Amazon just did a boneheaded thing, and it deserves all the scorn you want to heap on it. Last week, the company offered people cash in exchange for going into retail stores and scanning items using the company’s Price Check smartphone app. If you scanned a product and then purchased it from Amazon rather than the shop you were standing in, Amazon would give you a 5 percent discount on the sale. (Disclosure: Slate is an Amazon affiliate; when you click on an Amazon link from Slate, the magazine gets a cut of the proceeds from whatever you buy.)
I’m generally a fan of price comparison—like everyone else, I hate spending more than I should—but I can understand physical retailers’ fear of the practice becoming widespread. When you walk into Best Buy and get a salesperson to spend 10 minutes showing you a television, then leave empty-handed so you can buy the TV for less on Amazon, you’ve just turned Best Buy into Jeff Bezos’ chump. The Price Check promotion (which lasted only one day) was, like Amazon’s aggressive efforts to dodge the collection of sales tax, a brazen attempt to crush local retailers, and I (as did many others) found it distasteful. Sure, I’m a fan of Amazon and devote a substantial portion of my income to its coffers—but does it have to be so wantonly callous about destroying its competitors?
All of which is to say that I was primed to nod in vigorous agreement when I saw novelist Richard Russo’s New York Times op-ed taking on Amazon’s thuggish ways. But as I waded into Russo’s piece—which was widely passed around on Tuesday—I realized that he’d made a critical and common mistake in his argument. Rather than focus on the ways that Amazon’s promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents), Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores. Russo and his novelist friends take for granted that sustaining these cultish, moldering institutions is the only way to foster a “real-life literary culture,” as writer Tom Perrotta puts it. Russo claims that Amazon, unlike the bookstore down the street, “doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe” and has no interest in fostering “literary culture.”
That’s simply bogus. As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books. With his creepy laugh and Dr. Evil smile, Bezos is an easy guy to hate, and I’ve previously worried that he’d ruin the book industry. But if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.
Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?
In the past, bookstores did have one clear advantage over online retailers—you could read any book before you purchased it. But in the e-book age that advantage has slipped away. Amazon and Barnes & Noble let you sample the first chapter of every digital title they carry, and you can do so without leaving your couch.
It’s not just that bookstores are difficult to use. They’re economically inefficient, too. Rent, utilities, and a brigade of book-reading workers aren’t cheap, so the only way for bookstores to stay afloat is to sell items at a huge markup. A few times a year, my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist—drags me into one of our supposedly sacrosanct neighborhood booksellers, and I’m always astonished by how much they want me to pay for books. At many local stores, most titles—even new releases—usually go for list price, which means $35 for hardcovers and $9 to $15 for paperbacks. That’s not slightly more than Amazon charges—at Amazon, you can usually save a staggering 30 to 50 percent. In other words, for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy two.