Amazon has taken a lot of abuse in the publishing world, and with good reason. Amazon uses their marketing clout to force publishers to lower their prices, thus reducing authors’ income; they make it harder for independent bookstores to remain in business; their warehouse employees work at extremely high speeds in brutal heat; and whenever you buy a book on a Kindle, you don’t own it in the same way that you own a physical book, because Amazon can delete the book or suspend your account at any time, as a number of users have discovered.
But, in fairness to Amazon, all warehouses are brutally hot in the summer, with punishing productivity quotas. My father-in-law used to be a warehouse manager for a retail chain, and he told stories about workers narrowly avoiding being crushed by tall columns of boxes toppling in the aisles because the cardboard softened in the heat. He used to say that anyone who was still working in a warehouse at age 30 was an “old, old man” in warehouse years because of the physically demanding work conditions.
In addition, the ephemerality of Kindle books applies to many kinds of downloadable online purchases, such as apps and music. Many of the “Buy” buttons you see online really ought to say “Buy a conditional license for use,” according to one tech writer, but that’s a change that should be made across a vast swath of online sales activity, not just Amazon.
Amazon isn’t inherently evil for using their market size to get their way—that’s a feature of capitalism in general, not of Amazon in particular—but when Amazon’s successes hurt independent bookstores, it becomes a question of what kind of world you want to live in. I always want there to be independent bookstores, so I continue to patronize them. But I also share one car with my wife, and I ride a bus to and from work, and I don’t get home until later in the evening, all of which means I can’t hop in the car and drive to my nearest bookstore whenever I feel like it. Also, if we’re talking about driving a car to go buy a book, a 2009 study by Cleantech found that e-books tend to have a much lower carbon footprint than print books. This is especially true for books bought at a bookstore, because 25-36% of all books offered for sale in bookstores don’t ever get sold, which means they’re returned to the publisher and destroyed. The additional costs of shipping and destroying unsold books are baked in to the U.S. bookstore business model, meaning that every book you buy from a bookstore carries an additional carbon load beyond its own.
So, as a reader, I generally prefer e-books to print books, not only for carbon reasons but also because I relish the lightness and convenience, the searchability, and for nonfiction, the ease of highlighting and taking notes. But one thing I love about shopping for print books in a bookstore is the ability to take a book off the shelf and read the first few pages, to see if it grabs me. At that point I already have an idea of what the book is about, based on the cover art and copy, so when I read the first few pages I’m tasting the book’s prose style. Does the author use apt word choices, solid nouns, evocative verbs, nimble sentences, illustrative metaphors? Are scenes and actions clear? Is dialogue convincing? Does the style fit the subject matter? And above all, is there something fresh and original about these sentences that pulls me in and makes me want to read more of them?
This is where Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature comes in so very handy. From my own desk, or the bus (the GoTriangle buses I ride on my commute have WiFi), or anywhere else that I have Internet access, I can click on a book and start reading to see if it pulls me in. Regrettably, no such feature exists at IndieBound.org, the website and marketplace of the American Booksellers Association (the nonprofit trade association for U.S. independent bookstores). IndieBound.org does have a way to buy e-books from your local bookstore through the Kobo e-book platform, which offers book previews comparable to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature; but not all independent bookstores participate in that program, and none do anywhere in my home state of North Carolina.
So what’s a picky, pro-small-business, environmentally conscious reader to do? More to the point, what’s a self-published author with all those traits—like, say, yours truly—to do? The whole point of writing a book, at least for me, is to have people read it. And one thing I’ve learned from working in communications and marketing for the past five years is that if you want to reach an audience, you have to reach them where they are, not where they’re not. If they’re buying e-books from Amazon, you need to sell e-books on Amazon; if they’re buying print books from independent bookstores, you need to sell print books through independent bookstores; and so on.
And that’s what I’m doing. As of now, you can buy my novel Blood Family in both print and e-book formats from both Amazon and non-Amazon sources (see the links below). That leaves audiobooks as the last frontier for this book, and I’ve already begun the research to see what it would take to make that happen. In the meantime, enjoy either the pages or the pixels of your preference.