Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
For book buyers everywhere, Amazon seemed like a godsend.
Absurdly low prices, free shipping, four-for-three deals, textbook buyback, $5 in MP3 downloads with a textbook purchase, free Prime membership for students… Amazon seemed to offer everything to consumers, with a sympathetic eye for our wallets and our need to have it now.
Over the last few months, though, I’ve become more sensitive to that other side of Amazon: the thuggish, the evil, the Gargantua that’s swallowed bricks-and-mortar stores and now threatens publishing itself.
I, foolish Lilliputian (I know, I’m mixing my literary references, leave me alone), had contemplated making my 2012 resolution to stop shopping at Amazon for a year. How hard could it be?
And then reality sunk in. And I realized that years of online buying, plus Amazon’s nefarious tentacle-hold on other companies, may have ended this fight before it even began.
Small bookstores are fighting back by publishing their own titles (although that’s not unheard of in publishing, and is unlikely to make much of a dent in the etail giant’s web domination). Established publishers fought back with the agency model (although, as I wrote recently, we’ll have to see how that pans out). And some stores are fighting back with a move to Occupy Amazon (although that might not be the best move for them).
And consumers? Me?
I fear we consumers are, for the most part, blithely buying our Easy Mac by subscription without much thought about the possible consequences of an Amazon-dominated market.
When I thought about not shopping on Amazon for a year, I was thinking mostly about my book buying habits. Which can (shamefully) easily be supplanted by discount book buying at Target.
But then, I got this email from Amazon reminding me that bestsellers and mass market paperbacks aren’t all that I buy:
Even though I don’t have an ereader, this resulted in a forehead slap. Textbooks! How could I have forgotten? Barnes & Noble offers a friendly student bookstore downtown, but what, they don’t honestly expect me to pay list price for something, do they? My professors are sometimes maniacs who expect us to buy 10 books a semester. And I currently work part-time for an hourly wage.
My gorge rose at the idea of paying full price for books. And I’m hoping to go into publishing! It was a bad moment for me when I realized just how unwilling I’d become to pay good money for good books.
I was humbled still further when I ventured into Harvard Bookstore recently.
I must admit it: I am not an indie bookstore shopper. I wish I was. Everything about me suggests I should be: I’m passionate about books, work for a local business, strive to support my community.
Yet when I went inside the bookstore, I realized that no longer could I just remember the title of a book to find it. I had to remember the author’s name, and be able to make a judgement on what category it might fit into. And then, the shelf would not offer me recommendations based on my selection for what other books I might enjoy. (Ask for help? From the resident literati? You must be joking.)
I have to face the facts: I have become lazy, cheap, and utterly terrified of bookstore employees.
Is this the future? Will Amazon be ahead of my every move, all my better judgement, supplanting my will to do the right thing with the temptation of instant service, pajama shopping, and low, low prices? Is this going to be all of us? Are we even capable of fighting the war that, it seems, Jeff Bezos already won?
It’s going to take willpower. It’s going to take effort, and free time, and copious gift cards. But somehow or another, I have to kick this habit. And hope that it isn’t too late for the rest of us…
UPDATE 1/12/12: It seems I’m not the only one who wants to stop being an Amazombie in 2012! Check out Laura Miller’s take on alternative sources for ebook readers, posted Wednesday, January 11 on Salon.com.