to find what they want and read what they want. Which isn’t what the snobs controlling the industry want them to read. So indy writers are rushing to fill the demand.

The thing is, while Amazon was smart enough to take advantage of the situation, the truth is readers have been unhappy with the publishing world for at least a generation, maybe more. Big publishers were always publishing more “literature” than people wanted to read, never publishing enough of the fun stuff (Harry Potter) and went out of their way to lavish praise and attention on literary darlings no one cared about. All the while, directly or indirectly trying to marginalize popular genre.

Even if Amazon didn’t exist, thanks to the internet, someone else would have jumped into this role. And even if the internet didn’t exist, POD would have seriously changed the dynamics. Mainstream, “literature” was well on it’s way to obscurity back in the 1970’s. Interest in the serious great American novel was already fading, and had never really been that strong to begin with.

fjtorres February 22, 2016 um 9:57 pm

It goes back well over a century.
There actually is a track record of literary luminaries decrying *literacy* in both the US and UK in the latter half of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.

Anyway, it isn’t just the literati bemoaning Amazon’s customer focus; the AU/AG/BPH Axis of ADS continually whine about Amazon’s promotion of "their own" books (because in their eyes only big corporations can be successful publishers so they ascribe all KDP titles to Amazon) instead of their titles. All the Amazon-bashing would end overnight if only Amazon would play fair and shift all indie titles to another website where they couldn’t mingle with "proper" books selling at full list.
(Which they have actually said in public more than once.)

Sharon Reamer February 23, 2016 um 5:17 am

Nice summary, Mackay.

Nate Hoffelder February 23, 2016 um 9:31 am

I don’t know why you find it hard to believe that a big issue (perhaps the biggest issue) with Amazon and those screaming about “literature” is that Amazon is selling the “wrong” books.

Because I think that is honestly one of the stupidest reasons to dislike Amazon, and because it feels too much like it is a straw man invention of the person who says it rather than the actual opinion of the person it is attributed to.

"Somebody does something creative and fun, the masses love it and it becomes popular. Powerful people become involved (seeking to benefit from the power/money and prestige) take it over, and slowly take out the fun until no one is interested anymore."

That would explain why I find most stage musicals, including all opera and ballet, so unappealing. A simply and entertaining type of performance was turned into a "sophisticated" art form which requires that you work to understand it, rather than simply be entertained.


fjtorres February 23, 2016 um 9:58 am

Opera I can agree with but a good ballet company operates in Cirque du Soleil territory; watchable just for the athletics.

Nate Hoffelder February 23, 2016 um 10:13 am

I guess I haven’t seen a good opera company, then.

Mackay Bell February 23, 2016 um 4:36 pm

I love opera but it’s very hard to find good productions. Everything reeks of embalming fluid. Likewise, ballet companies are hard put to keep in business, but Cirque du Soleil, which really has element of both ballet and opera, fills theater after theater because it isn’t stuck in the past.

Nate, you mentioned Broadway, it almost closed back in the 1970’s because it was controlled by a few artists and rich families who just kept doing the same old stuff and trying to do "serious" things that audiences weren’t interested in. It didn’t really get healthy until Disney moved in (much to the horror of the elite) and started making pop culture musicals based on famous animation. (Which provides money for the artistic community to pay their rent and work on less obvious shows like Hamilton.)

If you haven’t seen Lion King, you should. It has all the great elements of pop entertainment and all the surprise and beauty of real art.

And Kinky Boots is terrific. Mackay Bell two thumbs up!

Mackay Bell February 23, 2016 um 4:48 pm

"Because I think that is honestly one of the stupidest reasons to dislike Amazon…" It’s not stupid if you’ve spent your whole life invested in the idea that the only reason to write or publish is to write something "important" that will be acclaimed by the "right" kind of people. If you’re a writer, editor, or agent that has embraced that world, rose up in it, had success or feel you might have success in it, what is going on with Amazon is like hearing the sun over your world is about to explode.

It’s actually the best reason (for someone in that world) to be upset. If the issue really was that books are too cheap, or that you have to embrace the ebook format, or learn about social media, that’s all fixable. Just get to work. But if your world is dying and you don’t want to move into a new world, that’s serious. (For these kinds of people.)

Basically, there are a lot of MFA teachers who are going to have to admit that everything they’ve been teaching for twenty years has been wrong. There are agents who are going to have to chase after writers, rather than the other way around. There are writers who are going to have to stop gazing at their navels and start writing about Zombies and S&M virgins if they want success. It’s all pretty traumatic for them. Not to mention the blue haired rich ladies and pompous book critics who increasingly look like fools having cocktail parties for writers who write novels that no one reads.

David North February 22, 2016 um 10:07 pm

Man–you gotta love a guy crying out for the government to use its power to stop a business from giving the customers want they want–so he can give them what he wants instead.

Nate Hoffelder February 22, 2016 um 10:50 pm

I know!

Vivienne Tuffnell February 23, 2016 um 8:07 am

Tempting offer in the ps, but I’ll pass. I’ve long found chain bookshops off-putting because of their obvious attempts to woo customers; yet they seldom stock anything I want to read, anyway. Our local indie bookshop makes my wallet groan each time I go in, though.

Syn February 23, 2016 um 9:19 pm

I would go there to check it out, browse some books, then go buy them on Amazon.

puzzled February 23, 2016 um 9:25 pm

Judging from the photograph of the store, a significant amount of the stock is only accessible by Lurch.

Nate Hoffelder February 23, 2016 um 9:44 pm

There’s a mirrored ceiling (it’s visually confusing, I know).

puzzled February 24, 2016 um 12:55 am

Even with the mirror.

When the book shop fails (anyone want to start a pool?), it can become a sex shop…

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