Monday, March 2, 2009

Why Amazon And Indie Are Not Mutually Exclusive

I received an email today from someone who says:

I am wondering why you call yourself an "inide" (sic) author when you have not one, but 2 links to Amazon on your site with no mention of Amazon is the anti-indie.

As the manager of an indie book shop we seek the support of authors by asking them to post as a purchase option.

I cannot believe that you profess to be indie all over [your author] site when you are blatently (sic) promoting Amazon, an entity that has been responsible for destroying the spirit of indie across this country. You will have a very difficult time getting indie book shops to support your book with a page that has Amazon all over it.

Here's my response:


My books are only available through Amazon, they cannot be ordered through any brick-and-mortar store. I did not elect to list with Ingrams or Lightning Source because the expense is not worthwhile when compared to how many books I think I can reasonably sell through brick-and-mortar outlets, whether corporate or independent.

However, if you visit Publetariat, an online news hub and community for indie authors and small imprints I founded recently, you'll find the Indiebound link right there on the front page of the site:

I have a different perspective on Amazon, and one I hope you'll hear me out on if you're really as indie-minded as you say you are.

In order to survive, a business must excel in at least one of three areas: price, selection or service. Amazon competes on selection, and to a lesser extent, price. But they can't hold a candle in terms of service to the local, independent, brick-and-mortar bookstore in my town that specializes in children's and teachers' books. The staff there has an encyclopedic knowledge of kids' books and authors, as well as a finger on the pulse of the local schools' required reading lists. So when I want children's or teachers' books I go to that store, and if the book I want is not on-hand in the store I order it from the store instead of from Amazon, even if Amazon has it priced lower, because I want to compensate the store's staff for their great customer service. Likewise, there's an indie bookseller in Santa Monica that specializes in art and architecture books, and it's always worth a visit when I'm in that area.

Like it or not, people go where they can get what they want according to their specific priorities. If they want selection and don't care about personalized service, they'll go to Amazon. If they want a current bestseller in their hands today and don't care about personalized service, they'll go to a Borders or Barnes and Noble. If they want personalized service and in-depth knowledge about the books they're buying, they'll go to a local, independent bookshop.

Businesses have to earn their customers, and as the co-owner of the pond maintenance business my husband operates, I know this all too well. He can't talk people into using his service with an argument against the evils of big, corporate pond services, and indie bookstores can't talk me into shopping their stores with a similar argument.

Let Amazon dominate the impersonal, warehouse approach to bookselling. No brick-and-mortar store, indie or otherwise, can compete with Amazon on selection, so why try? But also recognize, Amazon is handing small, indie booksellers a huge opportunity to provide the things Amazon cannot: personalized service tailored to a local community or demographic, and knowledgeable, friendly staff. Those are things customers are willing to pay for and drive out of their way for. But if a given shop can't offer me better service, better prices, or better selection, they simply haven't earned my business---or anyone else's.


That local, indie bookshop in my town is doing just fine, thanks to an owner smart enough to turn her shop into a true community center by offering a full calendar of both free and fee-based kids' activities, early education speakers, store appearances and signings from authors of children's books, and of course, that helpful and knowledgeable staff. Everyone in town knows about Judy's shop, and we're very happy to repay her efforts by remaining her loyal customers---even if we must pay a little more for the books in her shop, and special-order a book from her every now and then when we can't find it on the store shelves. Any indie bookshop that fulfills a need in the marketplace can achieve the same level of success and customer loyalty. But any business that must be subsidized through 'pity purchases' in order to survive is a business that simply isn't viable in the long run, because it's not meeting customer needs in at least one of the three key areas: price, selection or service.

Sometimes the business landscape changes, and that's not always a bad thing. Big, chain bookstores will continue to lose ground to Amazon because they can't beat Amazon in any of the three key areas. But in such an environment specialty booksellers can flourish and thrive if they're willing to capitalize on strengths they have which Amazon lacks, and adapt to the new landscape instead of lamenting it.

And one more thing - There's nothing anti-indie at all in my position that indie booksellers need to earn my business. I don't expect anybody to buy my books merely on the basis that I'm an indie author. I must earn each and every purchase through the quality of my work, and that's as it should be.


Alan said...

I think Amazon is the best thing to ever happen to indie authors. We all get to put our work out there in front of a global audience through a respected and trusted online store.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Smart reply, April. There's a sense of entitlement common to many indies (bookstores and authors) that's make it difficult to sympathize with their challenges. I love the example of your local indie, though. That's the kind of bookstore I'd love to not only shop in, but own!

Have you seen the Amazon, B&N or Indie discussion at LitPark yet? Some interesting comments there.

April L. Hamilton said...

Alan -
I agree w/ you, and as I was working on the blog entry my husband reminded me of the exact same thing. I elected to leave it out of the post, since it didn't seem directly relevant to the 'please buy from indie bookstores instead of big, bad Amazon' subject matter, but maybe I should've followed his suggestion.

It's a sentiment that's risky to express publicly, since there are so many indie authors that were left out in the cold when Amazon pulled its big power play (publish through Lightning Source, BookSurge or Createspace, or say bye-bye to your "Buy" buttons). I was not affected because I've always published my trade paperbacks though Createspace.

I look at it this way...My husband runs a pond maintenance business and he used to buy water plants from growers for resale to his customers. But when he discovered he could do a better job of plant quality control, deliver the plants faster and at a lower cost by growing them himself, that's exactly what he started doing.

I'm sure those growers from whom he used to buy plants are none too pleased with his decision, but that's not his problem. His problem is to ensure his own business's survival by offering his customers the best product at the lowest cost. That's true for any business, Amazon included.

Frankly, like I said in my post above, businesses must *earn* their customers. I chose to publish my trade paperbacks with Createspace because no other POD outfit can come anywhere close to CS's per-copy production costs. Low production costs allow me to price my CS books right in line with comparable mainstream books while still keeping a royalty of about 3x what a mainstream author gets. If CS can keep its production costs so low, why can't Lulu, iUniverse, Wordclay, and all those other self-pub printers?

April L. Hamilton said...

Guy -
It can be a bit of a balancing act, on the one hand sympathizing with the indie author's and bookseller's plight and wanting to improve the situation, while on the other hand trying to point out that the only way the situation will get better is for indies to suck it up and do whatever it takes to compete fairly with the mainstream. For years we've been crying out for a level playing field, and now that we're finally getting one we've got to knock the chips off our shoulders and make the most of this opportunity.

IndieBookMan said...

Great thoughts April - I really appreciate the time and thought you have put into all of this.

I offer an alternative to Amazon at, but I always council authors selling with me that they should also list with Amazon... and everywhere else they can possible get their book listed. You should make it available through as many avenues as possible, as you never know who is going to see it where.

Thanks for all your great work - please keep it up!!!!

Brad Grochowski

Zoe Winters said...

Hey April, great post!

One thing that irks me is the sense of entitlement indie bookstores seem to have, when very often they aren't stocking indie books, they are stocking the same things the other bookstores are stocking.

And yes, I don't fault them for that, they have to make a buck, and what better way than to stock what they know will sell.

But by the same token, it's quid pro quo. Why would I EVER avoid amazon in favor of indie bookstores, when most even indie bookstores wouldn't bother to stock me.

And even if they did, there's that whole bookstore returns thing. There is no benefit to me here. And not much of one to them apparently.

Indie authors and indie bookstores are not an automatic marriage.

E said...


(excuse my multiple-post commenting... I just found your blog via a link in the Jimmy Gollihue blog, and I'm very happy about it)

So this person thinks that throwing mis-spelled insults at you is the best way to make you reject Amazon? Sigh. Indy bookstores definitely do need to re-invent themselves, and you'd think bookstores, of all places, would be right on the forefront of that kind of thing! Really good response - I hope your assailant rethinks his approach.