You might have seen Stephen Colbert’s take on the Amazon vs. Hachette debacle, or you might have seen articles floating around Facebook, or friends declaring that they’re not buying books from Amazon anymore. What’s the big deal, right?
Here’s what’s happening: Hachette is a gigantic publisher — right up there with Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon and Schuster — and it owns a huge imprint, Little Brown and Company. Amazon wanted to slash prices on books published by Hachette and its imprints, and Hachette refused to undersell its product, so Amazon resorted to bullying tactics: removing “Buy” buttons from Hachette book pages, suggesting that customers buy the books from used book stores (authors receive no royalties from used books), enlarging links to similar titles from different publishers, delaying shipments by 3-4 weeks, or claiming not to be able to sell titles at all — anything to decrease the sales of Hachette titles until Hachette caves.
It’s been effective. Amazon accounts for 65 percent of all new book sales online. Hachette has had to lay off 30 of its employees, including editors who’ve worked with authors like Malcolm Gladwell, John le Carre, Jonathon Safron Foer, and Luis Alberto Urrea. Although Hachette is claiming that it has nothing to do with Amazon, it seems like an awful lot of a coincidence.
It’s true that Amazon vs. Hachette is basically Goliath vs. Goliath. But while it’s hard to sympathize with a giant corporation like Hachette, the deeper question is, if Amazon is undercutting Hachette, what are they doing to small presses? How much of a cooling effect does it have on our freedom of press, and why should it have any?
Furthermore, I’ve heard a few people suggest that they side with Amazon because Amazon offers them the lower price. But that’s not how our economy is supposed to work — we’re supposed to pay a fair price for the products we buy, fair both to the consumer and to the producer. When we pay people or businesses less than the worth of the product – say, $5 for a book that is for all intents and purposes worth $12 — we regress toward the corrupt labor practices that existed during and before the industrial era that our labor unions worked so hard to abolish. Paying less than what a product is worth isn’t “fair,” it’s exploitation.
I decided to finish up A Storm of Swords on my Kindle and stop buying not only books, but everything I can from Amazon. Instead, here are the places you can find the books you want, both online and in person:
1. Powell’s. Powell’s in Portland, Oregon is (allegedly) the largest independent book store in America. Their “city of books” takes up an entire city block and is a genuine delight to visit. You can find almost anything there in person (I was shocked to find some rare books about contemporary artists I’d been looking for for ages), but I’m urging you to use them for your online purchases as well — many of the books you’re looking for will be in stock, and they only charge $3.99 per shipment for standard shipping, no matter how many books are in your order, or free shipping for orders over $50. In addition, one really cool program they have is their indispensable subscription service — for $39.95 a shipment, you get a signed first edition of a new book, mostly from independent publishers, plus some complimentary goodies.
2. Your nearest brick-and-mortar book store. Chances are, you may pay more money at a brick-and-mortar store, but you’ll also be supporting your local economy, and by opting to buy books new, you’ll also be giving your monetary appreciation to the authors. Independent book stores are amazing places to browse for books you wouldn’t have thought to buy, or to ask for suggestions; several of them will have sale sections or special pricing on certain publishers or genres. There are plenty of bookstores that are pillars of their communities around the US, so when you choose to buy a book locally instead of from a faceless giant like Amazon, you’re also supporting your neighborhood culture. And by the way, there’s no faster shipping than having a book immediately in your hands!
3. A discount brick-and-mortar store that might be a little further out of the way. I’m talking about stores like Half Price Books, which is the largest discount book chain I can think of. They’re stores that buy and sell used books, but also offer new books at very low prices. They won’t have the selection or availability as your local new book store, but for your twenty bucks, you’ll probably be able to find more.
4. Library book sales. I would be remiss if I didn’t urge you to look up your local libraries’ book sales and save the date! Some libraries always have a sale section, but once or twice a year most libraries will also put a significant portion of their books on sale — think 25-50 cents per book. You’ll be able to find lots of notable both recent and classic books, and at the same time, you’ll be supporting your library system. Libraries provide vital literacy programs and community courses for children and adults, and this is just one more way to help fund them.
5. Your local used bookstore. I put this last solely because it bears noting, again, that authors get no royalties from used book sales. That being said, used bookstores offer books at some of the consistently lowest prices you’ll find, and frankly, there’s an aura to used bookstores that’s just enchanting. The smell of a used bookstore is the smell of years of shared knowledge. If the point is to get a book in your hands and your eyes on the page for the lowest price you can get, your nearest used bookstore is often the best place to go.