NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #37
by Pat Holt

Friday, February 12, 1999

FACING THE TRUTH AT AMAZON
REMAINDERS OF THE DAY
LETTERS

FACING THE TRUTH AT AMAZON

Goodness, the spin doctors have been out in force this week up at Amazon.com, haven't they? Why, the English language hasn't been massaged so deeply since Richard M. Nixon spoke with equal honesty to tell the nation, "I am not a crook." And it worked so well then, too.

"Please be assured our recommendations are not for sale," Amazon representatives write to inquiring readers. Variations of a form letter have gone out all week to answer questions about the sizzling New York Times article that showed how Amazon.com takes money for the placement of titles in editorial spaces reserved for "Bestsellers," "Amazon.com Recommends" and even "Destined for Greatness" (gad! you couldn't make this stuff up!).

"We realize there has been some confusion regarding Amazon.com's co-op policies." (Confusion! That's right, make it our fault!) Well, there is no "confusion" about the fact that Amazon has taken money for placements of titles without telling customers about it.

Now the company wants us to believe that a screening process keeps bad books from appearing in paid-for positions. " . . . for a book that doesn't meet our standards, there is no amount of money that would cause us to feature it," says Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

And what are those standards? "As a Web-based store with a real community of book lovers, we're being held to a higher standard than physical stores. And you know what? That's the way it should be."

It's so comforting to hear such down-home honesty from a man who's proved himself a genius at losing millions online and making himself a billionaire in the process. Well, you know what, Jeff? Chain stores were the ones that LOWERED the standards in the first place, so don't use them as a model - they've been in the toilet for years.

The great irony here is that chain stores, in their greed at charging publishers for every square inch of placement space, used their payola to once again force independent booksellers out of the competition. Even when lawsuits helped independents win the right to make the same charges as chains do, what you find over and over again in independent stores is a great reluctance on the part of booksellers to cloud their relationship with customers in any way.

Amazon tries to make it sound as though its pay-for-placement plan is legit because independents use co-op funds, too. Of course they do. They use it to pay for newsletters and ads and some store displays. People like me wish they would use more co-op to get additional income coming in, but questions of ethics always emerge. Funnily enough, independents like making choices independent of the corporate system that doesn't like people making choices.

Further, since the chains and the Amazons and the Costcos and the Walmarts effectively took the sale of bestsellers and other high-turnover books away from them, the one thing that independents have left is customer trust - trust that the store's buyer has selected the best books available (instead of all the books available); trust that the clerks know the stock and can help you find the books you want; trust that if your pre-teen has suddenly stopped reading or your uncle has Alzheimer's or your best friend is getting a divorce, somebody in this store can put the perfect book in your hands, or at least try to; and trust that this independent store supports your community, works with teachers at your children's school, forms alliances with librarians at your branch, contributes to local organizations, and so forth.

In many independent stores, everything depends on trust. These booksellers have thought this co-op question through from a hundred different angles, sometimes to the derision of chain store representatives who like to say that when independents go out of business, it's their own fault - they haven't seen that using co-op to increase profits is the highest goal, even if customers' trust is somehow lost in the mania to grab every penny.

So when Amazon.com representatives blithely say to readers, "rest assured that our recommendations are not for sale. We take our customers' trust very seriously," one wants to take this company to a truly level playing field and say, really? Try doing business when you have to pay sales tax for every book sold, when you don't have a lot of free money financing your losses, when you must at least break even to stay alive, and when you have to carry real inventory for every book you say is in stock. Then maybe you'll learn how much customer trust really means.

Maybe, too, Amazon will learn that readers are not stupid. Listing books somewhere on site as the titles whose placement is paid for ain't gonna fix the problem: If you say that Amazon.com recommends a book and you really mean that the publisher has paid you to recommend it (and don't blather on about your vaunted editors "screening" these books! Once you're paid to place them, EVERYTHING you do is suspect), you have to show customers that this is paid placement right on the ad. Otherwise you're fibbing to us again.

So it doesn't matter if Amazon editors turn down some of the publishers' submissions as really too awful even for them to feature: What matters is that Amazon started out with a reputation for a clean editorial policy that it has botched with a good number of readers. For customers who have counted on Amazon to present these books in a nothing-up-my-sleeve (especially cash!) manner, it's going to take a long time to believe in this company again.

LETTERS

Dear Pat,

I was not surprised at the idea of paying for placement at Amazon. This trick has been going on for quite sometime with all of the superstores. You pay to get an endcap in Barnes & Noble and what ever sign you pick is what goes up even if it reads "The Most Recommended Business Titles". Furthermore, you also pay to get into the stores promotional literature such Borders Inside Magazine. And you pay huge amounts to have a placement that looks like a recommendation. It's very sad that he who has the most money can continue to prosper, when some of the best books come from very small niche publishers who can't afford to pay $6000 just to have someone say that their product is recommended.

Jenmarie Macko

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I am director of The Mercantile Library of New York, a not-for-profit library specializing in fiction and located in midtown Manhattan. I have been reading your columns since they came on line, and enjoy them a great deal.

Your recent columns on the problems experienced by independent bookstores is intriguing, and I have a suggestion, though it might not be appealing to independent bookstore owners, or viable, in the legal sense.

Before going out of business entirely, what would happen if an independent bookstore applied for not-for-profit status, thereby cutting out all real estate and corporate taxes. The chains would cry "Foul!" because of unfair competition, but, hey, that might be pot-calling-kettle-black time. A not-for-profit could then lower its prices accordingly, and give some real competition to the chains on a price basis. Localities might find the protection of its small stores to be appealing--though they would lose some property tax money--and might go for it. I don't know about the legal possibilities (remember, it IS possible: "Ms." magazine went from profit to non-profit), but a simple announcement of the whole idea might get the chains dander up and call attention to the problem.

Harold Augenbraum
mercantile_library@email.msn.com

Hi Pat,
Re the war of chains vs. indies, I thought you might like the story of tiny Orr Books, my local independent in the Uptown area of south Minneapolis. A Borders went in two doors down a few years ago and, of course, is huge, beautiful, and does a wildly successful business. Orr is one small room, no storeroom, five employees who have worked there all their lives and are devoted to customer service. It's a funky, tiny store with one tattered chair and an eclectic assortment of books.

I, as a writer (novelist, author of "Rainlight" from Papier-Mache Press) always "browse at Borders, buy at Orr." That's my motto, and that's what I tell all my students, too. The same way I tell them that they can research a book on Amazon.com, then go to their local indie and buy it.

I knew that Orr was struggling. Still, it was a shock last Christmas season when the Star-Tribune ran a feature article on how Orr was "failing" and would go under soon. The owner, Charlie Orr, made a public plea for loyal customers and newbies to buy their Christmas-list books at his shop, or he would not be able to renew the lease. (My neighborhood is a very popular one, and rental rates are very high).

I felt a sense of doom. Of course I bought all my Xmas books there, but I ALWAYS buy all my books there. BUT! A couple of weeks ago when I was in there purchasing William Stafford's Collected Poems ("The Way It Is") I asked Julia, my favorite employee, how the season had gone.

"Beautifully," she said. "The public responded hugely to the feature article." Charlie is signing a new lease. This is a store that has never once advertised. Just one feature in a metropolitan newspaper - BEFORE the store went into bankruptcy - has saved a tiny independent. At least for another year. A mini-success story.

Alison McGhee
mcghe003@tc.umn.edu