Is Amazon Saving Indie Bookstores?

I posited this during my keynote speech at the inaugural PubSmart conference here in Charleston, SC. And nobody threw anything at me. A few people came up afterward and wondered if there might be some merit to the idea. My thinking is this: The true enemy of independent bookstores has been the large chains like Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Waldenbooks, not online shopping. There was even a movie about this. Since the rise of Amazon, we’ve seen some of these chains shutter and many of the B&N stores close. Meanwhile, independent bookstores are experiencing near double-digit growth for three years running.

Is it possible that Amazon more directly competes with the large chains, and the independent stores are rising to reclaim their role in reading communities? I think so. Shoppers looking for discounts, or who know exactly what they need ahead of time, are using mouse clicks rather than driving to the big chain.

It’s also possible that the “shop local” movement, which is partly a response to the rise of discounters like Amazon, vastly benefits independent bookshops more than large chains. I know this works for me. I pay full retail for hardbacks at a mom-and-pop place but balk at 20% discounts from chains. Are there more shoppers like me?

Major publishers lambast Amazon, because they think the large chains are their main hope for the survival of brick and mortar bookshops. Independent bookstores (like the one I used to work in) go right along with the stone-throwing, assuming what’s bad for B&N and Borders must be bad for them as well. And yeah, I saw people scanning UPC codes and taking pics of books to buy online later. I also saw our sales numbers improve every year, partly because of our reorganization of the shop and our focus on customer service, but more because of the shuttering of WaldenBooks.

Amazon is knocking out the big predators. The indie bookshops are filling up some of that space. Meg Ryan should be orgasmic.

29 responses to “Is Amazon Saving Indie Bookstores?”

  1. Could well be, but could also be be short term only…

  2. At least, one point in favor of this idea is that Amazon outshines large chains bookstores where they where challenging independent bookstores : choice, convenience and price.

    But Amazon can’t compete with indies on direct human contact, specialised (non algorithmic) selection etc. And I suppose indeed with chains bookstores closing, some customers will go back to indie.

    1. That’s my thinking exactly. Amazon does a better job at what big discounters do, but it can’t replace what indie shops do best. If indies concentrate on their strengths, look at the large chains as their true enemy, I think a future exists where we have Amazon to serve part of the market and indies to serve the rest.

  3. I think publishers like large chains because they only have to pitch the book to a much smaller buyers group; this drives down their marketing costs substantially.

    On another note, I think anybody that is getting advice from a bookshop (chain or independent) and then goes and buys it from Amazon is being a vile, loathsome human being. Covers/UPCs? Borderline, as long as you haven’t actually wasted anybody’s time directing you to the book(s).

    1. I helped a customer find a book once, only to have them steal it! >:(

      1. I once personalized a book (for a signing) at a B&N once, only to have the store alert me later that the customer had left it on a shelf elsewhere…ugh.

  4. Now that Books A Million is closed, will you be opening a shop up in Jupiter? I would take my daughter to your store on a regular basis.

    1. I’ve considered it. My dream is to open a bookshop one day. “Bella’s Books.” A place for me to take my dog every morning, run a bookshop, and sit and write. I’ll blog soon about what my bookstore would be like, because there’s nothing else like it out there.

      1. With your connection with Amazon now, perhaps they would put up half the cost if you opened “Bella’s Amazon Best Sellers”, and sold the top ten books in every popular genre? Of course you would have one section called “Hey, Give These Guy’s A Shot”, lol. More of my idea is posted seperately below…

  5. Shannon Walters Avatar
    Shannon Walters

    A wonderful resurgence in reading is happening, kids and teens are reading again! Thanks to books like the Harry Potter series and Divergent trilogy, it’s become “cool” to read again. I think it’s fantastic. There’s also the uprising of the “Little Free Libraries” popping up in front of homes. This also drives sales as a reader gets hooked on an author or a book series and goes to a book store to get more. :)

  6. kathy czarnecki Avatar
    kathy czarnecki

    I could walk in to B&N 10 times looking for a title and walk out with nothing each time. I can go to my favorite Indy bookshop the same number of times and walk out with a book each time. B&N is like Costco, where I used to be able to find a book now and then but these days all they have are 1,000 copies of Wheel Of Time and obscure cookbooks!

  7. Good stuff. There will always be a place for indie book stores, though their business model may change. I don’t go there for cheap books, I go there for the experience. Also, you should end every post with links to Meg Ryan faking orgasms:)

  8. I don’t know how normal I am with my book shopping but I also am more willing to pay more from an independent bookseller, but there is a huge disclaimer here. I buy only a few physical books a year compared to before buying my first Kindle. I used to buy a book or two a week but now I might only buy one or two a month. I now have some pretty hard rules about when I buy books.
    1. Not available as an ebook (obviously)
    2. Cheaper than the ebook
    3. One of a few authors I buy everything in hard copies or have the series already in hard copies (and a second ebook copy when cheap)
    4. If it is signed or I can get it signed (so Hugh, any trips to L.A. soon?)
    Under these rules I haven’t bought anything but a coffee for myself from Barnes and Noble in over 2 years and am much more willing mto make the 30 minute drive out to Mysterious Galaxy or one of the other wonderful independent book stores I have around me.

  9. Excellent observation. I agree with Shannon, there definitely seems to be an arts movement occurring. Not just books, but music and other mediums. It’s never been so easy to create and share your art. And, to Shannon’s point, it’s ‘cool’ again.

    Still, the brick and mortar store that survives can’t be just a bookshelf, it’s got to be the seed of an arts community. Unreal service is just the beginning, it should also be a place that inspires others to create and interact with one another. There’s no longer margin in selling books, but there will always be some margin when you sell the passion and opportunity to dream.

    Which leads to the next question, since it isn’t that far-fetched, what does the corner bookstore of the future even sell if everything goes to digital and some collectible on-demand prints?

  10. Sometimes I think you should go back to working in a bookstore. It seems you were happier there.

  11. Another thought-provoking post, Hugh. The indie bookstores in my town are gone; I rarely go to the B&N down the street from me, and when I do, it’s to sit across from other indie writers and share a tea while we write. Having switched over to ebooks in 2011 when I first published my own, I almost never read print books–though I collect certain precious copies.

    As much as I would love to support an indie bookstore, and would go for events, a cafe, or meeting with friends, I’m loath to buy a physical book. Reading Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” right now–loaned by a friend–in hardcover. It’s incredibly heavy, bulky, and uncomfortable to read (nearly 800 pages) though I’m loving it. Of course, others obviously feel quite differently about print.

    So while I agree that indie bookstores that make themselves a great destination can thrive, I wouldn’t be much of a customer for books. But combine the books with community events, music, signings, and a good cuppa, and I’m there.

  12. I think it’s temporary. They’re filling the void that the chain-stores are leaving. They too will eventually succumb to the same forces that are killing the chains. Because whatever they do, can be done online. Careful curation? Build a carefully curated bookstore… online. Whimsical books? Build a wonderfully whimsical bookstore… online. Helpful sales staff? Equip your bookstore with an army of knowledgeable and enthusiastic sales staff that customers can summon with the press of a button… online.

    But I will admit–I did not expect indie bookstores to do as well as they have. So maybe I’m wrong about all this. If so, no one would be happier than me. There’s nothing I like better than browsing a well stocked bookstore.

    1. Your last comment shows why you are wrong, people love real books, we might do most of our reading on a Kindle now but some books deserve a hard copy and a place on our home bookshelves. And there are a lot of people who do not like reading e-books, i would guess half of the people I know do not read e-books, they wait for library sales and get hard copies. To me, the idea that someone visits and I can pull a book off a shelf and say, “Read this now”, is an image I think will always be with us.

  13. “Are there more shoppers like me?”

    Yes, Hugh, there are other dedicated Indie bookstore shoppers like you. :-)
    The core “indie store shopper” will not hesitate to pay full retail for a novel, for they know how their money benefits the store, the publisher and the author.

    I wince every time I see a percent-off book at a grocery store or big box retailer checkout line, knowing that book is a loss-leader. In almost all cases, their authors would make more money if you fished out the change in your pocket and handed it over. Even worse are the books those stores don’t sell, taken back by the distributor and stripped of their covers for credit.

    Amazon’s centralized warehouses and the Indie’s smaller volumes make these “old-guard” volume-discounter practices such as stripping covers for credit unnecessary, much to the benefit of the environment.

  14. Our local indie stores, Poisoned Pen and Changing Hands, feature a different author speaking almost every day. My local B&N had someone once this year. I make the 5 mile longer drive to Poisoned Pen because it’s a destination. If I’m “just grabbing a hardcopy” I can get it at Costco or Amazon.

    Peace, Seeley

  15. […] Lisez l’article de Hugh Howey ici (en anglais) et les commentaires tout aussi intéressants. […]

  16. Hugh, I’m with you. I’ve written at least one blog post on what bookstores need to do to stay in business and some are apparently doing it. Keep sending the message.

  17. I hope this is true, but an indie book store will really have to be more of a destination and a place to hang out (serving coffee won’t hurt) to stay in business long term.

    I know many people are in love with paper books, but it’s really nice to read on a kindle or iPad. I suspect more and more people will succumb to the convenience of being able to pull up a book on their iPhones when they’re stuck in a line.

    Now that I’m used to it, it’s hard for me to go back to paper books. Also, with electronic I can make the text big enough that I don’t need my reading glasses. :)

  18. It’s strange because Amazon never feels like you are shopping with a major multi-national conglomerate corporation because it’s easy and convenient. Your heart sinks when you give money to one of the big chains because I think we all like to see the big players fade somewhat. Small book stores have a romanticism about them, it’s simply nice to shop in them, getting to know the owner maybe, old antique furniture maybe even a dusty shelf or two. I like it, it’s what I grew up with. Amazon is crushing the major chains and the smaller guys are carving out the left over territory. This is completely fine by me (o: …. Viva le small guy!!

  19. […] pas encore ? Mais la question, c’est quid de ce monopole et de son effet sur les librairies ? Is Amazon saving bookstores ? Bella’s bookshop […]

  20. I agree there can be, and will be, a melding between online publishing and local bookstores, I think it is the big book stores that will go away. In the future the online book sellers will replace the few who decide what gets published with the many who decide what sells. Once a self published book proves itself by selling well, small bookstores will cash in by stocking their shelves with books that have already proven their worth.
    This is a win for everyone. The death of small bookstores was the big bookstores because they do not have full choice in what they can shelve, if they want to sell one book, they must stock others. Small stores don’t have the shelf space to compete. But self published books are not controlled by the big publishers, so a small bookstore can go to Amazon and see what is hot in each genre, order enough stock, and sell what people already have shown they want to read.
    I see this as the future, e-books might never replace real books, so we will always need a place to find these hard copies. And it is always more fun to walk the book aisle looking at what is out there. Imagine – a bookstore that only sells bestsellers- that is what I want to see.

  21. Independent bookstores are getting more sales now because Amazon have knocked out their brick-and-mortar competitors in the same neighborhood. It doesn’t mean that they won’t get knocked out by Amazon later as well, especially when Amazon improves on their shipping speed.

  22. […] I posited this during my keynote speech at the inaugural PubSmart conference here in Charleston, SC. And nobody threw anything at me. A few people came up afterward and wondered if there might be some merit to the idea. My thinking is this: The true enemy of independent bookstores has been the large chains like Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Waldenbooks, not online shopping. There was even a movie about this. Since the rise of Amazon, we’ve seen some of these chains shutter and many of the B&N stores close. Meanwhile, independent bookstores are experiencing near double-digit growth for three years running. […]

  23. Guest Commenter Avatar
    Guest Commenter

    I have yet to see one of these “indie” bookstores of which you speak. The Borders in the nearby mall closed some years back (it was Waldenbooks), and now the closest B&N is a good THIRTY MILES away from my house. The only other bookstores — period — are the B&N-branded student stores that sell the requisite textbooks for the colleges and career-training schools in the area. Other than that there’s Target, Wal-Mart and the local supermarket chain. I don’t even think there is a Costco in my area. You’d be seriously hard-pressed to find a “local bookshop” within a good 50 miles of where I live. I loathe Amazon (sorry, folks) for various reasons, and wish I could boycott it entirely, but have found that it’s practically the only method of delivery if I want/need to buy a book (especially for college, which I can’t wait to finish so that I can get back to reading the things I WANT to read and not bothering with stupid, overpriced, boring textbooks that are dryer than stale toast).

    The supply chain at the college stores is weird, too: the college bookshops don’t actually order through B&N. They order through Amazon and B&N appears on the receipt (“fulfills” the order, I guess? Not sure how that works but that’s how it is). You can either order through the bookstore directly and have it delivered to your house, or order through the bookstore and pick it up on campus, or just cut out the pointless middleman and just order through Amazon (bypassing the otherwise useless B&N). The only other merchandise you get at the college store is university-branded junk like keychains, bumper stickers and clothing. Maybe some stationery, like pens, notebooks and binders. It’s almost like a hybrid B&N and Staples, with a little CafePress thrown in for good measure. In other words, it’s pretty lame.

    Other than the above, I don’t think one of these indie bookstores exists within a good 50-100 miles of my driveway. I don’t think I’d be able to recognize one if a brick fell from its mortar and hit me on the head. You guys must live in “artsy” cities like Portland and Austin where an “independent entrepreneur” is someone who “peddles as he pedals” and hawks his wares on a 10-speed Schwinn at Burning Man. Me, I live in the decaying middle-class suburbs where the only “shops on the corner” are defunct gas stations manned 24/7 by feuding meth dealers. At least the restrooms are finally clean, what with no one stopping there anymore. Now I’m sad. But at least the old lady at the other table across from Meg cheered me up a bit. :)

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