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Frenemies: An Amazon Story of Courtship

by Ben Malczewski on February 3, 2014

Amazon recently announced the Amazon Source collaboration proposal for independent bookstores , “empower[ing][ them] to sell Kindle e-readers and tablets in their stores” by offering a discount on the price of Kindle tablets and e-readers. Stores also have the opportunity to make a commission on books purchased for that device anywhere, anytime. In examining this proposal, it seems at the very least as harmful as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but at most a diabolical deal with the devil.

Spun on the surface as harmless ,the promotional announcement is delicately peppered with subtly positive adjectival poetics like “empower,” “crafted,” “unique,” “opportunity.” What first reads like a pat-on-the-back concession made by Amazon (“you won little guys – we can’t compete with your local touch”) sub-textually can’t help but suggest a more sinister scheme to assert its foot into the door of previously impenetrable outposts. Not least of which is to reach a niche (but loyal) audience who has typically avoided the proprietary megalith in favor of supporting local stores (the “little guy”). The proposal’s eventual goal seems to be to angle that partnership to incrementally steal the customer base and potentially sound the death knell for the store.

Stripped of this subtext, the arrangement sounds simple, and even innocuous, enough. “Amazon’s program offers U.S. retailers two options. As “Booksellers,” an option available to retailers in twenty-four states, they receive Kindles from Amazon at a six-per-cent discount off the suggested retail price and earn a commission of ten per cent on e-book sales in the two years following the sale of a Kindle. As “General Retailers,” available to stores in any state, they profit only from the sale of the device, but obtain it from Amazon at a discount of nine per cent.”

But the thousand sins of Fortunado must not be forgotten. Remember Amazon offering a 5% discount to shoppers who served as price-shopping moles by visiting brick-and-mortar competitors, sending the price to Amazon, then bought it from them instead? Or their cloak-and-dagger supposed attempt at online/offline symbiosis with Borders? Or even the Amazonification of OverDrive—and how it allowed them to get a piece of the library-money pie they might otherwise miss out? Or better yet, maybe OverDrive builds themselves up, Amazon buys them, and inherits their nationwide client base. Stanger hyperboles have come true, and with Amazon there’s a laundry list to be sure. The point is not to confuse simpatico opportunity with aggressively angled risk vs. reward cut-throat business tactics.

Amazon is simply reevaluating the landscape and the food-chain ecosystem minus some of its more recently demised large chain and big box competitors. The bee in their bonnet has always been the independent book stores—those privately owned coffee and curiosity shops that comingle neighborhood niche and artisanal fare with books and electronics. Here, by removing their biggest threat, Amazon realizes they’ve done the little guys a favor. And now that the bigger fish have been fried, they’ve cross haired the indy’s.

Don’t get me wrong, Amazon doesn’t view them as a sling-shot wielding David, or even portend they fear an Indy store invoked “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died” rise-of-the-little-guy scenario.But the effort behind Amazon Source does indicate a humbling admittance (and jealousy) of sorts. Firstly, independents—and community focused organizations in general—offer something that Amazon cannot; a truly personalized and individualized voice, product, and service—reflecting that, in cinematic melodrama parlance, the “rebel alliance” resistance is working. Secondly, the unique, made-from-scratch services translate to Amazon as a financial threat. For a company centered on growth and influence, this serves as a glaring constituency that has proved difficult to obtain. So, in a way, Amazon Source IS a concession or an olive branch, but they stand far more to gain (in terms of ear-bending influence, marketing opportunities, and eventual customer segment severance and acquisition) than indy’s could ever hope.

But if I’ve learned anything from a seeming lifetime of Lifetime movies and definite lifespan of rom-com jiltings, it’s that your best friend was there all the time. (Meet cute take one: enter the Library as Mr. Darcy to independent bookstores’ Bridget Jones—Wait! No he’s dead. Meet cute take two: enter the Library as any role played by Colin Firth, previously played by Bill Pullman. . . ) In this case, a further extrapolation of this subtext spins Amazon’s admission of what they aren’t and why they care so much about sticking their nose into library or local business’ affairs into the real empowerment effected by Amazon Source—the inverse revelation of what we are and WHY it’s so valuable and important. And it should serve, if libraries haven’t already, as an opportunity for libraries and local indy stores to partner and stop looking at each other as competition. Our patrons and customers see us as coexisting and so should we. Book borrowers also tend to be book buyers and vice versa. Accepting this nourishes a true symbiotic relationship where ideas/instances to collaborate—such as providing book sales at a library author event—are mutually beneficial opportunities to strengthen and support community institutions and businesses at the same time.

(Photo by MorBCN on Flickr, Creative Commons license).

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