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Indie Bookstores, Google Preview, and the Interwebs

Below is a special guest post from Jeff Waxman, bookseller at Seminary Co-op in Chicago (one of the five greatest indie bookstores in America) and managing editor of The Front Table. As someone who loves independent bookstores—and worked in them for years—I really want to see them survive, but Jeff’s post touches on some of the internet-related challenges that these stores face. And he doesn’t even get into the whole impact of eBooks on physical bookstores . . . Happy Monday!

Hello, everyone, and welcome to my anxiety. I am, you see, an independent bookseller, one of the many anxious denizens of the book world. And when reading Shelf Awareness and other trade news has become like reading obituaries, why shouldn’t I be anxious? Dutton’s, Lambda Rising, Olsson’s, Schwartz’s, Shaman Drum, Cody’s. This list will only get longer.

I tell myself sometimes that one day, I will have to tell my grandchildren what it was like when there were still bookshops. With windows, some of them, and a door to walk through. I will tell them about the people inside who knew you by name, or by sight, or by literary tastes, and how those fine people might recommend a book to you, and how they would know all about it. I’ll tell my grandchildren that there used to be lots of stores on the street, not just dry cleaners and chain restaurants, and that people used to make things, buy things, and sell things. And books, well, they used to be made of paper.

I am quite a young man now, but if my grandchildren are anything like my contemporaries, they will laugh and they will kick me down the stairs to die with my memories in the basement bookstore where I will hopefully still work.

Because we booksellers have let our livelihood become irrelevant to many, many people. Hapless, we flail and scramble to survive between the impending incorporeal reality of the internet and the tangible, comforting tradition of our past. Worst of all, bookselling is exactly where the two met. For Amazon. Sixteen years ago.

The American Booksellers Association has been dragging indies, painfully, into the present since the present overtook us sometime in the past. For more than ten years, they’ve been moving us, kicking and screaming, toward e-commerce; you might have noticed our websites, those painfully amateurish and poorly-designed rocks that we’ve hurled at Jeff Bezos to no effect.

Today, we are struggling to sell books online according to a fifteen-year-old model. And we’re not, respectively or together, even a pale shade of the polished and soulless retail machine that’s destroying us. But mimicking Amazon is too much like loving the beast that’s chewing our entrails, and what we do best, we still do in our stores. What we do online is a poor imitation. Amazon has done nothing wrong. and we have done nothing.

Recently, in a bid to bring us up to the Amazon standard, the ABA enabled Google Preview on our e-commerce sites. Are you aware of the degree to which Google previews these books? Something to the tune of 20% of the book is viewable at a time. Some books are long and some are short, but the effect is that Google is making one fifth of these books freely available. And to a bookstore like mine, one that relies heavily on rapidly falling textbook sales, this means that students will have free access, through our site, to more of their textbooks than they were planning on reading to begin with. Our new business plan includes facilitating a cost-free alternative to shopping at our stores. We are hastening our demise by underscoring our irrelevance to the few customers that still have the inclination to visit our website in the first place.

The isn’t just a battle for dollars. This is a losing war for the hearts and minds of our customers, for the folks that we know by sight, and that Amazon knows better by algorithm. Most booksellers aren’t out to make a killing or a dime. We’re trying to make a living, sure—but by putting the best of what we know in your hands. The best of our friends and customers ask often how business is, and the majority of us can only shrug. There is a time when the bookseller needs to stop his and her panicked breeziness about the state of affairs and tell our customers, point blank, the truth. Business isn’t good, and let me tell you: spending money is a political act, a ballot cast for the kind of world you want to live in. There is no right or wrong answer, but if you don’t shop locally, in the real world, there won’t be one left when you step outside.

– Jeff Waxman



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