Given: Amazon is a monopolist giant taking advantage of its vast economies of scale to drive down prices and destroy the little guy. Right?
Wrong. For years, the story has been that Amazon is killing the independent bookstore. In fact, notes Nate Hoffelder, a long-standing observer of the digital evolution of books, the exact opposite has happened in the past few years. He looked at membership at the American Booksellers Association, a non-profit that promotes the interests of independent book retailers, and found that its numbers had gone up every year for the past four years, from 1,401 in 2009 to 1,567 in 2012 (pdf). Another 65 companies joined the association this year, bringing the total up to 1,632. The actual number of bookstores is even greater.
Big bookstores are the ones most affected by Amazon’s dominance. Borders is long gone. Barnes and Noble isn’t in the best health. And Waterstones in Britain has started selling Kindles. The reason? There is very little difference between big, impersonal chain stores selling books and a big, impersonal website selling books. Independent retailers, on the other hand, have a lot to offer that Amazon cannot: niche coffee, atmosphere, serendipitous discoverability of new titles and authors, recommendations from knowledgable staff, signings and events, to name a few.
Indeed, little bookshops may even be taking a page out of Amazon’s book. Hoffelder notes an increase in the number of shops with Espresso Book Machines, which print (and bind) a copy of self-published, boutique-published or obscure books on demand in a matter of minutes. The numbers of bookstore buying the expensive machines is, of course, still tiny. But it points to another way in which independents can potentially fend off the big boys and maybe even thrive.