A vs. B: Amazon, Bookshop.org, and Empires
By Liz Merton
First: the obligatory (literally—it’s required) disclosure. Read Local is an affiliate of Bookshop.org and will earn a commission if you (or anyone!) clicks a bookshop.org link on the Read Local site and makes a purchase using that link.
Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way. . . .
In March, Bookshop.org debuted to (in the words of the Chicago Tribune) “play Rebel Alliance to Amazon’s Empire.” We at Read Local set up an affiliate page to give people using our site options when they want to buy books (and to make a little $ when people use our site; our site costs money, time, and commitment to maintain and it ain’t a gold mine at this point). But we have also watched the Bookshop site develop over the last several weeks, and we think it bears making a few comments here (for whatever these thoughts are worth!).
So is Amazon really the [Evil] Empire?
We can’t and won’t say it is. Yes, we understand (deeply, truly, much much much) that Amazon has had a, shall we say, deleterious effect on local businesses. Aspects of this effect upset us. We love (absolutely LOVE) local bookstores. Here, in no particular order, are some shout-outs (another disclosure: we get NOTHING for these shout-outs other than a chance to proclaim our love of these shops):
Librería Laberinto Viejo San Juan (on Calle de la Cruz in San Juan, Puerto Rico) (couldn’t find a website to link)
These are fabulous places we love to visit when we go adventuring.
As (mostly) children of the ’80s (Leo is a product of the ’60s, but we still love him), we remember Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Brentano’s, Borders—may they rest in peace.
Bookshop.org offers local bookstores and “affiliates” (book reviewers, authors, book lovers) a platform to support book sales and make $$$. The thing is: so does Amazon. Here’s an example (New Mexico’s Big Star Books’ Amazon page):
We haven’t researched the Amazon options yet. But they seem to be out there, at least in some form.
Regardless, it’s a “pick-your-poison” dichotomy. Amazon radically shifted publishing and destabilized that industry by making "self-publishing" a far more viable option for people. Whatever your feelings about self-publishing (yeah, a lot of it is really bad, but some of it is excellent), Amazon democratized publishing. In a huge way. It opened a door that allows small presses to compete on a far more level playing field (nothing is ever level-level). And it spurred the used-book market (used books deserve their own article; suffice it to say, used books = recycling . . . and accessibility if you can’t shell out the cover price).
Amazon and Bookshop.org do not represent Goliath and David. The situation simply involves far too many complications—like so many wrinkles of reality in our multi-layered American society and economy. Amazon gave many, many Davids a voice. Bookshop.org seems to enjoy some relatively deep pockets. As it describes itself on its website, Bookshop “is a B-Corp—a corporation dedicated to the public good.” We love that! From what we’ve seen on the site, it also enjoys advertising from some big hitters like Basic Books (a Hachette imprint) and Catapult (we are looking forward to watching this press, but make no mistake; it’s no foundling little thing with a leader like Elizabeth Koch [yes, those Kochs] at the helm).
Independent bookstores (any bookstores) generally support big publishing, whether directly or indirectly. It makes sense. Stores have to sell popular money makers. Much (though not all) of the time, that’s how stores make their money. A shop like Austin’s Malvern Books, which offers a veritable pirate’s chest of unique titles, poetry, and truly off-the-beaten-path reading is a unique beast indeed. The brick-and-mortar bookstore is typically part of a publishing industry dominated by the Big Five/major publishers, major book distributors, and major review entities (New York Times, anyone?). This state of affairs makes sense in light of (among many other factors) the weight of paper books for shipping, the risk of investing in inventory, and an industry practice of allowing bookshops to return unsold merchandise to balance risk. Modern print-on-demand technology, ebooks, and (yep, you guessed it) the internet as a whole have destabilized the old publishing model. (Sage worked at a nonprofit for a bit, overseeing their publishing arm. Even a traditional press with which she worked at that time switched to print-on-demand when an initial print run ran out after a book became more popular than anticipated.) Accessibility, democratization, true freedom of the press, and escaping “social censorship” in the form of a necessity for commercial viability have made some strange bedfellows . . . and one of these bedfellows may be Amazon. (Now, IngramSpark and others offer options as well, of course, but IngramSpark is Ingram is a major distributor . . . and so on.)
Read Local doesn’t want to dive into politics, economics, or moral philosophy. We do books. We just want to say that—like most things—the questions and answers surrounding Amazon are more complicated than labels like [evil] “empire” suggest. So shop local, eat local, dress local—and Read Local. Just remember, reading local can mean a number of different things. For us, at this point, it means independent (usually smaller) presses.