There have been so many positive articles about indie bookstores this week … The Huffing Post on “Indie Bookstores Are Making A Comeback”, The Cultureist with the “10 Best Neighborhood Bookstores in New York City”, starting with Sunday’s New York Times feature Literary Lions United that only adds to Amazon’s PR nightmare.

Artisan crafted literary scarves carried by Prairie Path Books.

Artisan crafted literary scarves carried by Prairie Path Books.

I predict this will be a wildly successful year for Small Business Saturday, the important shopping day after Black Friday on Thanksgiving weekend. Thanks go American Express and their marketing brilliance, more and more people have paused to think about where they shop … and what that says about their values.

This interest in everything local is visible in a growing number of ways in western culture. We’re eating locally grown foods, shopping with companies that will strengthen our local economy, and discover items made by real human hands.

That’s why it’s the era of indie and Etsy. Today, I received the monthly email from a new indie bookstore outside Chicago, Prairie Path Books. Featured are lovely scarves and gloves with a literary theme from Storiarts. I’ve got my wallet out and I want to be first in line for The Secret Garden scarf, beautifully presenting words and graphics from this precious classic story.

Indie bookstores and indie artisans. What a perfect pairing. You can’t beat having an indie bookstore with unique items in a neighborhood bookstore, run by your neighbors, in your community. Small can be powerful, especially when we’re playing the same tune and dancing the same dance.

In today’s issue of Shelf-Awareness, Hachette’s CEO Michael Pietsch was quoted as offering thanks to booksellers for their support during their difficulties with Amazon.

This section sign says it perfectly: we can work together and all support readers and writers.

This section sign says it perfectly: we can work together and all support readers and writers.

While some may say that indie booksellers had good reason to support Hachette since Amazon has taken every opportunity to drive out bricks-and-mortar bookstores by selling popular books below their cost and significantly discounting for years, the motivation is actually much more basic: this kind of bullying behavior has been foreign to the book business … until Amazon gained substantial power.

Independent booksellers have weathered much during the last three decades: the growth of big box stores, Amazon’s relentless discounting to drive out competition, an economic crisis, the acceptance of e-reading devices and the growth of various platforms for electronic reading. Indies are a tenacious and values-driven group. They are still alive and speaking up for what is right and fair and good for society.

For many of us in business for ourselves, it’s the only way we know how to participate in a collective effort that centers on literacy, lifelong learning, and living an honorable life.

It’s a wonderful topic! And, you’ll see magazines pose the question to authors and celebrities, but it’s also a perfect question for bookstores to ask their customers … and to use on shelf-talkers around the store.

Once you get on in age you realize: there simply is not enough time in life to read (or re-read) everything you want to read. You stop trying to get through the book you are not enjoying. You don’t read a book just because a friend told you “it’s good”.

We want to find people who appreciate the same kinds of books we love. So now we know that the Amazon reviews are rigged and laden with paid placement. There are so many more books and many more reviews per book, but who do you trust?

Shelf-talkers are often written only by staff, but there are a number of local experts who could be helping shape your section ... and engage customers

Shelf-talkers are often written only by staff, but there are a number of local experts who could be helping shape your section … and engage customers

This is the #1 opportunity for any independent bookseller. The challenge is, how do you keep up with all of the books being published? The major publishers crank out hundreds of thousands each year and now with independent publishing so easy everyone who wants to write a book is or has, finding something good to read is more and more difficult.

So why not take the online reviews strategies into the bookstore? Some stores have featured reviews by select customers, but not nearly enough stores do this and with not nearly enough customers to create buzz and interaction among customers.

Imagine seeing book displays and shelf-talkers with quotes from your:

  • school principal on the best books on helping children succeed in reading and in life
  • master gardener on choosing the right plant for your region
  • physician on the best books for weight loss and controlling diabetes
  • respected pastors with books that helped them deal with loss, disappointment, divorce
  • wedding planner for the best tips on personalizing that special occasion
  • chef or restaurant owner on what cookbooks they use at home
  • book group member who also is a fan of fun mysteries
  • teacher who loves history

All communities have people who are specialists on some topic. Why don’t we engage these folks? They’ll not only refer people to the bookstore, but they’ll feel honored you asked. People will mention those reviews on shelf-talkers and the store name will be spoken throughout the community.

People find reviews helpful. Let’s use them, give them credibility, and tap local experts and local readers. Imagine having personal recommendations throughout the store in each and every section … now that is a rich and meaningful stop at the bookstore and no  one would ever leave without several ideas of what to read next.

 

I marvel at American booksellers for their tenacity and I envy European booksellers for the support they get from their countries.

From big box stores to Amazon, they’ve stuck to their principles even when predatory pricing presents tremendous hurdles to sustainability. Today’s op-ed piece in The New York Times by Pamela Druckerman offers a perspective for American reader on just how some European countries are supporting their locally owned bookshops for the sake of “biblio diversity.”

The Watermill in Aberfeldy, Scotland offers a beautiful selection of books and great service ... and fabulous coffee too.

The Watermill in Aberfeldy, Scotland offers a beautiful selection of books and great service … and fabulous coffee too.

First, countries have witnessed there’s a lot to be lost when mega corporations sell below cost for the sole purpose of driving out competition:

“The French secret is deeply un-American: fixed book prices. Its 1981 ‘Lang law,’ named after former Culture Minister Jack Lang, says that no seller can offer more than 5 percent off the cover price of new books. That means a book costs more or less the same wherever you buy it in France, even online.”

Yes, books are protected because they are not “potatoes”. Books are ideas. Putting ideas into the hands of just a few corporations is scary.

Placing a cap on discounting limits predatory pricing as a competitive advantage. This is a game-changer. and provides a different dynamic for European booksellers and readers. This supports small business. It also says books and ideas are valued.

In the U.S. we have to continue to out-smart and out-wit the mega corporations by changing the rules of the game and competing on ways that are local, authentic, human, and about the in-person experience.

Each morning, I start my day, like many in the book business, reading Shelf-Awareness. It’s one of the sources we rely on for the latest developments in and about the book business, which authors will be in the media spotlight, and some glimpses of really good new books. The newsletter begins with a quote of the day, sometimes profound, often inspiring, always stirring in some way.

Phinney Books, opened by former Amazon employee Tom Nissley.

Phinney Books, opened by former Amazon employee Tom Nissley.

In today’s “Shelf”, I was especially touched by these words of Tom Nissley, former Amazon.com employee and now owner of the independent bookstore Phinney Books:

“I was a big indie bookstore customer even when I worked at Amazon. There is something irreplaceable about walking into a bookstore and browsing through well-chosen shelves and talking to a bookseller…. Amazon’s algorithms are pretty impressive and useful, but they still can’t do everything a smart and imaginative bookseller can do, especially one that knows you and the books you like to read.”

Tom Nissley, owner of Phinney Books, quoted in a Seattle Times article. Nissley spent a decade working for Amazon, took some time off to be a Jeopardy! champ and recently purchased the former Santoro’s Books in the Phinney Ridge/Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle.
In this digital world, people are searching for a real home base. For many, walking into a bookstore is that very necessary sanctuary. We’re all learning that Google searches and Amazon.com reviews deliver “monetized” results. Pay to play.
How refreshing to see that in a capitalist society, one business sector still is devoted to offering authentic reviews and chooses only the products that are comfortable to recommend.

Yesterday I got a letter from the AmazonSmile Foundation. The international charity that my husband and I had once upon a time is eligible for a contribution. Never mind that the charity was dissolved eighteen months ago, I still wanted to learn what Amazon is doing to support non-profits.

The letter reads “AmazonSmile is a program where Amazon donates 0.5% of the purchase price of eligible products to the charitable organizations selected by our customers.” Note that 0.5% is one half of one percent and the donation only applies on eligible products.

How does this stack up against common practices of independent bookstores when they’re working with schools and other worthy efforts? Indie booksellers will often offer ten to twenty percent.

Here’s the math on a huge purchase of $10,000:
AmazonSmile: $50
Indie Bookstore: $1,000 to $2,000

Indie bookstores are part of the community when Amazon only pays lip service.

Indie bookstores are part of the community when Amazon only pays lip service.

Plus, independent booksellers will also typically offer donations of silent auction items, review copies of upcoming books, materials for teachers, rent a costume character to visit the schools throughout the year, and sponsor visits from real authors and illustrators. Talk about adding value!

Recently I received a newsletter from a local non-profit we support asking us to designate their organization with the AmazonSmile program. While these volunteers work countless hours and do their very best, the decision to promote this program was not informed. Why would they want to support Amazon when the local bookstore offers them so much?

Some say you should be able to have both. Maybe for a while, but not for long. This is another one of Amazon’s maneuvers to eek more and more out of local businesses to grow Goliath. Once it has dominated more and more industries, we’ll all shop Amazon because Main Street shops will be empty and there won’t be any more silent auction items at those charity events.

CNBC will premiere “Amazon Rising” this Sunday at 9 pm EST. Where you shop says a lot about who you are and what you value. Amazon is brilliant at marketing and withholding information from reaching the pages of their annual reports. They’re also wildly successful in undercutting prices since the Wall Street investors are subsidizing their strategies to price below cost. Just how far will this go? Or, maybe the question is how long will governments and people support the race to monopolize shopping … for everything, everywhere.

Our work to spread the logic and wisdom behind shopping local continues against mega funding, predatory pricing, corporate bullying, and the race to own it all. Owners and booksellers of independent bookstores are tenacious, clever, authentic, and involved. I’ve never seen a more impassioned, articulate, and tenacious group of professionals. We’re just not used to the bullying part. Even though we can recommend some great picture books that address this issue, they are not likely the character-building books Amazon execs want to read.

 

 

Bestselling author Ann Patchett on The Colbert Report

Bestselling author Ann Patchett promotes indie bookselling on The Colbert Report

Her talents reach far and wide, yet Ann Patchett has chosen to use her talents, media attention, and energy to speak up for the value of indie bookstores. As a special guest on Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report on Comedy Central, the bestselling author volleyed back and forth with Colbert and was able to get in the final word.

Click here to view the video clip

We’ve just gone through a time when few people speak up for the value of quiet time untethered by technology. In this way, it’s remarkable — and refreshing — to have someone speak to the value of face-to-face conversations, remark on the importance of sharing ideas, and uphold the benefits of having a bookstore as a special place in our community.

Bravo, Ann Patchett, and thank you for using your pulpit to question, challenge, and articulate what matters to us as individuals and as a society.

Occupy Amazon.com

Occupy Amazon.com movement gains momentum

When I blasted my friends and neighbors about Amazon.com’s recent promotion, I quickly got responses like “disgusting” and “who would want to support that kind of bad corporate behavior”. One honest response was “I will never buy anything from Amazon.com again.” What’s the fuss? The offer encouraged customers to use the company’s smartphone price check app — essentially, go shop in a store, scan the item you want, and buy from us and you’ll receive a discount of up to $5. Customers are allowed to do this up to three times on Saturday, December 10.

Josie Leavitt, co-owner of The Flying Pig Children’s Bookstore, blogged “Honestly, I’m sick of Amazon. I’m tired of people saying, ‘But it’s so much cheaper than what you can offer.’ Yes, it’s true, the new Steve Jobs book is 49% off at Amazon, and that’s 3 to 6% more than I can buy the book for from the publisher or a wholesaler. So, yes, I’m sick of Amazon acting as its own retail distribution center and getting a far better discount than I can. I’m tired of faithfully paying sales tax and having customers tell me how much they like saving money with Amazon.”

In a letter to Jeff Bezos, Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, stated, “We could call your $5 bounty to app-users a cheesy marketing move and leave it at that. In fact, it is the latest in a series of steps to expand your market at the expense of cities and towns nationwide, stripping them of their unique character and the financial wherewithal to pay for essential needs like schools, fire and police departments, and libraries.”

Is it legal? Absolutely. Is it ethical? Hardly.

In the United States, you can sell below your own cost. You can sell below cost on so many items as long as your stockholders are willing to wait for you to kill off your competition and then hike prices to regain your original profit margins — when you are king of the marketplace. Amazon.com poured millions of dollars fighting states’ efforts to get them to collect sales tax. Main Street shop keepers have never questioned the value of collecting sales tax for the greater good of their communities.

We write and share this not to make anyone feel guilty for owning a Kindle. We simply think it is important for all of us to be aware of what’s happening to make informed choices based on values.

In the book business, we’ve seen relentless pursuit by Amazon.com to own the entire publishing and bookstore business — from printed books to ebooks, publishing to retail. There’s tremendous danger in having one company dominate in any industry, but especially when one represents the world of ideas.

Where you choose to shop makes a statement about who you are. We hope you’ll choose to shop local.

That corporate behemoth, Amazon.com, is out with yet another gadget, trying to preserve their market share with a “me too” tablet. Their strategy? Just as they’ve done before, sell it as a loss leader and make money in other ways until they can dominate the market — and then raise prices. In both the short and long-term, there’s a high cost to cheap.

In a society where attention deficit disorder is rapidly becoming the norm, imagine how pop-up ads will contribute to the distractions. To sell below your own cost of materials and overhead, money has to come from somewhere; when you can promise lots of eye-balls, advertisers will be willing to pay. The high cost of cheap is that we sacrifice our quiet reading space.

And imagine the value of data-mining private information about individuals. When a corporation can collect information about what we buy, what we read, how and what we research, and then sells that data to others, our loss of privacy becomes their financial gain. So, the high cost of cheap is giving away intimate details about our lives to people we don’t even know.

From a perspective inside the book industry, we see that the more power Amazon.com holds, the more it will attempt to dictate to publishers everything from price to content of the literature published. The high cost of cheap now extends to one company having a disproportionate amount of power. In other industries, this has resulted in a loss of jobs, choice, and quality.

With companies specializing in technology, more flexibility (not less!) is the goal. When customers are used to being able to navigate and buy freely, there are limitations and inconveniences to exercise that freedom. The high cost of cheap means supporting a corporation that wants to limit navigation for its own advantage.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to believe that after a summer of its fervent opposition to paying state sales taxes (as even the smallest retailers manage to do), this corporate goliath would imagine it to be unscathed. The high cost of cheap is rewarding bad corporate behavior.

Ultimately, our decisions about what we buy and what companies we support is a reflection of our own values — and when, in the long run, cheap becomes too costly.