Amazon and the Era of American Enlightenment
What will the growing popularity of online book buying mean for Americans’ pocketbooks, the environment — and independent bookstores?
October 8, 2010
I hate to admit it, but I am an old fogy. I like non-Kindle books, if you know what I mean — the feeling of holding, and diving into, a distinctly physical product. If I downloaded e-books aplenty, I fear they would gather "dust" from being stowed away unread in some file on my hard drive — or worse, one of those e-reader devices, which are far from state-of-the-human-art.
And yet, I love Amazon. I know, in saying this, I am another executioner to the (physical) bookstore trade. And I shouldn’t even be saying any of this, since I live near one of the great remaining independent bookstores in the United States, Politics and Prose in the upper Northwest neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
But these are tight budgetary times. And I recall that, whenever I felt semi-flush and went to the bookstore to buy a few books — and, mind you, I really mean just a few — I would also end up with a hefty $150 bill. We’re talking real money here.
So my visits to the bookstore remained rare occurrences. Plus, it wasn’t really convenient. Often, I would come by the store in the evening, after it was closed. Or the thought of going to the bookstore turned into a planning act, aborted because I just needed to rest or had other things to take care of.
Now, the great thing about Amazon for us budget-conscious, mind-activated busy bodies is that there seems to be a sale every day. Yes, the Amazon bookstore has turned into the Wal-Mart for the reading classes.
As part of the advent of the rise of the e-book, or so it at least seems to me, Amazon implemented a new pricing policy that keeps the price even of new hardcover editions closely tied to the $9.99 e-book price for many of its items.
As a result, I find myself buying books a bit more on spec. If it looks good, since the price is right, why not get it? The risk of failure, of not having leafed through the book in the store, is actually quite low.
After all, there is the intelligence of crowds to rely on ("Customers who bought this item also bought…"). And if the purchase really turned out to be a flop, it wasn’t so bad. Time is money — and the amount of time saved by not going to the bookstore in a way meant that I couldn’t really lose money on the transaction anyway.
I realize that this online book-buying thing does not necessarily trigger a broad wave of American enlightenment, but at least it means that we enlightenment wannabes can do so a little more cheaply.
Deflation may be a bad thing for the economy as a whole, but for our own household, it sure is a budgetary relief.
And an act of environmental awareness to boot. While this seems counterintuitive seeing as how a UPS truck must deliver the book to our home, people have actually done the numbers. Some studies have found that online commerce is better for the environment because it minimizes infrastructure, reduces the need for warehousing and maximizes transportation efficiency.
The latter point makes it doubly hard for those independent bookstore owners. Their clientele tends to be among the environmentally more aware people in the United States. If they find out that shopping online and UPS-ing it is better for the environment, what will that do for bookstores’ sales prospects?
The only good news for these bookstores, as for newspapers, is that people tend to live ever longer. And there is a whole segment of the population — those who never connected to the online (i.e., Western cultural) revolution — who will continue to frequent physical bookstores, if for no other reason than to congregate with others.
There you have it: Bookstores, before long, are going to be the equivalent of open-access retirement homes — public spaces where a fading generation finds space to congregate.
Bookstores, before long, are going to be the equivalent of open-access retirement homes — public spaces where a fading generation finds space to congregate.
If book buyers find out that shopping online and UPS-ing it is better for the environment, what will that do for bookstores' sales prospects?