Don't tell me the truth about Amazon

In a letter to its membership posted last week Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, has urged his members to use their trusted voices to tell their customers the truth about Amazon. He writes: "You and your bookselling colleagues know the real narrative of the Amazon story, but it’s important that we keep in mind the viewpoint and experience of our customers. Amazon’s public message of low prices and wide selection are, regrettably, the only story that many consumers know . . . I believe that the most influential and trusted voice in helping to tell the true story to your customers is you. Armed with the facts — and those facts are extraordinarily persuasive — your outreach to your customers is critically important."

Teicher is often, unfairly, attacked for focusing on negative messages such as this about Amazon, as opposed to the positive signals he could be sending out about bookselling. But the ABA has a foot in both these camps, and necessarily so. Its membership is derived solely from independent bookshops so it can advocate on their behalf, as well as build commercially useful tool as such as IndieBound and its digital platform IndieCommerce. It also operates, with Kobo, an e-book programme.

The ABA is also a lobbying and pressure group: if it wasn't talking up the damage being done it its members' businesses by powerful companies such as Amazon then it wouldn't be doing its job. The ABA asks its members to talk to their customers, but also to directly lobby the legislators.

Teicher's views also echo those of Tim Godfray, chief executive of the UK Booksellers Association, who wrote in The Bookseller in April: "Amazon has achieved its phenomenal growth and influence because consumers like what it does, but, in my view, if they continue to threaten large parts of the book trade, this will not only be bad for the industry, but also, in the long run, for the consumer too." The BA has traditionally been less vocal in its view of the changing marketplace as it represents a broader church of booksellers: nevertheless it too, like Teicher, recognises that the environment big corporate groups such as Amazon, Apple etc operate within is not flat, these companies are rewarded for their innovation, and their job creation, in ways that can quickly unbalance traditional or smaller competitors.

What critics of this approach argue is that Amazon won't be taken down by bad PR, and ultimately customers don't appreciate lectures on where they should shop. Teicher writes that "you and your bookselling colleagues know the real narrative of the Amazon story", but Amazon is neither all good, nor all bad. And for some such terms are redundant anyway.

Yet sentiment is important: if it wasn't Amazon wouldn't spend so much effort telling customers how great its service is, and how great they are for using it. Here is Jeff Bezos speaking about Amazon's latest financial results. "The Kindle service keeps getting better. The Kindle Store now offers millions of titles including more than 350,000 exclusives that you won’t find anywhere else." And here he is back in 1997: "Our customers responded very well to our price reduction in June, which resulted in immediate increases in unit sales and conversion rates. It appears that this pricing has encouraged our customers to do more of their book buying online." What Bezos understood from the get-go was that Amazon could not be one thing to its investors, and another to its customers: its message had to be the same to both. It was selling an ethos, whether you were investing a dollar or spending that dollar on a book.

What critics of Amazon choose to ignore, of course, is how Amazon has been a boon to many small businesses, particularly self-published writers, or small traders who sell via its marketplace. When UK bookseller Keith Smith asked authors to stop linking to Amazon for their book sales, he was criticised for failing to recognise that some authors make their living by doing precisely that. To them, Smith was trying to save his living by limiting theirs. 

Publishers also need to think hard about how they talk about and react to Amazon: the one thing worse than Amazon's dominance increasing, would be Amazon going away. Even Melville House's Dennis Johnson, a vocal critic of Amazon, still distributes his list on the online retailer, a detail liberally thrown around on Twitter when Johnson launches into another critique of the Seattle giant on MobyLives! the MH blog. Yet Johnson told the Naked Book podcast a year ago that he didn't want Amazon to go away, he just wanted it to behave.

It's a neat body-swerve, but a useful one. There are those of us who can afford to have a nuanced view of Amazon, but there are others who cannot. We should respect both.







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