Booklovers everywhere: we have a serious problem. Fortunately, we also have a serious solution. Let’s delve into the complex process of getting excellent books into the hands of the eager readers of your local community, including you.
We booklovers have multiple options for buying books. The choice between Amazon, Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores, and other options is fraught with multiple considerations, including prices, convenience, chances of finding the perfect book, and benefit versus injury to the community. Throw in a pandemic, and the considerations multiply. How is the frugal, busy, discerning, and conscientious booklover to decide?
A podcast episode that aired earlier this month helped crystallize my thoughts on these matters. I recommend that all booklovers listen to the first 12 minutes (if not the entire thing!) of the episode Andy Hunter on Bookshop.org and how to stick it to Amazon, from the podcast The Biblio File. Host Nigel Beale interviews Andy Hunter, booklover extraordinaire as well as founder and CEO of Bookshop.org.
Hunter delivers a well-spoken summary of the problem at hand, and what he has done by way of a solution. The following is my takeaway.
The Problem Within the Book Publishing Ecosystem
Independent, brick-and-mortar bookstores are essential to booklovers and their communities. I love walking through a “real” bookstore. There’s nothing like wallowing in the luxury of so many interesting and unique options; handling crisp, new books; and browsing through their contents like an actual human being.
Online, it’s hard to get a sense of which books and topics are currently culturally important. In an independent bookstore, the people working there are booklovers who curate the selection of books and their placement. They are not an algorithm that’s maximizing sales alone; they are people interested in spreading knowledge, ideas, entertainment, and all of the other human benefits books have to offer in addition to their monetary value.
Further, online, it’s hard to get a sense of whether I’m going to like a book, even when I can peek at some of the pages onscreen. When I pick up a book in a physical store and flip through the pages, I can access my spidey sense about the book. The Internet, sadly, is Kryptonite to my spidey sense. (To mix metapheroes.)
Andy Hunter explains that physical bookstores are important for even broader reasons: “Bookstores are cultural outposts and advocates for the importance of reading, in every community that they’re in.” Physical bookstores host author readings and signings, book clubs, events for children, and other community engagement offerings. Reading is such an important activity in a democracy that we can’t afford to lose the establishments that foster it on the ground.
But we are losing those very establishments. We are losing them, especially, to Amazon. And since the pandemic began, this loss has been accelerating.
I love the cost savings and convenience of Amazon. They are unparalleled in today’s marketplace. You can’t, perhaps unfortunately, accuse me of elitism here. I have shopped at Amazon regularly over the years, buying not just books, but also other useful items, unadulterated junk, and everything in between. Also, I have great respect for the company’s website, which offers so much to the consumer: myriad reviews, ease of use, detailed product information, etc. Shipping times are also consistently speedy, even without Prime membership—though I have been disappointed by slapdash packaging that allows the pages of my precious books to get bent and torn on occasion.
But with these incredible benefits come incredible downsides. “Amazon has not been a good citizen, unfortunately,” Hunter says. Workers in Amazon warehouses are not treated well, as has been documented in numerous articles. (Here’s one I read recently.) Amazon is able to offer customers monetary savings, but only at the cost of carelessness about worker safety and the health of the larger literary community. In other words, there are hidden costs to shopping at Amazon. Yes, the prices are lower; but our society is making up the difference in unpalatable ways.
This problem reminds me of other situations in our modern world. For example, I try to buy my meat from a local farm, one that I toured to personally verify the condition and treatment of the animals. (They passed with flying colors!) This meat costs me more money than other options would. However, when you factor in the external costs of factory farms (environmental degradation that someone will one day have to clean up, animal suffering that’s in a realm beyond the scope of dollar amounts, workers who have to cope with nightmarish job conditions, etc.), their meat actually costs more. It’s just nearly impossible to notice those costs while walking through a grocery store.
The Solution Within the Book Publishing Ecosystem
“There needs to be an alternative that fosters independent bookstores, . . . the lifeblood of the literary world and the book publishing ecosystem.”
So says Andy Hunter. He created just such an alternative: Bookshop.org. Bookshop is competitive with Amazon on several important fronts. It’s a centralized website with an easy-to-use interface. Booklovers can browse through a nearly unlimited selection of books that are shipped quickly to their door. And with every purchase made at Bookshop, local, independent bookstores across the United States get a cut. This helps keep them in business during these pandemic—and Amazonian—times.
Bookshop is a B corporation that commits to never be sold to Amazon. (Amazon has acquired many other websites related to books, such as Goodreads.) B corps commit to much more than making money; they commit to serving the public good. (Learn more about B corporations.)
Look. I’m not a saint. I don’t own a money tree. Sometimes I buy books from Amazon. Sometimes I buy meat from the discount grocery store.
But it’s vital to also support our local, indie bookstores (and farms). If we don’t, they will have trouble surviving, especially in a pandemic.
Will you help keep our literary communities alive?
How You Can Help the Book Publishing Ecosystem
Using the above link will also support this blog. I am proud to be a new affiliate of Bookshop. Visit bookshop.org/lists/books-previewed-on-the-blog to browse through all the books I have previewed on this blog. Buy one of these books—or any book on the entire site—and you will support this blog and also indie bookshops across the United States.
I appreciate your support. So do independent booksellers. So does the entire book publishing ecosystem. Of which you are an integral part. Happy reading!