On the sensuality of bookstores, the sterility of Amazon (Publishing in the Twilight of the Printed Word)

by John MacBeath Watkins

There's a controversy going on over bookstores, like whether there is any important reason to mourn their demise or support the surviving ones. To me, it is a choice between sensuality and efficiency, and sadly, I know which one usually wins in the American marketplace.

The controversy started with Richard Russo's essay about Amazon, which had just started a promotion offering a financial reward to its customers to go into brick-and-mortar bookstores and use an Amazon app for their cell phones to compare their prices to Amazon's, thereby turning the bookstores into displays for Amazon's internet book sales.

Here's Russo's take on it, and I encourage you to follow this link and read the whole thing:

I wondered what my writer friends made of all this, so I dashed off an e-mail to Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, and cc’ed Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Andre Dubus III, Anita Shreve, Tom Perrotta and Ann Patchett.
These writers all derive considerable income from Amazon’s book sales. But when the responses to my query started coming in it was clear Amazon’s program would find no defenders in our ranks.

“Scorched-earth capitalism” is how Dennis described it. “They don’t win unless they destroy their competition and then rub their noses in it.” Andre was outraged by Amazon’s attempt to turn its customers into “Droid-packing” spies. Like Dennis, he saw the move as an unsubtle attempt to monopolize the market, the effect of which would ultimately be to “further devalue, as a cultural and human necessity, the book” itself.

Stephen wrote “I love my Kindle” and noted that Amazon had done well by him in terms of book sales. But he too saw the new strategy as both “invasive and unfair.” He thought that many would see the new promotion as nothing more than comparison shopping on steroids but that, in fact, it was “a bridge too far.”

Scott supplied lawyerly perspective: “The law has long been clear that stores do not invite the public in for all purposes. A retailer is not expected to serve as a warming station for the homeless or a site for band practice. So it’s worth wondering whether it’s lawful for Amazon to encourage people to enter a store for the purpose of gathering pricing information for Amazon and buying from the Internet giant, rather than the retailer. Lawful or not, it’s an example of Amazon’s bare-knuckles approach.”
It's interesting that authors who benefit so greatly from selling through Amazon react this way. An even more interesting reaction was Farhad Manjoo's reaction to Russo. In a piece titled Don't Support your Local Bookseller, he argued buying through Amazon is better for the economy, for authors, and for readers.

Here's the nub of his argument:

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?
 Now, I've spent much of my life in bookstores and libraries, and I've never relied on booksellers to recommend me books (though I've recommended plenty in my day.) Nor do I rely on Amazon to do so. My preference is to wander around sort of aimlessly and rely on serendipity to lead me to something interesting. I might ask where a section is, but once I've found it, I like to explore on my own.

I think this relates to the kinesthetic aspect of knowledge. Research on whether students would prefer a Kindle with their textbooks on it or actual books showed that they learned better with old-fashioned books. Nick Carr at Rough Type points out that:
'By the end of the school year, nearly two-thirds of the students had abandoned the Kindle or were using it only infrequently. Of those who continued to use it regularly, the researchers write, "some attempted to augment e-readers with paper or computers, others became less diligent about completing their reading tasks, and still others switched to a different and usually less desirable reading technique."'
Just as an e-book strips away the kinesthetic  cues that help of navigate a text, Amazon strips such cues away from the process of selecting a book. The serendipitous searches that brought authors like Terry Pratchett and Edward Gorey to my attention would have been far less likely on Amazon. And while you can't tell a book by its cover, you can certainly tell what the publisher thought of it (though publishers are often wrong, such as the one who introduced Moby Dick as a juvenile book or the one that turned down Animal Farm because they hadn't have much luck with animal stories.)

When books were rare things copied by hand by skilled scriveners, chained to their shelves to prevent theft, scholars seldom had convenient access to a given book, so they needed to remember more. The trick they used was called a memory palace, in which they envisioned a physical structure and linked their memories to that structure. A recent Notre Dame study has also shown a link between memory and spaces. Doorways seem to be event boundaries, and passing through one takes you away from the thoughts you were having before.

A familiar bookstore or library forms a geography of knowledge that I find I can navigate more naturally than I can the Internet. The internet is wonderful for finding what I already know I want, but an intuitive search for what I might want is much more difficult, and I have yet to buy a book recommended by Amazon's algorithm.

To me, there is a sensuality in wandering through the stacks, as if I were trekking through a jungle alive with the calls of the titles, the garish hues of the potboiler's covers, the patient quiet of the academic tomes, the lush faux history of the fantasy genre, the cruel allure of the red-and-black horror books' chilling spines. Every typeface, from Bookman Oldstyle, through art nouveau, stencil, or even the reviled Comic Sans Serif, is a creative endeavor by a skilled artisan, and an artistic choice to convey what should attract a reader to a book.

Compared to the sensuality of the bookstore or library, Amazon offers convenience and sterility, a modernist, air-conditioned nightmare of efficiency and low cost. No doubt it will continue to win in the marketplace because that's so much of what we want, but don't try to tell me nothing is lost in the exchange.

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: