At Amazon Books’s sixth location—its first in New York, the capital of books—I met the publishing industry’s worst nightmare. Joseph is 22, sharp-dressed and tall, a recent graduate of Notre Dame who is about to start work in finance. Asked what he thought of the bookstore, he told me, “It’s exactly what kids do. They go to the bookstore, find a book, then look how much it is on Amazon. I might read the blurb on the front of the book, turn it around, and see it’s $17. I take a picture of it—I’m a Prime member—with the app, and see I can get it for a couple bucks less.”
This is what publishers and booksellers warned would happen when Amazon released its “Price Check” app: that bookstores—the lifeblood of the publishing industry—would become de facto showrooms for Amazon. This would further erode the already vastly diminished power of bookstores, the embodiment of all that is green and good in this whole business of making and selling books. Seemingly no longer content with that, Amazon is now entering the showroom business, giving bookstore owners and publishers even more reason to stay awake at night.
Amazon Books is being aggressively depicted by its opponents as the Amazonification of retail, an innovative space that pushes new sales tactics on a public that’s been conditioned to purchase things the Amazon way. But it’s hard to spend an hour in this antiseptic and bewildering store, as I did last week, and see it as an existential threat to anything. At best, it’s a bland attempt at brick-and-mortar retail. At worst, it reflects a company that’s grown so large—and so insanely profitable—that it doesn’t know what to do with itself.
The store itself sits in the marble-and-gold multi-story luxury mall Shops at Columbus Circle, which houses the most expensive restaurant in America and would not be out of place in the cartoonishly opulent capital of The Hunger Games. (As far as I can tell, the clientele is almost entirely tourists and school groups, who I hope use the mall as a teaching tool about America’s growing wealth divide.) For the most part, the people I spoke to didn’t even live close to an independent bookstore and had stumbled upon Amazon Books while shopping for other stuff. In other words, the money being spent in Amazon Books was probably not being taken out of the pocket of the real-life equivalent of Nora Ephron’s Shop Around the Corner, even if it definitely was being put in the pocket of an enormous, omnipresent company that resides in your pocket.
Nevertheless, publishers have been warning for years that Amazon’s business model was cratering small businesses and taking money from publishers, which would presumably spend some of it paying authors to write books. The push into retail, moreover, was evidence of Amazon’s quasi-monopolistic behavior in both the literal marketplace and the cultural marketplace. (Jeff Bezos did once proudly say that he would hunt publishers “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.”) Finally, there is the notion that the store is a threat to the humanistic aspect of bookselling. “We are dedicated to a mission,” Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin told me, “because of the value of literature, because of the value of writing, because of the value of thinking.”
Amazon Books does not share this mission. In fact, the point of the bookstore can be boiled down to one animating idea: discoverability. Discoverability has been the publishing buzzword of the internet era. It has also been Amazon’s Achilles’ heel. The store may be great at selling books at cutthroat prices, but it’s been famously not so great at getting people to buy things they weren’t already inclined to buy. Guiding audiences to a book is the key to successful bookselling. Word-of-mouth buzz can turn a book like The Girl On The Train into a cash cow, as can reviews and other media coverage (particularly television). And Amazon still hasn’t cracked the code.
Amazon Books exists to solve this problem. “Amazon Books is all about discovery,” reads the first sentence of a fact-sheet distributed to journalists. “We’ve applied over 20 years of online bookselling experience to build a store that integrates the benefits of offline and online book shopping.” Jennifer Cast, the vice president of Amazon Books, told The New York Times, “The purpose of this store is discovery. If you already know what you want, you’ll go online and get it.”
The most obvious way Amazon Books pushes discoverability is that every book is displayed face-out, as opposed to spine-out, as you would on your bookshelf at home. Every face-out has a small placard that features the book’s star review and a short customer review. These are both presented as innovations, but they’re really just very, very old bookstore conventions taken to an extreme. In my short career as a bookseller, I learned one thing: Face-outs and recommendations sell books. The only difference between Amazon Books and other stores is that Amazon can afford to carry a very limited stock. The store holds only about 3,000 books—a number far too low for most booksellers to carry if they want to stay in business for more than 30 days. But Amazon can afford the retail space to take this kind of risk.
The problem with a limited stock, however, is that it’s a limited stock. It’s not entirely clear how these books have been selected. The fiction section is a hodgepodge of mostly commercial fare, ranging from the midlist to the beach-y, though there are a few wildcards, like Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn. The store’s history section runs from basic-dad book to basic-dad-who’s-interested-in-terrorism book, with, again, a few exceptions. There’s been some hand-wringing that Amazon’s insistence on selling books with high Amazon ratings would automatically dumb down its stock, but I didn’t find that to be the case.
At their best, bookstores are community hubs. Amazon Books is far too cramped—even if it wasn’t crowded, it would still be difficult to get around. It forces you to constantly interact with your fellow customers, but in an awkward way. The store is bright in that flourescent way that hospitals are. “It’s very sterile,” a customer named James told me. There’s a strong sense that you’re in a kind of retail lab—and that’s probably because you are. No one knows the exact reason Amazon has made this push into retail, but collecting different kinds of data is certainly one of the leading theories. The store’s awkward layout and general weirdness suggest an experiment as much as it does a bookstore.
Everything in the store feels just a little bit off, and you’re constantly reminded that you’re interacting with the physical manifestation of an internet phenomenon. You’re told if books are put on lots of wish lists, or have 4.8 stars (as opposed to, say, 4.7), or are simply “hot on Amazon.” You read lots of reviews from people you don’t know, most of which are written in that weird variant of American English, online review-ese. I didn’t find the reviews or the stars persuasive in the slightest. As for its display of Kindles and Echoes, supposedly one of the few things that differentiates Amazon Books from other stores—I couldn’t see much difference from how Best Buy or even Barnes & Noble sell hardware.
“If you like X, then you’ll like Y” is a mainstay of most bookstores, but Amazon Books shows an algorithm run amok. If you like Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, you’re pressed to buy a historical book by Fox & Friends host and dumbass Brian Kilmeade. More bizarrely, fans of Hillbilly Elegy, a book about how hillbillies are responsible for the fact that they are poor, are pushed toward three books that offer a broader and more incisive critique of poverty in America: Evicted, $2.00 A Day, and Strangers In Their Own Land. The generous part of me wants to describe this as a pretty good troll, but really it shows the danger of letting an algorithm curate your books.
All of this culminated in what has become a familiar problem when shopping on Amazon: After browsing for an hour and reading reviews, I had no idea what to buy. So I used the bookstore’s best tool: its booksellers. After a two-minute conversation, I ended up with a copy of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which I am now very much looking forward to reading.
Only one person I spoke to at Amazon Books, James, expressed any hesitation about shopping there. “I feel conflicted about being here,” he told me. “I spend most of my money [online] on Amazon. I have a Kindle and whatnot, but, you know, Amazon put bookstores out of business and now they open a bookstore. Definitely a bit of irony in that.”
An irony and a metaphor. More than anything else, Amazon Books is representative of the company’s rapid and insidious takeover of the publishing supply chain and its steady erosion of the publishing industry itself. Few industries are as sentimental as book publishing, but the publishers and booksellers do have a point: Bookstores—the good ones, anyway—provide a valuable service for American culture and are motivated by values other than mere profit. My conversation with Joseph, James, and other customers suggest that there is more than a little truth to these concerns. Amazon Books is a manifestation of just how pervasive and effective the company’s approach to retail is: We shop online even when we’re offline.
But if Amazon Books’s raison d’etre is “discoverability” and the blending of online and offline commerce, than its utility breaks down—it doesn’t do either thing particularly well. They certainly don’t justify the high overhead expense the company is taking on. This is why I came away from Amazon Books with a sense that it existed for no other reason than that the company just has too much money. After years of unprofitability—Amazon would famously reinvest its profits to undercut its competitors—the company’s revenues finally skyrocketed to the point that it had no choice but to be profitable. There are seven more Amazon Books opening this year. Not because Amazon can do a better job of selling books—it clearly can’t—but because it has to spend that money somehow.