Is Amazon’s Mighty Bookstore Stumbling? My Schadenfreude Slips Out…

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I am the granddaughter of a dedicated union organizer. I am the daughter of a hardworking retail store owner with a strong social conscience who was driven out of business by the Big Shopping Malls.

As life is filled with complexity and often requires us to make choices, I am also a frequent Amazon customer, and I watch movies on Amazon Prime.

Would I prefer to patronize small local businesses? Absolutely. As my shopping habits have shifted to predominantly online since Covid began its spiky assault, I’d also prefer to frequent small sellers online.

Unfortunately, for convenience and pricing, Amazon makes my life too damned comfortable.

Example: I carry a glass water bottle with a silicone protective outer shell nearly everywhere. By filling it several times a day, I can gauge that I’m drinking the amount of water my body needs.

When I dropped the filled bottle on a city sidewalk last week, the plastic mouthpiece cracked. Though the glass in its life-jacket remained unscathed, the bottle had become useless.

Amazon to the rescue: the next day I saw exactly what I wanted and bought one—and another for good measure. As I didn’t care about the color, I was able to get a Cyber-Monday special in what must have been a less “hot” blue shade—$4.00 cheaper than the gray one I’d had (or the oh-so-popular pink version that was out of stock).

Delivery, of course, was free.

But due to my inclinations to support the little guy—and especially the unionized little guy—I’m damned uncomfortable relying on founder Jeff Bezos’ behemoth.

Though we belong to Amazon Smile, which means Amazon donates a small portion of its profits from our purchases to charity (we chose Doctors Without Borders), Amazon’s fierce anti-unionism should in itself prompt me to abstain. Its shockingly bad union-prevention efforts have been well-documented.

Instead, I dither.

That’s why I read with interest about Amazon’s struggles with its bookstore. According to a New York Times article, “What Happened to Amazon’s Bookstore?,” “Dissatisfaction piles up in a marketplace where third-party sellers run wild.”

And I learned with pleasure, via the delightful blog casdinteret.com, about Lireka, an upstart brick-and-virtual French bookstore founded by two former Amazon employees that seems to be challenging their erstwhile employer.

Carol Seidl, the talented francophile blogger, wrote that she’d been troubled by the difficulties she encountered ordering French titles online. Lireka, she found, has a fine selection of 80,000-plus titles available—from classics to best-sellers—and it provides better service, faster delivery, and lower prices than Amazon.

Quelle bonne surprise!

Amazon began as a bookstore, pushing lots of little, medium, and big independent and chain businesses aside. The Wall Street Journal reported that in 2019, it controlled nearly three-fourths of online sales of new books for adults and nearly half of all new book sales.

And as a publisher, it has sixteen imprints, including Audible audiobooks and Amazon Crossing, which publishes translations. It also owns Goodreads, a social media site with more than 100 million registered users.

The above information appears in a New Yorker article by literary critic Parul Sehgal titled “Is Amazon Changing the Novel?” I won’t attempt to tackle that worthy discussion in this blog post.

But it’s noteworthy that Amazon’s consistently upward trajectory seems to be stagnating, and according to several sources The Times reporter interviewed, customers just aren’t happy with the way their shopping experience is evolving.

There are complaints that the book-buying experience has simply become too unpleasant due to the ads, algorithms, “unvetted” reviews, the enormity of the offerings, and third-party sellers.

Third-party sellers are apparently a big source of the problem, but they can also be victims. The Times reported that one author who’d called the company “best retailer on the planet” has now taken it to court.

John C. Boland has/had? been selling his books on Amazon since 2009; the company did all the printing, handling, billing, and shipping for his imprint, “Perfect Crime.”

But while the list price for one of his sci-fi thrillers is $15, he discovered that Amazon was letting vendors who were using its platform charge whatever they liked: $907…$930…$987. They also said it was published in 1602. The correct pub date is 2011.

Why would anyone do that? According to The Times, such backdating provides a “commercial edge” because it moves a book away from the same listings with the real date. “…in essence, those Boland books were in another virtual aisle of the bookstore. That could power sales.”

To Boland, that phony date was a personal insult, suggesting he’d plagiarized his book. To customers, the deceptive practice adds unnecessary confusion to their searches–and dollars to their purchases.

One search of “paperbacks” published before 1800 turned up former President Obama’s 2008 campaign booklet. The price was $45, while other sellers were offering it for less than a dollar.

Amazon is said to receive $34 from every $100 in sales that third-party vendors reap from their presence.

“[a]n overwhelming majority of these are legitimate vendors,” The Times states. “Some are not. Mr. Boland’s lawsuit implies that Amazon does not make much effort to distinguish between the two. That, it seems, is the customer’s job.”

It’s also the customer’s job to be very careful when purchasing a book. When musician Dave Grohl published his autobiography, The Storyteller, a vendor calling itself University Press—which was neither “University” nor “Press”—paid Amazon to promote a brief piece it rushed out. Dave Grohl: The Biography carried no author’s name. People were confused, and one unwitting but still discerning reader wrote: “Grohl should stick to songwriting.”

Others were irate that they’d paid money for a pamphlet. But The Biography tagged along with Grohl’s book to become an Amazon “best seller.”

Amazon has said it recognizes these problems and is dedicating millions of dollars and 10,000 employees to set things right.

So, fellow Amazon customers, caveat emptor: let us, the buyers, beware.

And let us, the buyers, have more options. I am hoping for Lireka’s great success. May it become a model for new niche marketers who possess the bibliophile’s passion and ethics that the best booksellers have long embodied.

While I’m hovering in the hope department, I hasten to add my hopes that the intrepid unionists who are determined to break through the mighty Amazon’s formidable wall succeed—and soon.

If Amazon becomes a union shop and otherwise cleans up its act, I’ll be far more comfortable with our relationship.

What do you say, Jeff Bezos?

And what do you say, my thoughtful readers? Any personal experiences you care to share?

Annie

21 thoughts on “Is Amazon’s Mighty Bookstore Stumbling? My Schadenfreude Slips Out…

  1. The few times I have used Amazon, I never had any problems with the quality of the service, or with the prices. However, the last time was quite a while ago, and I never dealt with any third-party sellers.

    I never order from Amazon unless there is absolutely no alternative, even if it means I have to pay a bit more somewhere else. My problem with them isn’t the customer service, it’s how they treat their employees. Unionization would probably be only the beginning of addressing that problem.

    I was encouraged to read of Lireka’s success. There are also other online booksellers in the US. I like this one — they’re fast and reliable, and they donate a portion of every sale to support small bookstores.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. When it comes to books, I support my local bookstore. Even if it takes longer or costs more. When it comes to anything else, especially in a pandemic world, I have been known to turn to the behemoth. Not happily, not often, but still. I have never dealt with any third party sellers. As for the culture, I know those who have worked there and quit, especially young women, and agree their treatment of employees is dreadful. Will check out Lireka as well as the one Infidel cited. I had no idea of this development, which is one reason I so happily read this blog! Encouraging.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Unless buying directly from the publisher, one is dealing with a third-party. Is there any difference between Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, or a local bookstore? All are third-party sellers. I see more and more of this–If I order something from a well-known department store, the order may as often as not be filled by a third-party. Some retailers offer only third-party goods.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. To some extent that’s true, whungerford. But I see two separate issues. One is the desirability of small, independent local bookstores. I will acknowledge there’s some romanticism in this appeal, but they also may provide a community with an economic benefit and a welcome gathering place.
      The other is the lack of accountability for third-party sellers who run amok: the Amazon situation. This is related to Amazon’s size and its lack of oversight. If enough customers turn away, Amazon may well act more decisively.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Amazon was a life saver during the pandemic. Then it became a habit. I have never liked shopping so I guess you can call me an “Amazonian”. Although, like Denise said, I do prefer to get my books browsing in person. We now live in a world dominated by the big guys. Have to adapt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I uneasily acknowledge the same habit, Joseph.
      But as I note above, I do think local bookstores are valuable, and there should be a place for them.
      Bezos himself has said that at some point, Amazon may come to an end. And if that happens during our lifetimes, we’ll adapt to its absence, right?

      Like

  5. I buy from Amazon. I also buy from Chewy. I get most of my books from Thriftbooks.com. I also order from other companies, including local ones.

    As someone who doesn’t own a car in a public-transportation-challenged city, I LOVE delivery.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thanks for this, Annie.

    Here in Seattle, we are lucky with a number of thriving indie book stores (go figure) and I’m super lucky as Elliot Bay Books is about a 12 minute walk away. Since the start of the pandemic (including to this day) they provide curb-side pickup. They also were hand-delivering book in the neighborhood at no cost: they dropped books off on their way home because the employees/owners literally are our neighbors.

    Best regards,

    Tengrain

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I have never ordered from Amazon period. I needed a digital calender clock for my mother as I couldn’t find one anyplace, but I made my brother order it under his account. I know for a lot of people Amazon is a way of life, but I don’t care to give them my business. Plus, when I search for something, there’s way too much choice, and Amazon Canada is not the same as the US. You have to be aware of where the seller is located and shipping from, so you don’t get stuck with customs duty and taxes. I’ve been tempted to order a few out of print books, but that stops me. Plus, I hate the company in general.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I usually look in Biblio.com, which is an aggregate site for various book stores. They specialize in used books (or rare or out of print), but that is what I’m usually looking for anyway. Their search filters are a bit limited, so trying to keep a search to a particular state, for example, is a bit tough.
    It looks like bookshop.org does the same, but for new book bookstores. I went looking for the Bloggess bookstore (Nowhere Bookshop) and that’s what my search served up.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well, I’d truly hate to loose the few remaining local bookstores in my town. I try to give them business. They have online sites where I can order or I can call. Picking up a book, even during unvaccinated COVID was safe. The books are more expensive than at Amazon but I’m willing to pay to sustain them. They employ knowledgeable people and stock great titles, peppering the shelves with handwritten reviews.

    I also like to recommend bookshop.org where you can find many titles. Part of the proceeds go to local booksellers in your area. I recently ordered a book there for a friend and when I checked on Amazon, they were sold out of the same title.

    Some of the Amazon con-artists extend to Kindle. Many classics are free on Kindle because the copyright has expired and there’s no production cost. But it often pays to buy an annotated version that gives information about author and time period. I’ve paid a few dollars to get various out-of-copyright books for this reason. Once on my kindle, however, I found that some contained only commentary, no original manuscript. This is frustrating and seems like something Amazon should be able to address.

    Like

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