Why Can’t Amazon and the Indies Just Get Along?

Amazon riled up the book-reading world again, using a price-checking app promotion to declare war on the brick-and-mortars. Richard Russo eloquently told Amazon to suck it, while some guy at Slate made the type of rebuttal you’d expect to hear from a third-year business student trying to get an English major into bed. By now, every self-appointed book journalist with a Twitter account has thrown in their own angst-ridden 140 characters on the subject.

What the Slate guy said was true. Amazon and indie bookstores sell one of the same products: books. Both of them want my money. Amazon usually wants less of it.

And yes, more people have access to affordable books than ever before because of Amazon’s ability to charge less money for them.

One example is the Steve Jobs biography, Amazon’s bestselling book of 2011. It’s virtually half price on Amazon compared to my local bookstore–even less if I owned a Kindle and got the ebook.

Indies can’t match Amazon’s pricing.

But Amazon can’t match the indie bookstore experience.

Pardon the digression, but say I want a cup of coffee. I could boil a pot of water in my kitchen, pour it over a few scoops of coarse-ground beans in the French Press, wait four minutes, throw in some half-and-half and sugar and be done with it. Total cost: maybe 75 cents. And I don’t even have to leave my house.

But what if I want a coffee experience that involves community? I could drive to my local coffee shop, pay $4 for a cleverly named latte, throw in $1 for a tip (which in itself exceeds the cost of home brew), find a poofy chair and sip away at my premium drink while pondering the universe and meeting (hopefully) a few interesting people.

It’s more efficient for me to make my own drink–and cheaper–but I still choose to go out for coffee quite a bit because I like to support local businesses and have real-life, outside-of-the-house experiences. I’m not the only caffeine addict like this, which is why we’re never going to encounter a shortage of coffee shops. The same could be said of bars–and bookstores.

One argument against Amazon is that cheap, soulless people go out and “window shop” at bookstores and then buy the books at home on Amazon, presumably from the comfort of their IKEA sofas, for less. That doesn’t speak much for the intelligence of these window shoppers, because going to the bookstore costs time–assuming those people value their time–and gas money that adds up to more than a few shekels. If penny-pinching readers want to do that, fine, but I doubt it happens as often as claimed.

Think of it the opposite way, the way I personally choose to buy books. If I’m considering buying a novel, I will Google the title. What’s one of the first sites to come up? Amazon. How convenient–I can read the reviews of maybe a few hundred Amazon shoppers and then go buy the book at my local bookstore, Malaprop’s, say hello to friendly employees like Caroline and maybe find a related book or two to purchase there. Would the literary blogosphere think ill of me for “exploiting” Amazon in that case and rush to Jeff Bezos’ defense? I don’t think so.

I like Amazon for two reasons: their ability to provide books that aren’t available locally, and their massive inventory of non-book items that I wouldn’t even know where to find in the nearest three counties. Those are valuable services for a company to provide, though they aren’t the only company who can provide them, and they don’t have to be so predatory about it. (In their defense, they have substantial competition from other ethically bankrupt corporations like Walmart.)

I like indie bookstores for far more reasons, the main being this: while science may not be able to prove it, there is serious therapeutic value in surrounding yourself with good books and the types of people who are interested in them. And that experience is worth way more than any 40% discount Amazon could provide on the Everything Guide to Making More Money Than You’ll Ever Need on the Internet.

P.S. I still have friends who I met at indie bookstores 5-10 years ago. I have never made a friend while shopping on Amazon. Well, once I spoke to a girl in their customer service department about a CD that arrived broken. Do you think she remembers me?

(For that matter, do you think she remembers CDs?)
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