Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Civil War Over Amazon

Last week, Amazon announced its most recent quarterly earnings and they weren't so good. According to Publishers Weekly, there was a loss of $170 million mostly associated with the Fire smartphone and more students renting textbooks rather than purchasing them. Many readers on PW and other publications were quick to bash the internet giant. Some wondered if Kindles would eventually be shut down while others claimed the company's quarterly history indicates the end is nigh.

Some of the dislike toward Amazon is heightened by the company's ongoing battle with publishing giant Hachette. The group Authors United blasted Amazon for its hardball tactics, namely "refusing preorders, delaying shipping, reducing discounting, and using pop-up windows to cover authors' pages and redirect buyers to non-Hachette books." It should be noted that I am not a fan of these tactics either and have made adjustments, specifically buying Hachette titles from independent bookstores while the negotiations are ongoing.

However, people have used the event to paint Amazon with a broad brush and in the grand scheme of things, I'm in the middle. I realize being in the middle isn't the cool position in our hyper-partisan society (Democrat vs. Republican, Coke vs. Pepsi, DC vs. Marvel, Mac vs. PC, the list goes on), but hear me out.

After heavy research of e-readers like the Nook, Kobo and the Kindle, I recently purchased a Kindle Paperwhite in part so I can read new releases at a much more economical rate. Previously, I had only purchased paperbacks, which typically do not come out until a year after the book is initially released, because that was the most economical option. Nielsen announced earlier this month that paperbacks make up 42% of sales, but ebooks make up only 23% and hardcovers 25%.

For readers that only read a handful of books a year, I totally understand the anti-Amazon crowd and their support of local bookstores. According to, if a person spends $100 at a local bookstore, $68 of that stays in the local area. If you shopped the same hundred bucks at a chain store, $43 stays in your town. Coincidentally, the difference, $25, is close to the average cost of a hardcover book. IndieBound also touts taxes being reinvested in the community. In the case of Los Angeles County, the sales tax alone is a whopping 9%.

I'm on pace to read 32 books this year. Let's assume for sake of the argument, that I bought all of those in hardcover at the average retail price. Based on figures from the School Library Journal, the average hardcover book cost is $27.20, which would total out to $870.40 in my scenario, not including sales tax. You might say, "Well, wait a minute, you said earlier you read paperbacks." Using the average price of a trade paperback, $17.84, the total cost would drop to $570.88. The School Library Journal did not compute ebook pricing, but they are even cheaper. I recently purchased Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See and Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, both shortlisted for the National Book Award, for a combined total of $13 on my Kindle.

Also consider that while 32 books may seem like a lot (and frankly, to me it is), the average Goodreads reading challenge has 52 books in it. So of the 658, 079 participants that are in the 2014 reading challenge, an average number are planning to read a book a week during the calendar year. I'd hate to see the book expense bill on those accounts.

My love for independent bookstores is well-known. Vroman's Bookstore, one of the best in Southern California, is 45 minutes to an hour away from my house (assuming L.A. traffic wants to cooperate). Despite sporting a Kindle, I will still make the long drive down the hill to Vroman's and buy a paperback in support of the local bookstore occasionally.

All in all, I'd relax and ease off the doomsday predictions regarding Amazon. The company's self-publishing platform has enabled thousands of authors like nothing previously while publishing companies from Hachette to W.W. Norton to Penguin Random House have teams of copy editors, jacket designers, and others to create beautiful works of art in written form. Independent bookstores are thriving meeting places and often have the best author Q&A. The three can and will be able to coexist well into the future.

What do you think about the Amazon debate?

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