Data-Driven Amazon Bookstores Can’t Compete with Indies
So What, Exactly, is the Point?
The physical world is a wonderful medium, and it’s not going to go away.
–Jeff Bezos, 1999
Chances are, if you are reading this, that you have for some period of your life been a regular at the kind of bookstore owned and run by a mean old walrus with ketchup stains on his shirt and strata of nicotine marbled into his whiskers, and who turns out to be very knowledgeable and cool and non-creepy once you get to know him.
And even though his shop is a musty mess, books piled up like little temples and triple-layered on the shelves and hoarded into far-fetched crannies, he always knows exactly where everything is (and you could always find something surprising and secret and wonderful in there). And then you sort of got to know him a little, and he gave you a dog-eared Pynchon novel when you went away to college, and it changed your taste in prose forever.
That bookstore—your corner bookstore, the one with real character and worn wooden floors, the one where everybody knows your name—if it is still there, has been barely breaking even for the past 20 years and more. Overall sales of printed books have actually risen modestly over the past four or five years. But you-know-who is scarfing up more and more of the pie. Amazon is now responsible for the sale of north of 40 percent of all new printed books sold in the United States. Amazon sells about two thirds of all books sold online. Amazon has about 350 million customers worldwide, of which an estimated 90 million are Prime members.
When it comes to bookstores, bibliophiles often display a fiercely anti-corporate, moralistic streak. (Back in the late 90s, your pimpled correspondent worked at Blue Dragon Bookshop and wore a t-shirt bearing the proud legend “Support your local independent bookstore: Friends don’t let friends buy books at Barnes & Noble.”) So when Amazon set up shop in the Time Warner Center by Columbus Circle in New York City last year—one of ten stores it opened around the country in 2017—it was no surprise when the bookworm waxed wroth.
Every one of the early reviews I’ve read, and everyone I’ve discussed it with, finds something enraging or gross or troubling in the idea of a physical Amazon bookstore. Everyone I’ve talked to about this also shops on Amazon. I chalk this up not to hypocrisy but to the fact that there is still something unreal for us about online shopping—some part of us can’t or won’t take fully seriously the thought that as we click to buy we are forking over actual greenbacks, and that this is of some moment to that corner shop. Amazon’s success comes from the sheer sit-at-home-in-your-PJs convenience of it, but one side effect of that convenience is to mute the sense that your transactions on the site are as real-life as real can be.
Barnes & Noble was early to grudge Amazon its trespass into reality. The “world’s largest bookstore” sued the “Earth’s biggest bookstore” in 1997, on the grounds that the latter tag was false advertising, because Amazon wasn’t a bookstore at all, but a book broker. (It ended in a tie.) Mostly, though, the brick-and-mortar facts of online shopping don’t sink in. The notion that Amazon has been made flesh in order to exist across the block from that shop, on the other hand, seems just plumb out of line—as if some unspoken taboo has been violated—when in fact it is our multitude of clicks come home to roost.
Still, the reviews of the new Amazon store concluded on a note of relief. With all its gizmotopian technosyncrasies, it cannot actually compete with your neighborhood shop. It stocks too few books, its approach is too robotically data-driven, its employees are not remarkably knowledgeable about books, it is selling toys and e-gadgets as much as (or more than) books, it is not a cozy place to browse or to discover something you did not already know about. Even the CEO of the American Booksellers Association—dauntless captain of our Gutenberg Titanic—asks us to Remain Calm, assuring us that the Amazon bookstore is a different kind of business altogether. You can rest assured that that corner bookstore is safe. So safe that, lo, the number of independent bookstores has increased by more than 30 percent since 2009.
“Every one of the early reviews I’ve read, and everyone I’ve discussed it with, finds something enraging or gross or troubling in the idea of a physical Amazon bookstore. Everyone I’ve talked to about this also shops on Amazon.”
This is like the sigh of relief that critics breathed when they told us that an MP3 track still does not sound as good as hearing the philharmonic in person. The fact that independent bookstores occupy a safe niche should not conceal the fact that they have been lapped again and again by Amazon’s operation, which outsells all independent bookstores put together about sevenfold. And the fact that this new bookstore is not the same kind of thing as ye olde ones makes it all the stranger. Because the store is a gamble: Amazon must, by law, start charging state taxes in those states where it has physical stores or warehouses, and it’s been shown that marginal increase results in 10 percent less business for Amazon in those states. Okay, so when you account for 89 percent of all online holiday spending—as Amazon did this past year (again)—maybe you can afford to gamble. But if the physical bookstore is not about to compete directly with regular independent bookstores, what exactly is the point of it?
To see if I can find out, I take a trip to the lair of the Bezos, dragging my wife along with me to the Columbus Circle shop. The pleasant lighting and narcotic mall fragrance, the peppy Wilson Pickett soundtrack, the meet-and-greet within five seconds flat (Welcome! : ) ) are not so different from what you’d find at Barnes & Noble—or any similarly tame college bookstore that, along with the fightin’ colors blazoned on sweatpants and keychains, also happens to stock some books for rent. You have to walk around a little before you see what’s up. For starters, every single book in the store faces out at you, open to inspection as on a magazine rack. There is no book in the whole store that is displayed so you have to read its spine. This means that, faced with any given bookcase, there are only 25 books before you, five per shelf—whereas in any normally disposed shelf, you would be looking at several times that number. The book is sold by the proverbial cover.
There are seven or eight employees milling around (still holding down the jobs that robots don’t want), all eager to deliver an exceptional in-store experience. I arrest one of them to ask about the covers. She cheerfully volunteers that this arrangement is easier on the eye, and that this makes it like a million times easier to pick up a book and look at it, without having to pry it loose from its neighbors on the shelf. More to the point, she demonstrates how to use the app that you need to shop the store: when you point your phone at a cover, it scans it to display the current price for you. The price is keyed to the website, where it may fluctuate over time, and you are the first to know it. Without the app, one must do a small penance by carting each book over to one of the scanners found throughout the store.
It’s easy to see that this is a gimmick to conscript you into Prime, since if you’re not already a member, you’ll pay full prices for everything. But there is something else going on too. Where other bookstores offer their wares by putting the word before the image (by asking you to read titles on spines), the Amazon bookstore puts the image before the word. There is something uncanny, something dreamily familiar about this layout, and it strikes me that the books are set out to look like icons on the Amazon website. The display evokes the experience of interacting with a book online, looking at and then touching images for more information. (Think of Look inside -> and the little white Mickey Mouse glove that serves as proxy for our hand, when we flip the sample pages.) The effect of the displayed covers—and the requirement that the customer “do” something interactive, point and click, in order to “unlock” the price—is to transform books into physical web links, words into hypertext. It is as if an airport bookstore has been turned into a video game.
“In an independent bookstore, especially in a used bookstore, every single book on the shelf represents a studied judgment by the store’s buyer . . . In the Amazon bookstore, taste has been crowd-sourced.”
New media reshape old practices. They are not just tools but environments and habits of mind, as Marshall McLuhan never tired of pointing out: they shape the world by shaping how we learn to tell it. Just as Protestantism and nationalism would have been impossible without the printing press, and television changed the style and substance of much of our culture, the internet is doing it all over again. What’s interesting about the Amazon bookstore—what the critics missed in their rage—is that it so flagrantly foregoes the only advantage that brick-and-mortars still retain over online bookstores, namely the ability to browse through titles quickly and to find something you did not already have in mind. This store gives itself the handicap of limiting the amount of books you encounter, but it does so by simulating the sense of being online, where to see is to know, and to touch is to do. Reality has been virtualized. The meaning of the word “digital” has come true—you can put your finger on the web, large as life, in real time.
Then there are matters of taste. In independent bookstores you often see a shelf or two of staff recommendations—books suggested by those shaggy-chic people sulking around the place who likely spend a lot more time reading books than the rest of us. In an independent bookstore, especially in a used bookstore, every single book on the shelf represents a studied judgment by the store’s buyer. The selection is a window into someone’s taste in conversation with the customers’. In the Amazon bookstore, taste has been crowd-sourced. The books on the shelves are each accompanied by a printed card that lists a rating on Amazon, the number of reviews, and a sample quote from an online review. So instead of some nerd from the Fake News Sunday Book Review telling us what to like, here’s “Kyle” or “Utah Mom” observing that this book is “written with superb attention to detail” or is “surprisingly relatable” or “full of age-old wisdom.” The verdict on James Joyce’s Dubliners: “Each story is a gem”—which, with all due respect to “Brandon” (who I’m guessing didn’t sign up for this limelight), is as funny and daft and obscene as all those Yelp reviews that people take the trouble to write recommending, you know, the Grand Canyon, or the Louvre.
These are actual reviews on Amazon.com. But on the site, you can comb through any number of such appraisals, which are sometimes informative about nuts and bolts: Is the print bad? Does the spine break? Is the table of contents incomplete? (On what other subject should I trust the judgment of a total stranger, when it comes to books?) Here in store, just one has been singled out and printed off to sell each book. Even Bezos himself rubs shoulders with us ordinary folk, chiming in to comment on The Remains of the Day: “My favorite book. It teaches the dangers and sorrows of life regret better than any nonfiction book ever could.” It’s a nice transmission, suggesting traces of an almost humanoid vulnerability. And in fact on the day I visited it was the only book in the store that seemed to be out of stock—whether this bears witness to the clout of Jeff’s word or to that of the Nobel Committee is anybody’s guess.
I ask my Amazon person how it is that they select these reviews—after all, each of these books may have thousands. She says they are “curated” by someone in a central office somewhere else (no one inside the store is calling any shots about the merch), and that they have been chosen to say “something good and something bad” about the book. They are picked to be inane, in other words, but they are inane in a very specific and familiar way—what’s surprising is not how clumsy they are, but how skillfully they mimic a well-worn stock of dust-jacket judgments (“wonderful ability to make scenes come to life,” “readable and enjoyable,” “a must read,” “hit it right on the nail,” and so on). The point of these sound-bite accolades is not to substitute expert for inexpert say-so. They function rather as verbal mannequins, as models of what you might easily picture yourself saying when asked to praise a book. It is LadyTee135’s seeming randomness that makes her the authentic and credible emissary of the wisdom of the crowd. You be the judge! See for yourself! We are all in it together.
Most of the section headings are what you would expect from a regular old bookstore—science and nature, fiction, assorted nonfiction, and so on. But then here are: “Highly Rated Children’s Books, 4.8 Stars & Above,” “Most Wished-for Books on Amazon,” “Books with More than 10,000 Reviews on Amazon,” and then “New Hardcover Fiction: Selected using customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, and popularity on Goodreads—plus books we love.” (“We” who?) And this approach trickles down to more whimsical variations: “96 percent of our reviewers rated this 5 stars,” or “one of Amazon’s 100 books to read in a lifetime,” or a row of books with the familiar “if you liked, you’ll love . . .” The numbers speak for themselves. What’s good is anybody’s guess, but 350 million customers can’t be wrong.
I had been worried, as I first looked around, that I was looking at a version of dystopia in which everyone only reads what everyone else is already reading, a vicious circle alternating empty-headedness with narrow-mindedness. Taste has lost all edge here, but it is not yet true that everything in the store has seeped down to the very blandest level of vanilla pabulum—along with Joyce, you can still find Dostoevsky and Hemingway here, alongside Calvino and Hesse and winners of the major annual literary prizes. You can even find Franklin Foer’s World without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, which is an “Amazon Book Pick.” The blurb is written by “Amazon Books” itself (they were never going to let justsomeguy or PoohBear have this one): “The world has rushed to embrace four gigantic corporations: Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google. Here, Franklin Foer outlines the existential threat of this embrace and outlines ways to fight their influence.” For a book that refers to Amazon’s business strategies as “nefarious,” “terrifying” and “almost sadistic”—as an existential threat, in fact—this is very measured treatment. It registers just above a polite yawn. I mean, at least Big Brother took books seriously enough to commit them to the flames.
“I had been worried, as I first looked around, that I was looking at a version of dystopia in which everyone only reads what everyone else is already reading, a vicious circle alternating empty-headedness with narrow-mindedness.”
I like to think that my preferences are unfathomable, elusive of prediction. As a matter of fact, whenever I buy something on Amazon, I am forced to admit that the site makes plausible recommendations. There is usually something to hold my interest, and about a third of Amazon’s sales come from just such recommendations. But their only value is personal; it comes from reading the pattern of my own preferences. Here at Amazon Books we only get the personal in general, one-size-fits-all. Once you pass the most wished for books on Amazon, you are then at “Fiction: Top Sellers in New York,” and you are getting warmer, warmer, warmer until you come to the climax at the back of the store: “Popular Books in Time Warner Center: Beyond the Bestsellers.” Aside from the whiff of phony counterculture in that “beyond,” this is as if to say: you are inside the search engine now, because we know what’s on your mind, because we’ve put it there, because you’re looking at it. It a show of raw strength, like a steroidal Conan the Algorithm flexing his guns on stage.
It’s hard to work out why this ever seemed like a good idea. Even if I happened to be an employee of the Time Warner Center, why would it appeal to me to know what the dissociated mob of all tourists and randos at one of the world’s busiest blocks is buying? It doesn’t, it can’t appeal, because there is no stable identity behind the name “Time Warner Center.” It is a total that doesn’t add up into a whole. But that’s just it, I think: “Time Warner Center” is a data set’s version of a community. Where physical position registers as a data point, “Time Warner Center” is the only identity to which the store’s algorithm can be certain you belong. It is a simulation of some common neighborhood “we,” a simulation of the relationships that make many independent bookstores places of civic friendship. “Time Warner Center” means no more than “you are here.” I already know I’m here. I’m just not sure what “here” is.
It is extraordinary that what is now “the everything store” should have gotten started with books. There were canny business reasons for the choice, but the hunch (shared by Google’s “Alphabet”) that whoever can control access to our words can control everything else is proving right. From A to Z, the smiling arrow points—we have the words, we bring the world to your doorstep. It is also extraordinary that, in the teeth of earlier biblio-gloom, the book looks set to comfortably navigate the cyber age. Umberto Eco once said that the book is like the spoon—just as you can’t make a spoon that works better than a spoon, a book just is what it irreducibly is. Bezos agrees. Even at the Kindle launch, a little over ten years ago, he said (with his characteristically romantic dash) that “the book is so highly evolved and so suited to its task that it’s very hard to displace.” The new bookstore serves a hodgepodge of purposes: it is a standing advertisement, a data-gathering mission, a branding venture, and a toe gingerly dipped into the waters of walk-in commerce. But it also shows that Bezos meant what he said, while showing off the ways in which our expectations about picking out books—our notions of what books should do and be—are shifting under pressure from the force of online habits, the ways in which our online presence follows us into the world, on paper and in store.
Later, on the subway ride home, I catch sight of someone with a canvas bag inscribed with a Lincoln quote: “My best friend is a person who will give me a book I have not read.” And I think about the friend that the algorithm is in the business of simulating, the love that Amazon now apes to sell. I think about those times when someone knew me well enough to give me a book that really did have my name on it, when someone knew me better than myself, and we smiled at the recognition that the word glows brighter shared, and were claimed by the promise of all writing that speaks delight to time. Books can be chancy, intimate gifts—you ask for hours of someone’s attention, daring to guess that, yes, his or her life will be the fuller for it, that when the last page is turned you will have earned that time alongside, you will be closer, will be together time apart in risking work of common mind.
“Isn’t that a Barnes & Noble tote bag?” my wife asks. And so it was.
From the latest issue of The Point. Used with permission of The Point. Copyright © 2018 by Antón Barba-Kay.