The biggest threat to local bookstores? Crazy booksellers and their fanboys

Last week, Amazon tried to train consumers to openly treat local retail stores as showrooms for Amazon merchandise. It was a ballsy but ethically shaky move; I believe customers who participated helped Amazon steal resources and sales from competitors for very little compensation. It was, at the very least, retail dirty pool.

But then—even though Amazon’s promotion was aimed more at big box retailers—the crazy publishing industry types had to get involved.

If you want to see the collective mind of U.S. bookselling culture at its lockstep worse, first read Farhad Manjoo’s provocative article at Slate where he praises Amazon’s Kindle initiative and disparages local indie bookstores. Then take a deep breath and read the comments. No, wait, the comments are filled with stuff that’s too easy to dismiss as weird nonsensical ranting, like the commenter who claims authors don’t get royalties from Amazon sales. Go instead to the The New York Observer and follow some of the links in that summary.

For example, The Observer describes New York bookseller Dustin Kurtz’s response to the Slate article as a “play-by-play excoriation,” and it’s being praised and passed around the Internet by what I can only assume are people with rabies. Although it looks at first like a methodical takedown of Manjoo’s arguments—the kind of written fistfight I love to dive into—it’s actually just a string of increasingly emotional and sarcastic insults. A true counterargument would rationally dissect each of Manjoo’s statements and show how he’s wrong to dismiss the local bookstore model; Kurtz just goes for emotional outbursts, as if the average customer will be swayed by the party that displays the most contempt.

It’s fine to have an emotional tirade in private, where you invent new obscenities to heap upon Amazon and lay a series of elaborate curses upon Bezos’ family tree. But the rest of us don’t care about that. The only thing that I, by which I mean a Random Customer, want to know is why I should support a local bookseller even if it can never compete on price or selection. I want the bookseller advocate to show me facts that I’m too inexperienced or blinkered to see on my own.

Instead, we get stuff like this. Manjoo writes that bookstores used to have the advantage of letting customers sample books before buying them, but that this “advantage has slipped away. Amazon and Barnes & Noble let you sample the first chapter of every digital title they carry, and you can do so without leaving your couch.” Kurtz’s response:

This guy. Okay first, publishers do that as well, and Google. We would, too if competing with Amazon didn’t mean we couldn’t afford a better website. But more importantly, IS THAT THE STANDARD BY WHICH YOU WISH TO JUDGE A SUCCESSFUL IMPLEMENTATION SIR? Because do I have a chamber pot to sell you.

So if I’m reading Manjoo correctly, he’s saying that bookstores have lost a competitive edge—book sampling—now that the ebook infrastructure has matured. Manjoo explicitly points out that this isn’t just an Amazon feature. Kurtz responds that publishers and Google also offer this, which in fact supports Manjoo’s original statement. He then sidesteps the issue to complain that Amazon’s existence has prevented him from creating a good website. I can’t disprove that statement, although based on my experience building websites over the past decade it sounds foolish. I can, however, show Kurtz this sample page from a local indie bookseller [update: I think it’s his own store, in fact] that uses a Google affiliate account to provide free digital previews. Yes, I just helped Kurtz counter one of Manajoo’s statements with actual evidence. You’re welcome, furious bookseller.

I don’t even understand the final part of Kurtz’s response in the quote above. I mean, I think Manjoo is saying that previewing a book is a good thing, and that any bookseller would want to offer it to customers. So yeah, I think it’s absolutely appropriate to include it in a comparison of what retailers offer to consumers. And…Kurtz doesn’t? What? At any rate, I don’t need a chamber pot, although I do think the term “night soil” is pretty awesome.

The whole piece is like that. Kurtz argues that bookstore employees are better at making recommendations to customers than a recommendation algorithm, and that a bookstore can order a book and have it ready for you to pick up in the same time it would take you to receive it from Amazon. The first statement doesn’t accurately describe the real world shopping experience, and the second one misses the point about what makes for a competitive advantage.

When it comes to recommendations, what booksellers aren’t willing to acknowledge is that Manjoo isn’t talking solely about Amazon when he notes the competitive advantages bookstores have lost in recent years. Manjoo’s point is that when you buy a book online, you have access to a vast amount of data that a physical bookstore can’t provide on its own. If I pick up a new paperback by a well-known thriller author in a bookstore, I have, at best, less than a handful of data points to help me decide whether to buy it: the back-of-book summary and any promotional blurbs, a quick skimming of the opening pages, a personal thumbs up or down from the employee, and in rare cases the feedback of another customer. If I look at the same book online—and not only when I’m shopping on Amazon, but at any time when I’m near a computer and remember the book—I can visit Goodreads, look at Amazon and B&N customer reviews, grab an offline sample to read later when I’m ready, search for author interviews and professional reviews. And it’s not just that I have more points of data, but that more of them are impartial. On top of all that, the Internet lets me comparison shop for my preferred price/format combo.

As for Kurtz’s claim that a bookseller can order a book for you in the same time you’d get it from Amazon, assuming that’s a true statement (I don’t know of any evidence one way or the other), it doesn’t address other competitive disadvantages for a local retailer like pricing or the limited recommendation tools I just described. In fact, it actually highlights those disadvantages, which works in the online retailer’s favor.

Kurtz is just one bookseller. He was having a fit, and I sympathize with that. But wait, here’s writer and editor Judy Berman at Flavorwire: she not only mocks Manjoo for rationally preferring to shop at the retailer with the best prices and recommendation tools, but she also dismisses book consumers who share their thoughts online as stereotypical basement nerds:

I find it sad, actually, that Manjoo — a generally sharp and smart technology writer — finds clicking around on Amazon to be more fun than browsing the shelves of a real-life bookstore where (gasp!) one might actually interact with other book lovers. It also seems specious to argue that Amazon customer reviews are more useful than the advice of an independent bookstore employee or owner, who presumably has more knowledge of and enthusiasm for literature than your average unknown dude typing angrily in his parents’ basement.

Then there are the absurd exchanges like this one on Twitter (you can see a screen capture here), where a Penguin executive insists that self-publishing and the current “singles” trend in e-publishing existed well before Amazon, but refuses to acknowledge the massive transformation the Amazon Kindle has forced upon the marketplace despite the continuing resistance of traditional publishers like Penguin—a transformation that has so far benefitted every sector of the industry but one: physical bookstores.

The real issue here is that there’s a false technological divide, one booksellers (and their traditionalist fans as well as many publishers) have created to their own collective detriment. They demand to know of you, the consumer: Do you support humans or robot overlords? Do you support small business or faceless corporations? (But please ignore those corporate behemoths who provide our merchandise—we need you to hate only this specific evil corporation.) Berman even pulls out the old political us vs. them values deceit, writing that “We would also prefer to see our cash go to small business owners (and their employees) whose values are more in line with our own.” Quick, someone bring the two major political parties into this dust up, because I think we just went there.

STOP, LOCAL BOOKSELLER ENTHUSIASTS. JUST STOP. Reading your outbursts reminds me of when a family member of mine was diagnosed with diabetes, yet refused to acknowledge it or change her diet. Look, there actually are things local bookstores can claim as authentic competitive advantages against online retailers like Amazon:

  • You can lease an Espresso Machine and offer true instant gratification to your customers. At the same time, start pushing publishers to make more new releases available on the Espresso platform, and push Xerox and On Demand Books to continue improving the quality of the final Espresso product. Consider ways to use the machine to provide local self-publishing services and classes. Unless you’re a publishing elitist, the idea of helping regular people read and write and exchange one-off, custom books and journals should be bookseller nirvana to you.
  • You can keep developing the concept of the local bookstore as the only place to meet authors. Figure out unique, site-specific variations on the old-fashioned book signing, like how Housing Works Used Book Café in NYC had a live band join Jennifer Egan at a reading earlier this year. Find ways to increase the personalization of the traditional book reading. Perhaps you could collect questions from local customers ahead of an author’s visit, and offer those whose questions are answered at the event some special perk, like maybe a smaller “private” Q&A with the author before or after the event.
  • You can send the marketing of local authors into overdrive, and market your store as an integral component of the very fabric of your local culture. You want customers who shop with you to feel a visceral sense of pride and connection to local history when they step through your doors—it’s a value proposition no online retailer can offer.
  • You can find better ways to sell ebooks. Figure out how to intercept price-conscious customers before they leave the store, not so you can guilt-trip them into buying from you but so you can make them special offers, or you can teach them how to buy ebooks from your website so that you still make a little revenue.
  • Finally you can learn to respond to market threats positively, at least around ebook customers, so that they instinctively want to be on your side. When I wrote a thoughtful, knowledgable email to the owner of a local bookstore in NYC earlier this year explaining how their current ebook strategy was losing them customers (you can read it here), I received no reply. Zilch. Crickets. By comparison, do you know how many indie software developers have personally responded to my random bits of feedback over the past five years? All of them. Seriously. Even the Symbian game developer in Russia, whose English was not so good (although a lot better than my Russian). Indie developers know that every customer matters, and that the next useful insight could come from anywhere. If they resented my input, they didn’t show it to me.

Why more local booksellers aren’t aggressively pursuing these strategies, or ones similar to or better than them, instead of throwing fits online about an article that’s at least 65% accurate about the shrinking value prop of the local bookstore, is beyond me. I guess ultimately I just like books more than they do.

Hey guess what! After I wrote this, I looked into the background of the guy whose post I criticized the most above, and I realized that it’s very likely he works at the same bookstore that ignored me when I sent in my ebook customer suggestion a few months ago. I only noticed this after the fact, but I can’t say I’m surprised.

(Photo: go ask alice…)

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