E-commerce giant Amazon allegedly hopes to open 300 to 400 bookstores as part of its plans to expand into physical retail, Re/code reports. The retail store initiative is being led by Steve Kessel — the Amazon executive responsible for the first Kindle e-reader — who is widely respected within the company as a responsible, intelligent leader with not too big of an ego.
The store, aptly named Amazon Books, will sell a few thousand books chosen based partially on customer reviews from Amazon.com, as well as other Amazon devices such as Kindle Fire tablets and the Echo voice-controlled speaker. Amazon has already opened one brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle this past fall, and hopes to open another in Southern California. But while this sounds nice in theory, authors and retail will suffer the consequences — Amazon has a history of undercutting them.
The New Yorker describes Amazon as “a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect.”
With so many different branches, Amazon is something exciting, radical and new in the history of American business. Book sales alone make up less than seven percent of the company’s seventy-five billion dollars in annual revenue.
But to many, Amazon’s presence in the small, delicate book market is that of a ruthless predator. The company claims to want to create a more literate world, and yet makes consumers dangerously dependent on what has essentially become a monopoly. This is a stark contrast to its surprisingly more humble origins, as a simple online bookstore created by its founder Jeff Bezos, an effective counterweight to bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders.
The problem, according to Vanity Fair, is this: when Amazon prices new releases and best-sellers at less than $10, when a new hardcover book can cost upwards of $25, the authors and publishers suffer. Upon the Kindle’s inception, Amazon insisted on selling e-books at a loss, prompting publishers to raise their wholesale prices in order to pressure Amazon to raise the resale price and even delay new titles’ releases as e-books for several months after the hardcover release. Neither tactic has worked.
This goes beyond the ongoing physical book-versus-e-reader debate. Traditional publishers are not the bitter old curmudgeons, forever stuck in their ways, that people on the other side of the debate would have you believe — when Amazon prices their books so low, to the point where it constitutes to a financial loss for the company, the authors lose as well. But because Amazon is a superstore in its own right, it can afford to take the hit — authors can’t. When so many people turn to Amazon’s cheaper alternatives, retail bookstores like Barnes & Noble suffer, thus giving even less back to the authors affiliated with publishers outside Amazon.
“As a book dealer and publisher, Amazon wants no competitors, admits no responsibilities, and takes no risks,” Ursula K. Le Guin said on Book View Cafe. “Its ideal book is a safe commodity, a commercial product written to the specifications of the current market, that will hit the BS list, get to the top, and vanish. Sell it fast, sell it cheap, dump it, sell the next thing. No book has value in itself, only as it makes profit … Amazon exploits the cycle of instant satisfaction/endless dissatisfaction. Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment.”