Amazon opened a first-of-its-kind brick-and-mortar bookstore today, Tuesday, November 3rd.

Given the past diametric opposition between Amazon and physical bookstores, the move marked a distinct shift in Amazon’s approach to selling books.

A new innovation in an established model?

Amazon has been selling books online for two decades without a physical location, so this news represents at least a small nod to the idea that bookstores will never completely disappear, so long as they continue to maintain a couple of distinct advantages over online sellers. Mainly, instant gratification and knowledgeable curation, which both ease the customer buying experience.

The obvious question about this new foray into brick-and-mortar sales has been whether Amazon can mimic these advantages. They’ve already promised to harness their gargantuan mountain of data on consumer buying habits to stock their shelves more efficiently, with more books that are likely to sell. You’re probably asking yourself right now, “Can they do it?” I asked myself the same thing. So I went out in search of answers.

Since I’m a proud Seattleite, I took some time this morning to head over and take a look. I wanted to see for myself if this move will have Amazon revolutionizing in-person books sales they way they did online book sales.

The answer I brought back might disappoint you. I think it will also provide some insights, however.

Here’s the answer: sort of. But also not really. I’ll line it out here according to “What’s New?” “What’s the Same?” and, something I view as a GLARING missed opportunity: “What’s Missing?”

What’s new?

IMG_3414The biggest thing that struck me as unique is that nearly all of the books are displayed FACE OUT.

That’s right, nearly every single title on the shelves is faced out. As opposed to the standard approach where store curators  make the decisions on which books are placed face out, and which are placed spine out (the majority of them), a decision that can have a massive impact on how many copies a book sells.

On the surface, this sounds really revolutionary and egalitarian, in that it sacrifices stocking variety and inventory depth in the name of giving the books they do stock a stronger presence. This sounds good, but here’s the problem: it’s kind of confusing.

Yikes. I hate to say that, really I do. But not only does this make it harder to sift through the books alphabetically, it also makes them all run together into one long stream of cover artwork. One of the advantages of emphasizing selected titles by placing them face out is, well, the fact that they stand out.

I never realized how useful it is to have spines facing out.  It helps you get to the author you’re searching for faster. I’m not saying this is a deal breaker, just that it doesn’t have the punch I would have assumed. It may be a benign innovation, overall.

The other big change is that each and every book on the shelves has an information card attached to the shelf in front of its slot. the card features an actual review of the book from Amazon’s site. It also displays the book’s rating on the site.

This is actually a genius detail. It provides solid social proof to readers who might not be sure about purchasing a particular book. It’s a great concept, and something that only Amazon is truly in a position to pull off, given that they have the deepest cache on earth of book ratings by readers.

What’s the same?

It's cool that they have a section for short story collections, at least!

It’s cool that they have a section for short story collections, at least!

Alas, the sectioning is the same as any other bookstore, overall. In many ways, the categories they arrange books into feel almost identical to those at your average Barnes and Noble, and represent nothing new in terms of the way books are grouped, overall.

There’s a Staff Picks section (a nod to independent booksellers’ tried-and-true strategy), and there are broad sections like Young Adult, Science Fiction, Mystery and Thriller, and Non-Fiction. But I feel they missed a clear opportunity here to put their data to better use in both micro and macro organizing,

For example, I would like to have seen a broader section titled Crime Fiction, rather than Mystery and Thriller, with subsections for each of these, as well as a subsection for Noir.
There was a small endcap section titled A New Take on Noir, (I guess Neo Noir didn’t strike their fancy?), but though it had some books I really like (such as True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto’s  novel Galveston), it ultimately left me feeling let down and put out at seeing nearly all of my favorite modern noir writers left out completely. Ultimately the sections and categorization felt totally unimaginative and strangely similar to an airport bookstore.

What’s missing?

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Ah yes, it’s time for the payload.  When I first heard the news that Amazon was opening a bookstore, I had a very specific moment of excitement. One that I would be willing to bet also slipped into the minds of nearly every single author who works with an independent publisher.

That question was: “Will this be a boon for independent publishers, and, by default, authors?”

Does this mean works by publishers distributed through Amazon’s Print On Demand system are finally going to find themselves in brick-and-mortar bookstores?

You might want to sit down. I wish I had better news.

I didn’t see a SINGLE Print On Demand book in the entire store. Maybe I missed the section that was dedicated to this due to the crowds, but I don’t think so.

I have dozens of contemporaries who have various books out with independent publishers that utilize Amazon’s Print On Demand system for paperback copies of their books. Given that Amazon has often tried to present themselves as a champion of authors, this aspect skipped right over disappointing and rolled right into despair.

IMG_3420To call it a missed opportunity on Amazon’s part is to undersell the significance of what it means. This could have been a historic entrance into brick-and-mortar sales for independent publishers and their authors. A way for Amazon to take another step in their mission to disempower huge corporate publishing houses.

Instead, it’s a face-slapping reminder that “Big Five” publishers still own brick-and-mortar book sales for all intents and purposes.

Given that Amazon has indirectly vowed to take these companies on in the name of author rights in the past, this really irked me. I can’t believe they didn’t at least put their best-selling Print On Demand titles on shelves. What an oversight.

Using the noir section as an example, it struck me as such a lost opportunity. With so many great independent publishers such as All Due Respect Books, Down and Out Books, and many others not making so much as an appearance.

I have to admit that it bummed me out. I had been clinging to the desperate hope of seeing my upcoming novella Debt Crusher (shameless plug here) on the bookshelves at Amazon Books.

An up-and-coming author can hope, right?

Amazon Books– a sign of things to come?

Debt Crusher drops January 1, 2016 from All Due Respect Books!

Debt Crusher drops January 1, 2016 from All Due Respect Books!

Perhaps they will make the adjustment. I have no idea. And I’m not trying to heap scorn on them.

I’m sure there are good technical and marketing-related reasons for this missed opportunity. But it’s still a failure, and I hope they find a way to make it happen someday. In the end, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

One of the reasons I founded Crime Syndicate Magazine is that I’m not much into sitting around waiting for change. I want to create change, to support the books that I know deserve a larger audience.

Thanks for your support in that regard. I hope you’ll consider buying our first issue to support that mission.

[Michael Pool’s latest novel, Texas Two-Stepis out now from Down and Out Books]

Posted by Michael Pool

Michael Pool is Crime Syndicate Magazine's Editor-in-Chief, as well as a crime fiction author of three books:Texas Two-Step, Debt Crusher, and New Alleys For Nothing Men. His next novel, Rose City, will be published by Down and Out Books in April 2019. Find him online at www.michaelpool.net.

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