Thursday, April 12, 2012

Us or Them

Today's issue of Shelf Awareness features a lengthy article about the Justice Department's anti-trust suit against Apple and five major publishers for ebook pricing collusion. We hope you will click on the link and read Shelf Awareness editor-in-chief John Mutter's thorough and informative article. In his article Mutter quotes Scott Turow, president of the Author's Guild, who puts it thusly: "The irony of this bites hard: our government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition. This would be tragic for all of us who value books and the culture they support." Simple and true, and the Book Frog is firmly on the side of the publishers and Apple in this suit.

It's been said before, and far more eloquently, but it bears repeating, that booksellers are not just a nice-to-have. Booksellers are necessary to the communities they serve. Booksellers--real booksellers, that is to say--read the books we sell and read about the books we don't have time to read so that we can be a knowledgeble resource for our customers. We make recommendations based on intelligent conversation that determines what the customer has read and liked or didn't like, what she's interested in, what he wants or needs. Amazon--that is to say, a giant corporate entity which began as a seller of books because they were easy to package and ship--makes recommendations based on what a customer has previously purchased (birthday gift for Aunt Tillie who's into sport fishing and macrame...Christmas gift for little Bobby who's going through his dinosaur book that the boss strongly "recommends" you read...) or browsed (checking out the reviews for Fifty Shades of Grey to see what the fuss is all about, perhaps, or clicking on a title in the "other customers who purchased this title also purchased..." section to figure out why someone who bought Gravity's Rainbow might also have picked up the entire oeuvre of Nicholas Sparks). Booksellers--real ones, like us--precisely because we're real, have opinions and actual thoughts and can interact with customers as people and not as algorithms, are used regularly as a book showroom for shoppers who read our blurbs, take our recommendations, then go home and order their books from Amazon.

Booksellers--that is to say, real booksellers, like us--collect and pay sales tax that helps build roads and fund schools in our communities. Booksellers--you know, the bricks and mortar kind, real ones, like us--host benefit days with local schools (as we're doing tonight, with 20% of our profits going to the school), purchase ads in the local symphony's annual program, donate books and gift cards to raffles and silent auctions that benefit local schools and charities.

Really, though, you might be asking, despite the little things mentioned above, how does Amazon harm bricks and mortar bookstores like the Book Frog? Well, here's a concrete example for you. Recently, we had a call from a local high school who needed to order seventy-five hardcover copies of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. They called us because we had purchased a small ad in the girls softball team's program, and since we supported them they wanted to support us. They told us that they'd already researched Amazon, and that Amazon would sell them the books they needed at $16.12 a piece. And, of course, with no sales tax.

Could we match that?

You may or may not know that book retailers generally get a discount from book wholesalers in the 40% to 45% range. Our discount is 42%, so the cost to us per book would be $16.23. Even if we gave the school a discount of 30% off the retail price ($27.99) of the book, they'd be paying $19.59. Plus tax.

Amazon, of course, would be losing money on the sale. But hey, if it helps them drive the little guys under, why would they care? If it helps them to become the only book retailer, in fact, why wouldn't they be eager to lose a little money--or even a lot--in the short run? When we're all gone, Amazon can charge whatever it wants.

And not collect or pay sales tax on what it sells.

While my diatribe may have been kind of sideways, the whole ebook pricing thing ultimately helps hasten us all toward the same dystopian conclusion. One book seller: Amazon. One publisher: Amazon. One ebook platform: Amazon (because you can only read Amazon's ebooks on the Kindle, doncha know). And when that's the case you pay whatever Amazon wants to charge, and you read whatever Amazon wants you to read.

And if next they require each state to send a boy and a girl between the ages of thirteen and eighteen to particpate in a gladiatorial fight to the death, then we only have ourselves to blame, don't we?


Jacki said...

Book Hog (and Jacki) thoroughly agrees with your brilliant essay. It so reminds me of that little story about David & Goliath. And we all know how that turned out.
I will defend 'real' bookstores until my last breath.

karen! said...

I haven't clicked through to read the article you referenced yet, but I wanted to let you know how much I appreciated this post.

Rebecca Glenn said...

@Jacki--thanks! Hey--is Book Hog the store? How's that going?

@karen! Thank you, thank you. Pete and I are freaking out about this whole situation, which in most scenarios doesn't end well for booksellers.


karen! said...

I don't buy ebooks on principle (if I'm going to spend money on a book, I want to have full control over what I can do with it). All the books I read on my Nook are from the public library. But the more that I read about Amazon and their business strategies, the more I want to wean myself away from them.

EnriqueFreeque said...

I'm deeply disturbed by the actions of our Justice Dept. It's obvious to me that Amazon must be in bed with them, making back room deals that will keep national and state governments timid and ineffectual in truly pursuing Amazon as a source of sales tax revenue, while Amazon then repays the favors granted them by the Feds in helping them recoup that lost sales tax revenue on Amazon purchases by passing the unjust billions of bucks Amazon should be paying to the big publishers who'll inevitably blink before caving in to protracted legal battles whose ludicrous expense far exceeds whatever spurious price tag could ever be put on the public's so-called "excessive overpayment". Excessive overpayment my ass. The fact is Amazon and our federal government are probably in some type of collusion or greedy agreement themselves, which might then help make some much needed sense of the mystifying decision of the Justice Dept.'s lawsuit against the publishers that, while not knowing all the intricacies of the case, certainly lacks a lot of face validity at first blush.

Thanks for the link and your fine piece. I'm completely with you on it.