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Amazon Books: PR Stunt or Industry Game Changer?

Amazon Books

Source: The New Republic, Dustin Kurtz

Time Magazine might have thought it popped up by surprise, but in reality Amazon’s first physical bookstore has been a long time coming.

Yes, you read that right. Amazon’s first physical bookstore.

To be exact, they’ve opened a 5,500-square-foot shop, carrying around 5,000 to 6,000 titles with 15 employees under the direction of Amazon Books Vice President Jennifer Cast. It’s also in Seattle (so most of us don’t have to worry too much just yet).

However, to the many bookstore owners who loathe Amazon, seeing their doors open seems dreadfully ironic. After all, it was Amazon who undercut the cost of books through e-commerce, drove more bricks-and-mortar shops out of business than can be counted, and upended the bookselling industry.

Ahead of its launch, many received the rumours with incredulity and the press release with reported ‘horror’.

James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones told The Bookseller he hoped the venture would ‘fall flat on its face’:

“…With only 5,000 titles in a space in which Waterstones would put over 10 times that number, it appears to be a tentative dip of the toe into physical bookselling waters … Clearly, however, a skim of the bestsellers away from true bookshops would be very damaging: we very much hope that it falls flat on its face.”

Emma Corfield Walters from Bookish in Crickhowell concurred, admitting she’d be ‘horrified’ if such a store came to London.

Similarly, since launch day, many have been poking holes in the viability of Amazon Books.

In one review, Dustin Kurtz describes the store as ‘wildly banal’. According to him, compared to the awesome disruptive power Amazon wields online, the only thing they’re challenging in the University Village mall is the occasional shopper en route to buy hammers. Kurtz also called the space ‘physically odd’ and ‘betraying inexperience with retail’.

Amazon Books

Amazon is placing all its books face-out (Source: Amazon via City A.M.)

But looking at the photos, if Amazon Books’ stacks are situated so close you have to brush your neighbour as you pass, our British shops must be built for Borrowers. Furthermore, if the largest part of Kurtz’ anti-argument is the layout (which wouldn’t be difficult to improve), then the store probably deserves at least a half point more on its 2.5 rating.

However, as we all know, making a fuss in the book industry is a pretty commonplace communications strategy.

Amazon will have anticipated negativity around its Seattle opening. If their CEO sneezes it makes the i100. Therefore it’s only sensible to conclude many of the commentators on the launch will be book industry pundits who want to ensure their tuppence makes bank.

Jumping on a news story like this makes it interesting to a far broader reach of people. Yes it’s the online giant going offline but the story gained more column inches because of the e-retailer’s critics than it ever did with the press release. They helped it garner worldwide interest despite, at its root, being a small, local story.

So why would Amazon’s detractors want to help boost this shop onto the international stage?

Because it gave them, amongst dozens of voices, a chance to associate their name and business with the current industry news  agenda. It’s simple thought-leadership. It’s why many opinions are deliberately incendiary. It’s why the majority focused on the irony of Amazon killing the bookstore only to open their own. Why Salon emphasised ‘Amazon wants to be hated’. And why many rebuff Amazon Books for simply being an exercise in PR.

I suspect there’s more to the story than chasing away recent negative press. Beyond the headlines there are some pretty interesting ideas related to retail innovation and use of big data.

For one, by basing the store around ‘data’, Amazon is harnessing it’s online business model for the offline world. They’re testing the limits of omni-channel shopping, combining retail systems and skills that might work across sectors. Likewise, the fact the store’s books are face-out, tagged with a review and rating from the site, recognises the way we search online and changing habits.

Whilst there’s nostalgia in the browsing of books according to genre and taste, having a store that stocks books based on ‘customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on reader recommendation site Goodreads, and its curators’ has its own benefits. Namely it will stock the most popular books – as demanded by the reader – so not just those from big publishing houses. If it works, this could be good for self-published writers, independents and niche titles.

amazon books

Of course, it could also work the other way, making books disappear if they fail to gain a 4.8 star rating, which would be far less positive for new writers.

But beyond the pros and cons of their algorithms, the biggest sign that Amazon Books is no mere vanity project is the statistics showing e-reader and e-book sales have slowed.

In a plot twist literary scaremongers failed to predict, print is not dead. The digital apocalypse never arrived. Kindles and Nooks happily cohabit with paperbacks. The love readers have for the physical book is boundless.

As reported in the New York Times:

“E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.”

Seeing statistics like this, coupled with Amazon Books foray into physical retail, a brighter light shines on the print landscape. After all, what does it suggest if not the longevity of the physical book?

Amazon is often depicted as the antagonist in the book industry narrative. To survive, the best loved and most successful physical stores have focused on those curation skills bespoke to bookish hearts. And it’s been working. Independent bookstores, battered by the recession and competition from Amazon, are showing strong signs of resurgence.

“The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations five years ago.”

The reverse migration to print emphasises the hybridisation of how readers read. They convey the continued love for stores and books and the power of those spaces where the two meet.

Amazon Books is just the latest indication of that power. It’s success or failure, however, will demonstrate whether online can survive offline, whether algorithms can compete with heart, and whether it’s launch was worth the hype.


Heart or Hype?

What do you think about Amazon Books? Why not let us know in the comments below?

Or if you'd like to hear more about Amazon's antics, check out some of our other stories on their use of technology and data by following the link below.

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