Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Response: Why Amazon Is Not the Best Thing to Happen to Bookselling

On Halloween, Bookslut provided a link to an article by Alison Rowat in the Glasgow Herald titled "Why Amazon is the best thing to happen to bookselling." (It's now been archived; here is a link to the abstract, and I'm happy to email the entire article to anyone who requests it.) I forwarded it to my local booksellers listserve immediately for consideration, but I've been stewing about it ever since. My first reaction to Rowat's complete dismissal of independent booksellers as "fantasy merchants" and "dated as ration books" was so dumbfounded, so full of personal righteous indignation, that I didn't feel capable of gathering my thoughts for a reasoned response. Tonight, however, serving my quiet shift at the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company (another quixotic venture I'll expand upon later), I feel ready to marshal my passion into the service of logic and offer my refutation of the points Rowat has put forward.

(To some, it may seem like a bit of an overreaction to so meticulously respond to an article in a small overseas online periodical, especially one written in a fairly tossed-off, ain't-it-obvious tone, and probably geared toward a set of readers entirely different from anyone likely to read me here. But I'm afraid Rowat's comments are indicative of a thoughtless mindset unfortunately widespread among book buyers. And I hope that we, as booksellers, can "be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in you" [as the underdog early Christians were admonished, if you'll forgive an un-PC literary allusion]. It matters that we know why and how she is wrong. This isn't for the Rowats of the world; it's for the independents who want to change their minds.)

First, I have to acknowledge that there is some truth in Rowat's defense of Amazon.com against the charge that it (along with Britain's Waterstones and America's Barnes & Noble) is destroying literature by offering nothing but blockbusters. As she rightly points out, Amazon makes a huge variety of books, both super-hyped and relatively obscure, available to would-be readers who don't have a local bookstore, or whose local bookstore doesn't carry what they want to read. This has been a boon for those outside of major urban areas in the same way that many, many aspects of the Internet and its age have been, and I don't begrudge Amazon its success, or those readers their books -- more power to them.

But my argument comes down, more or less, to this (credit for the metaphor to my adorably literate partner and housemate, who helps me focus my ranting). Amazon is to an independent local bookstore what the liquor section of the grocery store is to a local pub. Heck yeah, the stuff at the former is cheaper, and they probably have any variety you could think to want. But you don't go to the latter for the prices or the convenience, do you? People visit there for the product, yes, but also for a good recommendation, for the serendipity of who or what you'll find there, for the soul-strengthening reality of being in a building, on a street, with other people. They go there for community. And they go there for the good stuff you can only get in small doses, with luck, from a friendly host.

Okay, I've stretched the metaphor far enough. Truth is, as Rowat implies, there is a lot of nostalgia for an idyllic pre-virtual age in some of the grousing about Amazon, and indie bookstores aren't perfect little Edens, for the most part. What they are, however, is a very real, very contemporary, vibrant and changing part of the literary and cultural world, and one which can (potentially) offer benefits which Amazon simply cannot. Take, for example, the issue of recommendations. Rowat praises Amazon for suggesting "you may also enjoy" books by Saul Bellow when she purchases Portnoy's Complaint online. (She asserts, rather surprisingly, that she has had "bad" books pushed on her at brick-and-mortar stores by booksellers needing to get rid of overstock. I've never heard of this practice, which seems unlikely since a bookseller can always return unsold stock to the publisher, but if it's happened that bookstore deserves her criticism - neighborhood bookstores thrive on trust and returning customers, not on one quick sale. And I have heard it suggested, though I cannot prove, that in some cases Amazon actually accepts payola [i.e. co-op dollars] for prominent placement of books, rather than relying on any editorial discretion.)

In my opinion, it's pretty easy to give Bellow to a Roth reader -- heck, a computer could do it. Both authors fit easily into a certain era and sensibility. But to suggest that a fan of Portnoy's Complaint might also enjoy the dark hilarity, sexual anxiety, and Jewish cultural subtexts of Daniel Handler's (aka Lemony Snicket's) under appreciated adult novel Watch Your Mouth? That takes more insight, and more time, than an automatically generated list of "matches" can provide. It takes a bookseller.

I actually suspect that Rowat, perhaps like many Amazon users, doesn't really get much use out of the depth and variety that she touts as Amazon's strength. (As Andrew Laties, author of the phenomenal Rebel Bookseller advises, what customers say they want isn't always the same as what they do want, and superstores like B&N actually refer to most of their non-bestseller titles as "wallpaper" because of the merely decorative function they serve in such a store.) She complains that the brick-and-mortar store she visited didn't have a copy of the Man Booker Prize-nominated book she asked for. (This could have been oversight on the part of the bookstore, though it could also have been a result of over ordering by, and preferential treatment of, Amazon and the chains, which has been known to happen in the case of a big book.)

Rowat found her book on Amazon, of course. The book has been culturally vetted, one of the few that achieve wide enough notice that it becomes a must-have, go-to item. But as many readers and booksellers know, awards or blockbuster status or cultural cachet can be fickle and arbitrary things, and many readable, important, thought-provoking, brilliant, original, worthy, and loveable books fall through the cracks. The only way to discover them is to get them from someone who really knows your taste -- or just to browse a good selection and see what you run across. These two things, community and serendipity, are the treasures available from independent stores which, for all its riches, Amazon cannot provide.

For all its length now, my thoughts only scratch the surface of the online megastore/independent debate. Other voices have joined in the discussion of this particular piece: here, and here , for starters. (A quick Googling of Alison Rowat will reveal that her style and depth of coverage has made her more enemies that friends on previous occasions as well.) And I know that independents are actually gaining force and will to continue to find their place in a digital age, something I mean to chronicle here. Rowat compares Amazon to Dickens' publishing in periodicals, as "turning the technology of the age to his advantage." But buying well-known books from the standard online source isn't the same thing as creative use of technology. Independents will thrive as they bring their talents to the electronic age with passion instead of fear: with effective online ordering, websites full of their employees' unique recommendations, blogs to bring community and serendipity to a wider market.

We don't need to hate Amazon for what it does. We need to do what we do better. Because what we do is irreplaceable. A good local independent bookstore may be the stuff of book lovers' fantasies. But it's also as real as the corner bar, and getting better all the time.