Salon, rarely the most Amazon-friendly of venues, has just run another story on the state of the indie bookstore sector in the U.S., and found surprisingly positive trends. And naturally, being Salon, it saw fit to headline the report with a hit at Amazon like: “The independent bookstore lives! Why Amazon’s conquest will never be complete.”
In the article, Andrew Leonard picks up on the same kind of data that I instanced previously on the relative fortunes of indie bookstores and major book chains (Borders in particular, of course) in the era of digital disruption. “Brick-and-mortar bookstores aren’t dead, yet,” he says. “On the contrary, independently owned bookstores are growing in number. According to the American Booksellers Association, since hitting a nadir in 2009, the number of indie bookstores in the U.S. has grown 19.3 percent, from 1,651 to 1,971.”
I’ll leave you all to head over to his article for the various arguments and data points he marshals in favor of his thesis. There’s plenty of good stuff there. But back to that headline. Did Amazon ever really want to trample the indie bookstores under its feet? Is a solitary main street one-man-band bookstore really ever going to make Jeff Bezos lose sleep? And above all, since both are totally different kinds of businesses, was Amazon ever likely to be a serious threat to the indie sector?
It makes sense if you think about it. Amazon’s fundamental value proposition is distribution and fulfillment. Distribution is obviously something that a standalone store does not do. Amazon is using exactly the same algorithms and infrastructure to sell a vast range of general merchandise that contributes the lion’s share of its revenues and has nothing to do with books. And, as Leonard points out, the bookstores themselves are learning how to use technology in their own ways and for their own purposes – which are not necessarily Amazon’s: “Bookstore owners have become adept at taking advantage of new technology to connect to customers.”
Leonard also instances another factor in the resurgence of indie bookstores in the U.S., though – the demise of Borders. “Indie-bookseller survival does not mean, however, that the larger trends unleashed by Amazon on the publishing industry are negated,” he points out. And that leads back to one important area where Amazon and the indie bookstores do resemble each other: They both excel in giving people what they want. That’s what Amazon’s distribution and fulfillment focus is about. It’s what indie bookstores live from too – even when they’re selling a location and an ambience as much as books. But it’s what big book chains – and big publishers – have historically been lousy at. Time they listened to the streets.
And time that Amazon got more credit for that democratization of demand. Those journalists who spend their time preaching the virtues of sucking up what the supplier chooses to pump your way do make you wonder sometimes.