My father owns a Kindle.


It's not actually his fault. If given the choice between a gift of a Kindle and say, a watch*, I'd might've chosen the e-reader, too.  But wow, the day I called home and heard that he was the proud new owner of a device that's often blamed for recent indie bookstore closures... I guess you could say I was a little surprised.  After nearly four years of semi-ranting about the issues small businesses face in the wake of Amazon, I was admittedly a little disappointed that I hadn't even managed to convince my immediate family to join me in my boycott.


It's a huge problem we booksellers face every day: how to explain our dislike of Amazon, its Kindle, etc. without making our fathers/cousins/customers think we're condemning them to some tenth-circle-of-Hell-with-no-battery-chargers (Dante would've approved, don't you think?) for their choice of device.  We don't want to lecture - but we must inform!


Finally in January, I realized it was easy to combat the Kindle: for anyone who's seen Annie Leonard's video on tech waste, or who's lived through a dozen generations of iPods (are we up that high yet?), it's pretty clear that no one's Kindle will last forever... One day, every Kindle user will inevitably need to upgrade.  So, when my father finally does, it's an opportunity for him to purchase a more indie-friendly e-reader.  Perhaps then, it'll even be a more environmentally-friendly device, too.

Let me emphasize: it's not that the Kindle is a bad device; rather, it's what it represents.  There are a number of problems it creates for ebook readers and independent bookstores, many of which its owners are often largely unaware.

No Choice:  Amazon only allows the Kindle to read ebooks purchased from the Kindle Store.  This means you can't read ebooks from independent bookstores, or Google, or the iBookstore on your device.  Ultimately, it's messy to explain: yes, Amazon has software that will let you read your Kindle books on the iPad, iPhone, etc. - but you're still only able to buy books from them.  And isn't it cool that you can now support a local business when you buy digital books?  It took us longer than we wanted, but our ebook store is now open!
No Portability: Five years from now, there will certainly be better gadgets for reading out there.  If you're then more interested in someone else's e-reader, you won't have access to your Kindle books on that device.

No Library Books: That's right.  You can't download an ebook from your library to read on your Kindle, because it's not compatible.

No Lending: At least, not if you want to borrow an e-book from someone who doesn't own a Kindle.  Again DRM issues are messy.

No Ownership: You don't really own your ebook, you own a license.  In 2009, Amazon removed George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm from the devices of users who'd purchased them.  It happened with another title in November of 2010.  Do other vendors have the ability to delete purchases?  Probably - it's a significant e-book issue, but it's only happened with the Kindle.

Predatory Practices**:  Pricing of ebooks has been a heated debate between publishers, vendors, and consumers.  Right now, many publishers dictate the pricing of their digital content, but some allow markdowns.  Last year, Amazon removed the buy buttons of all titles from Macmillan because the publisher wanted to price its own books, and Jeff Bezos released a statement bemoaning the "monopoly" Macmillan has over its own books.
Most of the larger publishers are now able to charge what they like, but prior to this Amazon would charge $9.99 for say, The Girl With the Dragon's Tattoo, when no competitor was able to "compete" and price it similarly, selling for a loss.  It's still an issue for print books: Jean Auel's The Land of Painted Caves sells for $15.30 (list price $30.00), which is less than an indie store can buy it for from the publisher.

There are a number of books that discuss the problem with our discount culture, and Amazon - now more a sales tax loophole than bookseller - perpetuates this.  It's already hard for midlist authors to break into publishing, and anything but celebrity memoir or formulaic genre fiction is considered risky.  Can you imagine a world in which solely success on Amazon determines what we have available to read?

My father's Kindle isn't the death of independent bookstores, but I'd like to urge anyone on the fence to consider your options, the Kindle's limitations, and the impact that particular device has on your ability to support a local bookstore.

From our perspective, it's too early to commit.  E-book waters are still murky, and it's not the sky-is-falling panic press seems to indicate.  E-books actually still only represent 10% of marketshare; it's an important step to take, but there's no hurry for readers to fully embrace digital yet.  However, feel free to ask us any questions about e-readers and e-books, and let us know if there's anything we can do to improve your digital OR physical experience with our store.

*Everyone carries around cell phones instead of watches today - where are all the newsarticles about the demise of the watchmaking industry? 
**For more examples of Amazon's shady business practicies, check out Against Amazon.

Views: 57

Comment by Ron Da Bomb on March 31, 2011 at 3:36pm

I've been in the market for an e-reader lately. Haven't pulled the trigger, but the fact that the Kindle does not support digital library books is a deal-breaker for me. I would also love to purchase digital content locally if the option exists, even at a slight premium. I often buy books from the independents, even though I know I can find them "cheaper" and tax-free online. I also occasionally buy online as well.

Is there enough room in the for both the online bookstore and the local independent? I'll reiterate, I'd love to see more digital content become available from a local source (either online or at your brick/mortar).

I totally dig your store, by the way! I found it via recommendations right here on The Fix...

Comment by Bookworks on March 31, 2011 at 3:52pm

Thanks for supporting our store!  We're fortunate that e-books are mostly the same price between vendors now (with some exceptions, but since Random House changed its policy, we're more even), and I'll hopefully be making some fun in-store ways to access digital content as well.

Room for Amazon and independents, or more generally?  I don't think digital spells the end of bricks and mortar - just a need for adaptation.  There are actually some online book retailers that I meet at conferences that have nothing to do with Amazon - it's a viable model, although I suspect they need to be a little more niche, or work with Amazon/Abebooks/Alibris/eBay to function.

As far as the first question goes, though - unless sales tax policy changes or a massive shift in awareness happens, I AM concerned about bricks & mortar stores surviving in a post-Amazon world.  To be honest, we're not competitors even with the chains - it's things like the price war that happened last year between Amazon & Wal-Mart ($9.99 new releases) that really concern me: there's just no way that anyone can compete with a loss leader, and it's clearly not their primary product, but more of a gateway.  And while certainly our community recognizes the benefit that local bookstores like us, Alamosa, Page One, The Book Stop, etc. provide - extreme discounting is a problem, and I totally get why anyone would want to purchase the new Stephen King for ten bucks instead of thirty.   (I also meant to mention that Amazon isn't discounting every book like they used to; anything under ten bucks doesn't generally have a markdown, but the association with cheap books has already contributed to the name recognition problem we've got).


Hardcover pricing is steep; I'd advocate for simultaneously releasing all formats & bundling them with a digital copy - but publishing is a little resistant to that model.  

There SHOULD be room, but with corporate subsidization, loss leader pricing, publisher favoritism, and a lot of loopholes, the struggles many of my colleagues nationwide are complaining about are only getting worse.


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