Amazon Books: Retail Game Changer or Same Old Indie Killer?

It’s a sad but true reality nowadays that indie bookstores—heck, even big box stores—are closing. And why is that? Ask around and you’ll get a number of answers: books are too expensive; I don’t have time to read; it’s cheaper and easier to buy books on online.

Ah, here we are. I knew we’d get here eventually.

Online book buying is more popular than ever before. Amazon completely changed the way people buy books, offering more titles at lower prices available in just a few clicks.

So why is Amazon branching out into physical bookstores?

A recent Fast Company article suggest that Amazon Books, the company’s foray into a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, redefines the physical book shopping experience by “solving one of the biggest problems with online shopping: discoverability.” The article goes on to explain how face-out displays, recommendations and data-driven analysis have made it possible to Amazon books to “increase the likelihood you will pick up a book that you didn’t know you wanted to read.”

It sounds so altruistic when you put it like that—helping customers find books, read more, expose readers to new authors and publishers and topics that they might not otherwise consider. This is a store for the browsing reader—the one who wants to read a new book but hasn’t picked one yet. The one who could decide not to buy a book at all if it’s too much trouble to choose one. How could it be anything but a good think to pair this would-be reader with a book?

literary prize winnerBut let us remember that Amazon is a business—keeping an eye on the bottom line means that these lofty ideals are somewhat tainted by the realities of cold, hard cash.

Consider this: Amazon Books stocks fewer titles than a regular bookstore, displaying all books face out so customers can easily read the covers, pick up the books and read the jacket copy. So how does Amazon Books choose which books to carry? Easy. They dive into that massive data-store that they’ve accumulated as an online retailer and push those books that are going to make them the most money—which is to say, they push bestsellers, usually blockbuster books by the large, well-funded publishers like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Simon and Schuster that everybody’s already talking about.

Manicule pointing down.Admittedly, this isn’t much different from any other bookstore, which makes its money off the backs of the Harry Potters and the Girl on a Trains and what have you, but the problem is especially compounded in Amazon books, where the number of titles is so much lower and the reliance on data is so much higher.

Undoubtedly as the model unfolds, regional locations will begin to offer local-interest titles by specialist publishers should they deem the titles lucrative enough. And undoubtedly one-off runaway indie hits will hit the shelves now and then to remind everyone of Amazon’s service to the little guy. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is the TV-watcher’s bookstore–the kind of place you go to pick up the latest buzzed about novel to put on your coffee table and never finish reading.

So what’s the point? Maybe Amazon has built a better bookstore with Amazon Books, but I remain a little disconcerted by the sort of devotion to cold-hard data that might just make it a more profitable physical retailer than the bookstores left in the game. Is it really discovery if you only discover what you’re told, what everyone else is already talking about? In the end, I think Amazon Books is a pretty darned accurate representation of the book industry and maybe business as a whole in 2017—book sales may be holding steady, but the profits are steadily concentrating in the hands of the biggest players.


What do you think about the Amazon Books stores? What does Amazon have up its sleeve? Are they crushing competition? Building a better bookstore? Something else altogether? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social media.

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.