There are some situations you really want to avoid: wrestling with a pig, bathing with a hairdryer, election-watching with Donald Trump. Even more than those, however, you want to avoid competing with Amazon.
Jeff Bezos’s creation is remorseless. Amazon moving into your sector is like a stag do arriving in your restaurant: someone’s going to have fun, and it’s not going to be you. It is the coronavirus cockroach, thriving as others fail. This year it has announced hundreds of thousands of new employee hires, to bring its total to more than 1m. Just when you think 2020 couldn’t get any worse, you find out Mr Bezos has become $80bn richer.
Booksellers have tried to compete with Amazon for longer than anybody. Their resistance often seemed futile, even before the pandemic forced many of them to close for months. Amazon accounts for just over half of all print and ebook sales in the US, according to research outfit Codex.
Enter Bookshop.org, an online bookseller with a mission to support physical bookshops. It launched in the US in January, where it has funnelled $7.5m to retailers. It’s now in the UK too, just as England’s high streets lock down again (under the new rules, customers can still pick up books they have ordered online or by phone). In its first week, the site has generated £50,000 to be distributed among the 250 or so bookshops that have signed up.
Bookshop.org is notable for what it isn’t doing. It is not competing with Amazon on ebooks. Nor is it offering a superior experience on print books. It doesn’t have the delivery network or the data. Its prices are a little higher than Amazon’s. Instead it is appealing to our social conscience.
There are people who browse books in shops and then go home and order them more cheaply on Amazon. These people deserve to read Jeffrey Archer novels for the rest of their lives. There are also people who will deliberately avoid Amazon, even if it means they have to pay a bit more or wait longer. Why not support local bookshops instead? Amazon’s products — from Alexa voice assistants to the Ring doorbell cameras — have become ubiquitous.
More importantly, I cannot recall Amazon ever finding a book for me that I didn’t already know I wanted. In a bookshop, you can judge books by their cover, size, weight and texture, as well as the first sentence that jumps out when you flick them open. You can ask a staff member and almost invariably — it happened to me on the last day before lockdown — they pluck out titles you’d never have come across. Their enthusiasm for the book gives you the faith to read it.
That doesn’t happen on Amazon, despite its customer reviews. To be fair, it doesn’t happen on Bookshop.org, which is based around human recommendations, or Wordery or Hive or any other site. Critics think the answer lies elsewhere, perhaps on Instagram, where bookshops can speak directly to customers. “Ecommerce generally needs to be more human,” says Kieron Smith, digital director at booksellers Blackwell’s.
I don’t hate Amazon. I own one of its Kindle devices, which is the best way to turn pages while lying on your side. I know Amazon’s dominance shouldn’t be overstated: if all bookshops were doomed then Elliott Management, a hedge fund not given to whimsical investments, would never have bought Waterstones and Barnes & Noble. I just can’t help cheering for the underdog.
When Mr Bezos chose the name Amazon, he liked the fact that the Amazon was the world’s biggest river — the one that “blows all other rivers away”. The Amazon is probably the best river. But the world has also room for the Nile, the Ganges and even my own local trickle, the Lea. We need those rivers too. So, while I don’t personally want to be competing with Amazon, I am glad someone is.