First Look: Amazon Books, Amazon’s first foray into brick-and-mortar bookselling

IMG_3427 (1)As most people involved in the writing and publishing world probably saw in national and regional news stories over the last week, 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, particularly local independent bookstores, the move marked a distinct shift in Amazon’s approach to selling books.

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, to try and 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 is probably going to disappoint you, though I do think it will also provide some insights in terms of what to expect. 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, and thus a better chance at selling. This sounds good and ought to be 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 do actually stand out.

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

Beyond this, 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, a card that features an actual review of the book from Amazon’s site, and also displays the book’s rating on the site. This is actually a genius detail, as it provides solid social proof to a reader who might not be sure about purchasing a particular book or not. 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?

At least they had Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich, though he's on a big publisher, it's one of the best noir books I've read this year (I love rural noir)
At least they had Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich, though he’s on a big publisher, it’s one of the best noir books I’ve read this year (I love rural noir)

Ah yes, it’s time for the payload, the thing that really damaged the whole experience for me, and actually had me heading to the bookstore exit empty-handed for the first time in a long time. When I first heard the news that Amazon was opening a bookstore, I had a very specific moment of excitement, and one that I would be willing to bet also slipped into the minds of nearly every single author I know who works with a smallish independent publisher.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, that question was: “Will this be a boon for independent publishers, and, by default, authors?” Does this mean works by smaller 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, myself included, who have various books out with independent publishers that utilize Amazon’s Print On Demand system to sell the paperback copies of their books. Given that Amazon has often tried to present themselves as a champion of authors, as a force striving to put more control of the market and profit margins into AUTHORS’ hands, 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 “The Big 5” (or 4, or however many there are now) 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 (in the few moments they were able to align their goals with those of authors), 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 BooksGutter Books, and many others not making so much as an appearance. I have to admit that it bummed me out, as 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?

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 very good technical and marketing-related reasons for this failed opportunity. But it’s still a failure, and I hope they find a way to make it happen down the road. 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 and the writing that I know deserve a larger audience, much of which is encumbered by the market barriers Big 5 (again, or 4, I have no idea) publishers often create at the brick-and-mortar level. Thanks for your support in that regard, and I hope you’ll consider buying our first issue when it comes out, to support that mission.

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6 thoughts on “First Look: Amazon Books, Amazon’s first foray into brick-and-mortar bookselling”

  1. Though it’s nice to see a brick-and-mortar store open up, I still think an independent would still have been better. I mean let’s face it, it’s still a big box store (term used a little loosely here as there is only one physical location).
    I completely agree with the missed opportunity thing of not putting more POD books as well as independent publishers on the shelf. That would have been nice to see I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely, to be honest I’ve seen more independent publishers represented in your average Barnes and Noble, and that really put me off!


      1. I’ve seen that too. Although, it’s also kind of sad to see that B&N sections (particularly mystery) are getting smaller to make space for more toys and games (not that there’s anything wrong with toys & games), but it’s Barnes & Noble BOOKSELLERS.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Bobby Mangahas, it’s so good to see you on this blog! Michael, thanks so much for going to check out the store and reporting back. I’ve been curious about its opening but uneasy (the first time ever feeling this way for a bookstore opening!). I wondered if they really did price books lower than the retail price. I also wondered how their staff was. Could they hand sell anything to you? That for me, is the key to shopping (and working) in a bookstore. What’s also missing is that it sounds like the store must stock what’s selling best on Amazon, rather than relying on a knowledgeable and passionate bookstore manager to curate the picks. I guess what it comes down to is that personal touch is lacking as Bobby says. It’s still a big box store like Costco or Walmart selling books.


    1. Thanks Sarah for commenting! I think a big part of the debate is already becoming about who stocks shelves better from a business standpoint, data or individual store managers with deep knowledge of books and what constitutes a “good book.” I worry that the choice to lean on data in stocking decisions too much will end up cauterizing the market, in that as titles sell better they stock those titles more often until all you see are the same books or the same types of books everywhere. In some ways that has already happened, but algorithms just get better and better, and they represent such a powerful approach to marketing that still totally lacks the very human elements involved in reading and writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This was a problem when I worked at Borders. The buyers based the decisions on what was huge at the time. Perfect example of this was when Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol came out. Because it sold really well(and based on the pre-release buzz), more books were ordered. Of course not as many people were buying it this time around. Consequently, we had numerous stacks all over the store of this book. Of course there were lots of other bad decisions made by that company, but that’s another story.

        Liked by 1 person

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