Richard Russo, Bookstores, and this Amazon Price Check Thing [Controversies]

We talked about this very briefly on last week’s podcast, but now that Richard Russo has written an op-ed piece for the NY Times, I feel like it’s worth exploring this Amazon Price Check controversy in a bit more detail.

First off, for anyone not familiar with this recent Amazon vs. Indie Bookstore kerfuffle, here’s a quick synopsis: About a week ago, Amazon posted this offer explaining that on December 10th, if you use their Price Check App in a physical store, and then buy the product via Amazon.com, you’d get $5 off. Sort of.

To keep this as logical and accurate as possible, here’s the “fine print”:

Use the Price Check App with the location services enabled on your mobile device. See below for information on enabling your mobile device’s location services.

While you are out shopping, you may optionally provide the Price Check App the in-store advertised price of a qualifying product in the eligible product categories (Electronics, Toys, Sports, Music, and DVDs).

Place a qualifying product (shipped and sold by Amazon.com) into the shopping cart within the Price Check App.

Within twenty-four (24) hours of placing a qualifying product in your Price Check App shopping cart, complete your purchase from any Amazon channel (Price Check App, Amazon website, or other Amazon apps). If you do not make your purchase within this time period, the discount will expire.

Your discount of 5% off Amazon’s Price (up to a maximum of $5.00*), will be automatically applied at checkout within the Price Check App.

Naturally, indie bookstores (and Dennis Loy Johnson and many others) got PISSED about how this behavior (using customers to spy on competitors) was evil and would destroy all independent bookstores everywhere, and maybe cause Melancholia to crash into Earth. (Or something like that.)

What was pointed out in the comments section at MobyLives, and is absolutely evident in the instructions above is that books were not included in this program. Sure, some bookstores sell DVDs and Music, so they’re not completely unaffected by this program, but indie bookstores selling DVDs and CDs are making bigger mistakes and should be worrying about things other than Amazon.

Not that this “books aren’t included” argument had any impact whatsoever. Some of my favorite bookstores in the world took this Amazon program and used it as a marketing tool to reinforce local loyalties. Third Place had a special offer all day on the 10th, Diesel started an “Occupy Amazon” Facebook page and movement, and the ABA CEO Oren Teicher posted an open letter to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos that opens “We’re not shocked, just disappointed,” then builds off the sales tax controversy into an attack on the price check program.

Personally, I think the ABA should keep these two issues separate and deal with them on their own terms, but whatever. The point is, most indie stores seemed to follow a similar logic: Amazon may not be targeting bookstores with this particular offer, but they will in the future, and they’ve done enough damage that we need to react now. I worked in indie stores, I get this.

Yet, for some reason, this program didn’t bug me that much. I guess because a) I knew books weren’t included and that’s all I ever buy, aside from wine and b) I fucking hate Target/Best Buy/WalMart/Sam’s Club/Toys R Us and all the other crappy big box stores that sell Electronics, DVDs, Music, and Toys and make Henrietta, NY (and a billion other cities) a veritable wasteland of disgusting warehouse-style buildings and parking lots. To me, there’s little more depressing than driving down one of these streets in Anytown, USA passing by Applebee’s, Chili’s, Best Buy, a vacant Circuit City building, WalMart, and a nondescript sadness-inducing shopping mall. So, had I been motivated to leave behind the couch and my books to save 15% or $15 (whichever is less), to screw Target for its general state of sucking, I would’ve driven over to Sorrowville and scanned some toys that I would then buy from Amazon. Fuck em.

The thing is, shopping in all of these above named locations is an absolutely awful experience. And to pretend that even 25% of America is all quaint locally owned shops where customers get to know the owners and everyone smiles and bakes cookies for each other is foolish. Maybe in NYC and San Francisco and Seattle (ironically) and Chicago and large cities, this is the case. But where I live (where most people live), you can frequent the handful of decent locally owned restaurants and bars in town, but if you need to buy your daughter Mousetrap, you have to go into the bowels of hell. Or order it online. That is the truth.

I love shopping in indie bookstores. Whenever I visit a city, I check in at as many of them as I can. And buy books every single time. I have a problem. (I literally gave away 13 boxes of books when I last moved. And still have 10 in storage to go along with my 4 bookshelves at home, the 2 at work, and the growing stack of books next to my bed. DISEASED.) And I sincerely desire a situation in which indie stores populate the U.S. and most people have an actual choice between ordering books online (which you pretty much have to do if you live in Rochester) or buying from Bookstore X just down the road. I think that should be the goal of anyone advocating for buying local, or restricting Amazon’s influence, or whatever. What we want in the end is a healthy book culture in whatever form that takes.

Which brings me to Richard Russo’s opinion piece from today in which he goes after Amazon in praise of indie stores:

I first heard of Amazon’s new “promotion” from my bookseller daughter, Emily, in an e-mail with the subject line “Can You Hear Me Screaming in Brooklyn?” According to a link Emily supplied, Amazon was encouraging customers to go into brick-and-mortar bookstores on Saturday, and use its price-check app (which allows shoppers in physical stores to see, by scanning a bar code, if they can get a better price online) to earn a 5 percent credit on Amazon purchases (up to $5 per item, and up to three items).

Books, interestingly enough, were excluded, but you could use your Amazon credit online to buy other things that bookstores sell these days, like music and DVDs. And, if you were scanning, say, the new Steve Jobs biography, you’d no doubt be informed that you were about to pay way too much. I wondered what my writer friends made of all this, so I dashed off an e-mail to Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, and cc’ed Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Andre Dubus III, Anita Shreve, Tom Perrotta and Ann Patchett.

I’m not entirely clear that the first sentence of that second paragraph makes sense, but let’s let that go for a minute. Here’s my problem: Richard Russo and everyone he mentions in here are corporate authors. They are published by the largest media conglomerates in the world, who have used their power and money and influence to shape the book retail world to their advantage.

Who was the target of the last Robinson-Patman anti-trust ruling? Penguin and the other members of the Big Six. They were giving unfair discounts to B&N and Borders at the expense of indie bookstores? Why? Because they could make more money by aligning themselves with the big box stores. (Death to Big Box Stores!)

The reason I bring this up is because it’s worth wondering if the Big Six are in this publishing game for the benefit of book culture as a whole, or to make as much money as possible for their shareholders. The correct answer is the latter, and that’s reflected in nearly every decision they make. As a result, people like Richard Russo and Stephen King publish their books with Random House and Simon & Schuster so that they can reap the benefits of these corporate practices. Namely, Russo and King get way more cash and reach way more readers by being part of this system. They’re also not motivated by “doing the right thing for book culture” but by trying to maximize their impact, relevance, and earnings.

And that’s totally well within their rights. And by “their,” I mean Russo & Co., the Big Six, and Amazon. If one of these parties does something illegal, that’s a different matter, but as I well know, arguing against any of these entities from a moral “you shouldn’t maximize profits by being evil” perspective rings totally hollow in today’s business climate. Banks run rampant, oil companies are less than trustworthy, GE and all fellow corporations game the system to avoid paying any income tax whatsoever to the U.S. government. All in the name of capitalism and the free market, something that we’ve all unwittingly signed on to, and are still coming to fully understand the long-term impact of.

So it seems to me like there are three major ways to approach Amazon and this situation:

1) Acknowledge that what they’re doing is what every corporation would do if in their position (Amazon is not a bookstore, Amazon is more a tech company meets retailer), and that if you don’t like it, you should do everything in your power to benefit those outside of the corporate system and try and take down capitalism as a whole. Publish with nonprofits. Buy all books from local stores. Donate heavily to worthy literary organizations like PEN and Words Without Borders and Open Letter and the Center for the Art of Translation. Help foster and maintain a book culture that’s based in something other than price and hype.

2) Agree that capitalism rules the day, and go make your money in whatever way necessary. Amazon probably sells more Russo books than all the indie stores combined. (Maybe. I could be wrong, but if not now, then soon.) Random House’s colophon and publicity office gets Russo & Co. on the front of the NY Times Book Reivew. Use every advantage the current corporate and social structures give you to make as much money as you can, and if some presses and stores don’t make it, don’t worry—that’s capitalist Darwinism. The weak fail because they aren’t savvy enough. (I cringe writing that whole paragraph. Sorry.)

3) Figure out a valid third perspective or way of accomplishing what you really want. To say Amazon is a completely bad thing is to ignore the fact that someone living in a remote part of the country may not have access to books and other goods through their local stores. Or they have to deal with the obnoxious lighting of Target anytime they want to buy a TV or a copy of Twilight. That sucks. But it’s also true that book culture has been altered by the existence of Amazon. In some ways that are good (more people buying books), in some ways that are not-so-good (fewer communal places for book people to hang). Advocate for a fixed book price law. Work on finding ways to benefit local readers while acknowledging that a lot of people (especially in this economy) are very price sensitive. Find partnerships that benefit the culture as a whole.

I have no answers here. But I don’t think you’re going to get a capitalist company to stop acting in as capitalist fashion as possible, so rather than try and guilt them into “better” behavior, especially since MBAs around the world would likely applaud Amazon’s tactics, or say that they’re not going far enough, since the only goal there is in business is to make as much money as possible at the expense of your competitors.

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