Amazon has announced a new program, Amazon Source, in which the online giant will enable independent bookstores to sell Kindle devices and accessories. Bookshops will also have the option of getting a 10% cut of all titles bought on the Kindles they sell.
I love my Kindle. I was uncertain about e-readers at first, but it’s turned out to be the ideal reading experience for me. Since getting my Kindle, I’m more engaged with the world of books—I’m reading more, buying more, getting more from the library, reviewing more, talking more about titles I like and don’t like. That’s good for publishers and authors.
But I also love my local independent bookstores, and for that reason I’ve never been able to use my Kindle without a sense of guilt. A program like Amazon Source, in which my favorite indie could get a cut of the titles I buy for my Kindle, sounds appealing.
But when I read about this program, my first thought was a quote from Star Wars’ Admiral Ackbar:
TechCrunch parses the details, noting that Amazon has already pursued a similar deal with Waterstone’s, the UK book retailer, and they’re seemingly not complaining. But writer Ingrid Lundin ultimately concludes that this whole deal is a bit like “punching a guy after you’ve already knocked him down.”
Yeah. I don’t own a bookshop myself, nor am I any great business mind, but digging into the details, this doesn’t seem like such a great deal for bookstores. 10% of sales is better than nothing, but it’s not great. And bookstores will only get that cut for the first two years of their customers owning the device. Meanwhile, Amazon gets more customers walking around with portable Amazon stores—captive audiences giving even more money to them and not to indie bookstores.
The fact is that independent bookstores serve an important function in the literary ecosystem, a function that wouldn’t be diminished even if print books went the way of the dodo: making book recommendations to avid readers. This sounds small, but it’s actually huge. In a massively fragmented book landscape—made even more fragmented by self-publishing—title discovery is no small thing. When readers are connected with titles they’d like, they enjoy themselves more, buy more, and everyone along the line makes more money. Everyone wins. If indie bookstores disappeared, everyone would suffer—including Amazon.
The question is, does Amazon see the value of the indie bookstore as a book recommendation machine? As a vehicle for driving reader engagement with authors and publishers? If so, Jeff Bezos should be trying not to destroy indies, but to work with them—to build some kind of business model that takes advantage of the reader-to-reader advice that happens in brick-and-mortar bookstores, and also guarantees their viability for a long time to come.
Hopefully Amazon Source is a move in that direction—not the trap for independent book retailers I fear it is.