The Bookseller – Commentary – Low price at what price?

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Almost two out of three books are bought online in the UK today, and most often via Amazon. The Office for National Statistics recently reported that e-commerce levels are higher now than they were before the pandemic. It’s not because readers don’t want to buy from real bookstores. It’s because they want to buy books on the bus on the way home, from the comfort of their couch on a Sunday evening, or they’re looking for a title they can’t find locally. They want service to be convenient and quick and, yes, value for money.

Today, inflation is at its highest level in 40 years and the number of households living in poverty is increasing shamefully. This cost-of-living crisis could present the biggest opportunity yet for Amazon’s share of the book market. It continues to offer books, especially new releases, at incredibly low prices (often less than an independent bookstore can buy that same book for its store). This recent study shows that 43% of consumers even abandon an online purchase at the last moment to buy on Amazon instead – 66% of the time because of the price. Lower prices must be a good thing for readers struggling to pay their gas and food bills, but we have to ask ourselves at what cost to us as a society and as an industry?

There are many well-rehearsed arguments as to why Amazon’s practices do not contribute to a healthy society. These approaches and their impact are not limited to the book trade – from their employment practices, to the waste they generate, to the surprisingly low level of UK corporation tax they pay, to their use of other sources of revenue to fund low prices that are hard to match. These are each maddening in themselves. And, an increasing number of people are refusing to buy from Amazon, therefore, for ethical reasons. Beyond the moral outrage, one must also ask what this means strategically for the industry, and for society. The emphasis on low prices puts small businesses at a distinct disadvantage. Despite a return to growth in the number of independent bookstores in the UK, there is no reason to be complacent. What does this mean for how books get into readers’ hands? What about the real people behind independent bookstores?

The future doesn’t just happen to us. It’s the result of all the little decisions we all make. A change of links does not cost the industry anything

When I first joined Bookshop.org, an editor was kind enough to hang out with me, giving me feedback on what we were doing. During that conversation, one of the most striking things he said was that Amazon doesn’t create demand for books. They just take orders. The implication here is that we’ve allowed The Great Order Taker to become the place where books are most often purchased and left the hard work of persuading readers to buy a particular book to the publishers’ own advertising, to critics, bloggers, Bookstagrammers, BookTokkers and independent bookstores. Independent bookstores are places where readers enjoy serendipity, benefit from a conversation with someone who has read the book, and tend to try their luck on titles beyond bestsellers. Independent bookstores can and do change the market course of a book simply by knowing their customers, reading the book, and creating connections that only humans can. By contrast, readers arrive at Amazon having already decided what to read (thanks to the hard work of everyone else), ready to type specific titles into a search bar. We need to ask ourselves if good work is rewarded.

Beyond their strategic value for our industry, bookstores are placemakers. They invest in our communities and shopping streets and provide good local employment opportunities. They often work tirelessly to do more than just sell books, working closely with schools, getting books into the hands of people who can’t afford them and/or who need them most. You need look no further than The Bookery’s inspired double win (both Independent Bookstore of the Year and Children’s Bookstore of the Year) at the Nibbies for proof of the unique and vital role that independent bookstores play for us as an industry, but equally important, for us as a society.

Don’t get me wrong, Amazon starts with a huge set of benefits – incredibly deep pockets (which allow for low prices), 99% brand awareness, over 15 million Prime customers in the UK alone, and millions and millions and millions of links.

Now, there’s not much we can do about that, but there’s a lot the industry can do easily about a lot of that – links. These links are a powerful currency. Your mighty currency – links (paid and organic) from authors, publishers, bloggers/reviewers/BookTokkers and anyone talking about books online. These links could significantly change the path and opportunity for independent bookstores. The same independent bookstores we hope you’ll visit during Independent Bookstore Week. Those who are pillars of the community who champion the books that the algorithms miss (or sometimes amusingly miscategorize).

The future doesn’t just happen to us. It’s the result of all the little decisions we all make. A modification of the links does not cost the industry anything. These links are generated day after day and generate sales. So this Independent Bookstore Week, we want everyone to go visit an independent bookstore, and then when you get back to your desks, take a break and consider making a different decision. At a minimum, add a independent link when you share a book. Better yet: switch to 100% unrelated links. It’s time we all treated independent bookstores less like a cute, cozy part of the industry and more like the strategic partners that they are. We have to recognize and reward the crucial role they play far beyond taking orders, both for us as an industry and as a society.

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