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This Is Predation

I’m a fairly heavy customer of Amazon.com (among other booksellers), and I even provide links on this site for people who want to buy my books there (or elsewhere). So I have nothing against Amazon per se.

Last night an old half-forgotten book popped into my head, and I wanted to check its availability, so I fired up the Amazon app on my device, and this is what I saw:



A few thoughts flashed through my head, roughly in this order:

  • I could save myself ten or fifteen keystrokes by scanning the barcode.
  • I don’t have the barcode. If I had the barcode, I’d already have the book.
  • Q. Where would I be, if I were shopping for a book and found the barcode handy?
  • A. In a bookstore.

I am aware, because booksellers have told me, that people sometimes go into bookstores, browse, chat with the expert staff, handle the merchandise, and scan a barcode to buy the book online before they’ve even departed the premises.

This is not good. I don’t mean it’s immoral (I’ll leave that discussion for others). I mean it’s unsustainable. That ecosystem cannot survive—and authors like me are a part of that ecosystem.

Bookstores (brick-and-mortar; meatspace) have qualities that their online counterparts have so far come nowhere near to replicating. Their shelves and tables carry ever-changing reflections of the personal tastes, judgment, and expertise of the booksellers. They form relationships with their local customers and with authors who may pass through. They are “lonely forts,” as John Updike said not long before he died, “spilling light onto the sidewalk.”

(I know, by the way, that mobile scanning of barcodes has many other uses and possibilities; more and more, barcodes are turning up in printed ads and on signs and posters. For that matter, the pretty little graphic at the upper left of this page happens to be a working barcode.)

Bookstores need to survive. We need bookstores to survive. Personally I try never to buy a book from Amazon that I can get locally. But I’m not trying to admonish book lovers to lead more saintly lives; people are going to do what they’re going to do. This is a problem that needs to be solved by the industry. To wit:

  • Bookstores need ways for their customers to make instantaneous purchases through their local wi-fi networks.
  • Bookstores need to sell their books in electronic versions as well as hardcover and softcover.
  • Fairly priced hybrid versions should be available, too (that is, the physical book bundled with the e-book, for just a dollar or two more than either one alone).

A typical independent bookstore won’t be able to accomplish the above on its own; publishers need to make it happen. They need to work out systems and policies and get them into the booksellers’ hands. Pronto. For the sake of their own survival and the survival of authors.


  1. Logan Seeley says

    This is the same situation the music market is in. Digital media is certainly benefiting the industry by providing wider availability, but often at the cost of a better experience.

    • Martin says

      @Logan Seeley

      I disagree but just a little. :-)

      Music *wants* to be digital. It is very suited to a digital experience. I think I can safely say you’ve never held music. Whereas a book is an imaginative *and* physical experience. Holding a book in your hand is a physical experience that can’t be replaced by something digital.

      • Nodscene says

        Well, I have to disagree :)

        I get quite a bit of enjoyment from owning the physical media whether it be CD or especially vinyl. There is artwork and lyrics that work best in the physical realm in my opinion. We are still a ways away from getting proper reproduction from analogue to digital sound, or at least having it become popular (ie SACD).

      • Benjamin Lukoff says

        I’ve never held music, but neither have I held words. I have held an album, though, and it’s just like a book as far as I’m concerned. There is something about a physical record that an MP3 file lacks, just as there is something about a physical book that a file lacks. The same goes for images, both still and moving.

        But perhaps I am fooling myself. I was born when analog was common (and not all that long ago… I’m 36) and have seen both. What will the children born when I’m 50 think?

  2. Kaflooey says

    I wouldn’t scan the barcode of a book I wanted to buy in a bookstore to buy it online. It’s a matter instant gratification, and even convenience. If I’m already at the book shop, it’s easier to buy it then and there, instead of waiting a couple of weeks to get the parcel slip in the mail, then queue for at least half an hour at the post office to collect it. My time is worth the extra few bucks, I figure.

    Of course if I can’t find the book in a store, that’s a different matter entirely. Funnily enough, I bought a copy of your book after the talk you gave at ANU last week (which I really enjoyed!), so I could get it signed. I had been looking out for it in shops, and the copy I ordered online still hasn’t arrived after 4 weeks.

    Essentially, my point is I think the two systems complement each other nicely, and it would be a shame if real-life book shops became a thing of the past.

    • Helen says

      I agree that the two systems complement each other. If a book is not immediately available in a book shop then I am more than happy to wait for it to arrive – the expectation is divine.

  3. Jerry Vandesic says

    Seems like a great opportunity for a price comparison. If the bookstore has it at a better price than Amazon, I would surely buy it from them. If the price is more, I would then consider the tradeoff of having the book immediately or having to wait for Amazon to ship it to me. In any event, having a bit of information would inform my purchasing decision.

    • Brit Cruise says

      That’s the problem; bookstores can’t and shouldn’t have to compete with Amazon. Think of the overhead structure: a massive warehouse with millions of books operated partially by robots vs. expensive rent downtown, with staff and shipping costs.

      I think the personal service and ambiance will save whats left of the small book stores. Like Murno’s Books

      • Jerry Vandesic says

        Of course they have to compete with Amazon and anyone else that is selling what you want to buy. That’s the definition of competition. It’s probably not fair competition, but it is competition none the less. The line between fair and unfair is drawn by the consumer, and is part of the tradeoff that I mentioned.

  4. woodenmask says

    Actually, I do this all the time (sort of…)

    I use my iPod to take a picture of any book I run across that I might want to buy at a future time, then put it on my Amazon wishlist when I get home. This lets me think about how much I actually want or need that particular book. Since I have a habit of falling in love with very expensive coffee table books, this also lets me look around on several sites and wait until it goes on sail somewhere, or search Audible for the audio version.

    This is especially useful when I run across a book at the library or when somebody at a conference shows me what they’re reading.

    On top of that, the only bookstore in our city is a Barnes & Noble, where the staff is so staggeringly unhelpful that I feel no guilt about ordering stuff online.

    – John

    • woodenmask says

      Sigh… I’m pretty sure I meant, “on SALE”…

  5. Adam says

    “This is a problem that needs to be solved by the industry.” I would amend that by adding, “. . . if they want to stay alive.” But I’m beginning to wonder if the problem can be solved, especially if it’s not perceived as a problem at all. In fact, defining it as a problem may be the biggest hurdle.

    I’m reading your book, The Information, and enjoying it. I borrowed it from the library before deciding to buy it from a bricks-and-mortar store. Did you see this spoof on your cover?

  6. Alex says

    I am a heavy user of Amazon. I love their prime membership and use it all the time. However, there is another use of Amazon beyond simply ‘buy cheap and ship quick’ marketplace. They are a place to check prices. You may be standing in a book store at a 30% off table and wonder “is this actually a good deal, or is this your typical over-price-and-markdown marketing strategy?”

    There is yet another way to use Amazon for something more than typical sales. You can scan and create a wish list for later purchases. It’s just an organized way of doing it.

    When I buy paperback books I typically look for them used first (but NOT from Amazon). I typically search Amazon for relative price points and to get an ISBN number, and then immediately turn around and order a $4 used copy from another website like Abesbooks.com. It’s a greener, more eco-friendly approach to buying and reading paperback books.

  7. cjemmott says

    The other place I have seen this application used is at garage sales, estate sales and other used book sales to check Amazon’s resale prices. There are professionals who do this full time. The money can be pretty good because some out of print books command high prices. I sold off my CD collection on Amazon, and used the app heavily to see which were worth listing.

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