I FIRST heard of Amazon’s new “promotion” from my bookseller daughter, Emily, in an e-mail with the subject line “Can You Hear Me Screaming in Brooklyn?” According to a link Emily supplied, Amazon was encouraging customers to go into brick-and-mortar bookstores on Saturday, and use its price-check app (which allows shoppers in physical stores to see, by scanning a bar code, if they can get a better price online) to earn a 5 percent credit on Amazon purchases (up to $5 per item, and up to three items).
Books, interestingly enough, were excluded, but you could use your Amazon credit online to buy other things that bookstores sell these days, like music and DVDs. And, if you were scanning, say, the new Steve Jobs biography, you’d no doubt be informed that you were about to pay way too much. I wondered what my writer friends made of all this, so I dashed off an e-mail to Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, and cc’ed Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Andre Dubus III, Anita Shreve, Tom Perrotta and Ann Patchett.
These writers all derive considerable income from Amazon’s book sales. But when the responses to my query started coming in it was clear Amazon’s program would find no defenders in our ranks.
“Scorched-earth capitalism” is how Dennis described it. “They don’t win unless they destroy their competition and then rub their noses in it.” Andre was outraged by Amazon’s attempt to turn its customers into “Droid-packing” spies. Like Dennis, he saw the move as an unsubtle attempt to monopolize the market, the effect of which would ultimately be to “further devalue, as a cultural and human necessity, the book” itself.
Stephen wrote “I love my Kindle” and noted that Amazon had done well by him in terms of book sales. But he too saw the new strategy as both “invasive and unfair.” He thought that many would see the new promotion as nothing more than comparison shopping on steroids but that, in fact, it was “a bridge too far.”
Scott supplied lawyerly perspective: “The law has long been clear that stores do not invite the public in for all purposes. A retailer is not expected to serve as a warming station for the homeless or a site for band practice. So it’s worth wondering whether it’s lawful for Amazon to encourage people to enter a store for the purpose of gathering pricing information for Amazon and buying from the Internet giant, rather than the retailer. Lawful or not, it’s an example of Amazon’s bare-knuckles approach.”
Statements like this will no doubt make us all seem, to Amazon devotees, like a bunch of privileged, holier-than-thou ingrates. Privileged I’ll grant them. But as we swapped e-mails it quickly became clear that the real source of our collective dismay was actually gratitude, not ingratitude. On my first book tour I was invited to Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago. The employees optimistically set up seven folding chairs, then occupied those chairs themselves when nobody showed up for the reading.
Armed with such experiences, my writer pals and I took personally Amazon’s assault on the kinds of stores that hand-sold our books before anybody knew who we were, back before Amazon or the Internet itself existed. As Anita put it, losing independent bookstores would be “akin to editing … a critical part of our culture out of American life.”
As the owner of a new independent bookstore in Nashville, Ann may have more to lose than the rest of us, so I found her calm, resigned response particularly interesting. “There is no point in fighting them or explaining to them that we should be able to coexist civilly in the marketplace,” she wrote me. “I don’t think they care. I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.”
Tom agreed: “People have to understand that their short-term decision to save a couple bucks undermines their long-term interest in their community and vital, real-life literary culture.”
Though it’s under siege, such real-life literary culture exists in unexpected places. A few miles down the road from where I live on the coast of Maine, a talented young bookseller named Lacy Simons recently opened a small bookshop called Hello Hello, and in her blog she wrote eloquently about her relationship to “everyone who comes in my store. If you let me, I’ll get to know you through your reading life and strive to find books that resonate with you. Amazon asks you to take advantage of my knowledge & my education (which I’m still paying for) and treat the space I rent, the heat & light I pay for, the insurance policies I need to be here, the sales tax I gather for the state, the gathering place I offer, the books and book culture I believe in so much that I’ve wagered everything on it” as if it were “a showroom for goods you can just get more cheaply through them.”
Scott reminds me what happened the last time someone stood up to Amazon. Nearly two years ago, the Macmillan publishing group adopted a new sales model that would cost Macmillan in the short run, but allow other companies to enter or remain in the e-book market without having to take a loss on every sale. Amazon’s response to more competition? They refused to sell not merely Macmillan’s e-books, but nearly every physical book Macmillan published. Amazon eventually backed down, but its initial response helped shape a widespread sense that it envisions a world in which there will be no other booksellers or publishers, a world where, history suggests, Amazon may not use its power benignly or for the benefit of literary culture.
This puts me in mind of stories about the days in Old Hollywood when the studios controlled everything. A director friend told me about a particularly ruthless studio head who, as my friend put it, would sell his mother for a bent farthing, and was, as a result, universally feared and loathed. But here’s the thing: the exec shared a common language and a common passion with those he steamrolled. Why? They inhabited the same world. Those days, my friend concluded wistfully, are gone. Movie studios have been subsumed by media empires. And when you try to have a conversation with the new Hollywood, it quickly becomes clear that you’re talking about movies and they’re talking about refrigerators.
As I see it, the problem with Amazon stems from the fact that though it started out as a bookseller, it isn’t anymore, not really. It sells everything now, and it sells it all aggressively. Maybe Amazon doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe because it’s simply too big to care. In a way it’s become, like the John Candy character (minus the eager, slobbering benevolence) in Mel Brooks’s movie “Spaceballs” — half man, half dog and thus its own best friend.
Like just about everybody I’ve talked to about it, I first attributed Amazon’s price-comparison app to arrogance and malevolence, but there’s also something bizarrely clumsy and wrong-footed about it. Critics may appear weak today, but they may not be tomorrow, and if the wind shifts, Amazon’s ham-fisted strategy has the potential to morph into a genuine Occupy Amazon movement. And even if the company is lucky and that doesn’t happen, what has it really gained? The fickle gratitude of people who will have about as much loyalty to Amazon tomorrow as they do today to Barnes & Noble, last year’s bully? This is good business? Is it just me, or does it feel as if the Amazon brass decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean and left in charge of the company a computer that’s fallen head over heels in love with its own algorithms?
In other words, hang in there, Lacy.
Richard Russo, a novelist and screenwriter, is at work on a memoir.