Notebook: Happy Holidays, buy local!

From Ann Kjellberg, editor

Welcome to the holiday shopping season, Book Post readers! I hope at least some of you are spending your day off on the sofa with a book.  Experts have shown (not really) that it’s the best way to metabolize the soporific effects of tryptophan. For our part we’ve been reading Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, in order better to understand the moment, but more on that later. Chances are some of you have trekked back to places you are from, or places your relatives are from, and are knocking about, perhaps readying yourselves for a break from the family. Here’s a suggestion: Why not visit the local bookshop! It’s a great place to while away some time, put you in touch with the zeitgeist even as you imbibe a bit of local flavor. Maybe it was even around when you were a kid, waiting for the latest Harry Potter or Judy Blume (depending). If you don’t have to carry your own luggage back, consider making a pro-local statement and buying a book or two there for your near-and-dear. Eric Klinenberg argues in his new book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, that bookstores are among the places that we linger together and build the social connections that make us a coherent society; he argues we must put energy into developing these spaces if we want a healthy civic life. Hey, this sounds a lot like what we’ve been saying! That’s one of the reasons we partner with local booksellers, this month, Left Bank Books in St. Louis (see above), and tell you what’s going on there, and channel your buying dollars toward the valuable work they do with and for readers.

We take the argument a step further, though: we think there’s something like an infrastructure of the mind, and we’re trying to nourish the space where local and dynamic cultural life has suffered from the national-scale, big-tech, price-gouging, data-hoarding, wage-suppressing, monopolizing competition, specifically—for us—the decline in book reviewing that’s resulted from the hardships faced by local newspapers. The struggles of local papers are arguably part of a larger picture: difficult straights for all sorts of human-scale institutions that used to bring us together around ideas and culture (speak up small theater owners, independent movie house managers, local museum directors) as large economies of scale and technology-based efficiencies maneuver e-substitutes in front of people’s attention.  In the stubborn vitality of book clubs, independent bookselling, library visiting, we see a reassuring impulse among readers to reclaim the human-scale, the face-to-face, in the world of books.

On this note, online retailer Amazon recently announced the winner of its very public competition to find a home for its second “headquarters” (though some have noted that companies, like animals, usually have only one head, so multiples might better be called “offices”). Was the big winner a neighborhood threatened by automation or outsourced jobs or agricultural consolidation? Of course not!  It was the subway-accessible peripheries of Washington, DC, and New York City. Skeptics have questioned whether the so-called competition was rigged from the jump: It allowed the corporate giant to pit municipalities against each other in digging into their pockets for incentives like tax breaks and subsidies, to suck up confidential regional data, and to extract fawning endorsements from politicians who might otherwise have challenged its growing monopolistic power to stifle competition and suppress wages and benefits. Amazon was able to leverage their market power to bypass normal public processes governing land use and go straight to the top. In spite of the grandiose promises of jobs and developmet, but consistent with the character of the “competition,” history has not shown Amazon to be a very public-spirited neighbor: just this summer it organized local corporations to thwart a tax program developed to address the homelessness that booming property rates have aggravated in their home base of Seattle.

Amazon, along with its sister big-tech quasi-monopolies Facebook and Google, has become a force bigger than books, indeed critics argue that they aspire to become or displace our national infrastructure (viz Eric Klinenberg). Amazon for its part, as Stone’s book dramatically documents, aims to become the channel through which we do all our buying and, with their cloud services, our digital storing of what we’ve bought, even as they gin the system to favor their own products. But it’s illuminating to look back on Amazon’s origins in, and effects on, the book business, now a small part of its overall operations.

Jeff Bezos seeded his imagined “everything store” in 1994 with books for various practical reasons involving conveniences of book distribution and not because he had any particular concern for the care of reading.  Founded by a Wall Street émigré, the company came quickly to dominate bookselling with the help of indulgent financial analysts and investors, who tolerated its operating deeply in the red for years as it undercut the prices of brick-and-mortar retailers and consolidated market share. Amazon initially also avoided paying the sales taxes to which its rivals were subject by setting up shop in a thinly populated state, and then undercut the competition further with free shipping services, estimated to lose them another $1 billion a year but tether loyal customers to them. As the President has noted Amazon enjoys favorable shipping terms anyway with the USPS, as a result of its size and related efficiencies.

Immediately laying claim to the totality of the market and the eyeballs of every possible buyer, Amazon mercilessly used its leverage with publishers to secure favorable terms.  It has been known to increase their shipping times and even (some charge) that of individual authors, to remove recalcitrant publishers from its recommendation features, to move books down search results, to promote books by competitors, and even to remove the option to buy altogether in order to pressure publishers into accepting a smaller return, betting that they are in the end unwilling to give up access to Amazon’s giant customer base. Since a 2013 Department of Justice ruling prohibiting publishers from teaming up to resist Amazon’s below-market pricing, publishers have been sparring with Amazon over terms for e-books, most notably in a big showdown with publishing giant Hachette in 2014. Last year publishers had to step in to prevent Amazon’s “Buy Box” from directing buyers to resold books profiting third parties rather than the publisher and author. The company created internal lists of publishers most vulnerable to the Amazon threat and targeted small publishers who had little recourse in the diminished retail environment. Now Amazon controls half of the American print market for books and over two-thirds of the market for e-books.

So by giving Amazon enormous cash benefits and favorable business terms to site its offices in their markets, Virginia and New York (ironically a hub for publishing and writing) are subsidizing a company that actively seeks to cripple their own small business and constrict the income that allows their publishers and writers to develop new ideas and pursue less mass-marketable projects. Like the other tech giants, Amazon thrives on mass phenomena, threatens the small and unheard, and supplants the local institutions that cater to the slow work of building and sharing ideas. Both Hachette and rare booksellers, which recently secured a rare victory in a showdown with Amazon-subsidiary Abe Books, have acknowledged the need to develop alternative markets if they are to survive. ““Whoever owns the platform owns the power,” as e-commerce analyst Juozas Kaziukenas told The New York Times.

There are things that only Amazon can do, most notably the opportunities it has created for self-publishing authors; Amazon is here to stay and eliminating it is not an option. But there are plenty of ways to support a more diverse marketplace for books and ideas. You can order your books from an individual bookshop, as we do, or from IndieBound, a consortium of independent booksellers which, by the way, also regularly posts interesting lists of indie bestsellers and coming attractions. You can buy e-books and audiobooks from the independent retailer Kobo and out-of-print books from Biblio.

This is a week when we Americans usually endure an uncomfortable spectacle in which a holiday celebrating (however conflictedly) our origin story in simplicity, sharing, and hardiness, coincides with a paroxysm of mass consumption. Maybe we can turn it to something more nurturing to our national comity by supporting those industries and workers—such booksellers, publishers, and writers—who sustain our common store of ideas and work to bring us together.

Another option, if you don’t want to rise from the sofa: Give the gift of Book Post!