Monday, 3 December 2012


Or why Amazon is kicking the ass of bookstores

I think it's pretty obvious that I really enjoy reading both comics and novels. Specifically, that I enjoy reading print comics and books (too much screen time makes my eyes literally bleed). As a lover of print prose writing and sequential art I have a vested interest in supporting local bookstores and comic shops.

The trouble is, I'm finding myself buying more and more things from Amazon.

As a consumer of genre fiction and comic books, brick and mortar stores kind of suck. Let me explain: when I go book or graphic novel shopping I generally know exactly what I want so I go into a store with an objective. The goal therefore is: how quickly can I find the book/comic I want and where can I find it cheapest.

When I have the time I might stop by the great independent bookstore on my way from work to find that specific thing I am looking for. Typically, while the bookstore will have a lot of great books to choose from, they won't have what I want, particularly if it's new. So, generally speaking independent bookstores just leave me disappointed.

So then I might try the Canadian big chain bookstore where the odds of finding a book I want are often worse. Due to a limited amount of shelving space and an increasing emphasis on "lifestyle" items (at the expense of yet more shelving space) chain bookstores focus on best selling books and recently released fiction. Sadly much of the genre fiction I'm hunting for is not in this category and therefore not in stock. Even new higher profile Sci-fi/Fantasy/Crime/Mystery novels often do not show up in stores until well after their release date. In my experience looking for specific novels at bookstores is a waste of time (time spent getting to the store, time spent futilely browsing the store, time spent travelling to the next store... repeat) and all very disappointing.

Now both the independent and chain book retailer are plenty happy to bring in books that are out of stock. It will just take two or three weeks, involve an additional trip to the store, and cost full price.

Contrast this to Amazon which has about as vast a collection of books as is realistically possible, will ship the books to you (or your workplace shipping department) for free if you bundle a few orders, can get the books to you in days for a fee or in about a week for free, and they sell their books at a discount. Strangely, even their customer service is excellent: the few times I've had to invoke their aid my problems have been dealt with super quickly amd curteously. To put it bluntly: Amazon manages to be both cheaper and more convenient than retail stores. As a consumer it really is the better book buying experience.

(Hell, with the Internet providing an endlessly supply of information and opinions (often disguised as information) the main strength of a well curated bookstore, helping readers discover new books, is rendered somewhat moot.)

Now, amazon's ability to do this is in a long game way a bad thing for consumers. Their ability to accept razor thin profit margins on books, comics, and other media is offset by their ability to sell non-discounted other things. This allows them to essentially undercut conventional stores and to place increased economic pressure on already struggling bookstores and comic shops. This economic pressure will drive some shops out of business and, if we are willing to entertain some wild extrapolation, grant Amazon a near-monopoly level of market share. And a monopoly is shit for consumers since it can charge what it wants and provide crumby customer service without serious consequences.

In the long run it is also shit for publishers and creators. As more book sellers close, particularly smaller more independenty ones, the more power over the industry the few remaining large retailers accrue. If Amazon were to become the only bookseller, a monopsony, it could dictate prices, what percent of the sales goes to the publisher (and therefore author), and and can basically drive publishers out of business on a whim. This aspect of their growin power is just as destructive to the book publishing industry as its affects on the retail industry.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that what's good for us as consumers now, is probably not great for the future, and as a result I feel a bit guilty about buying things from Amazon even though it is clearly the best consumer experience.

Why is it that ethical purchasing (choosing local, sustainable, or creator-centric things) always comes with a premium in price and time investment?

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