There was some interesting news about Amazon last week. Apparently, the slayer of bookshops has donated £250000 to the Book Trade Charity. No, I hadn’t heard of it either, but it seems this organisation set up a fund to help booksellers facing hardship as a result of having to close during the current ‘lockdown’. According to the BBC News website, Amazon were the single largest donor to the fund, which had raised a total of £380000 at the time of the report.
So, what’s going on? Amazon are the bad guys, aren’t they? They’re supposed to be the sole cause of the seemingly inevitable demise of the small independent book shops. So why would they take this step to protect them?
In all honesty, I don’t know the exact reasons, but I can see some advantages to them. While book shops are trading, there will still be people who prefer to go into a shop and browse for books that might appeal to them – and then still order it online from Amazon. It’s the same principle with a lot of the products they sell. Although I can’t think of an example right now, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of seeing something in a shop and deciding to check if I can get it cheaper online.
High street shopping has been in decline for years now, and that does have the potential for a knock-on effect with online retailers. The current situation which leaves only a limited range of shops open is only likely to accelerate that. If anything, rather than pushing control of the shopping experience on to the online retailers, the big winners are going to be the supermarkets. Because you don’t just go to a supermarket for food now, do you? In the last couple of weeks, I’ve bought clothes, birthday cards, a pedal bin, a flask and magazines. And that doesn’t take account of the fact that I can buy a whole range of household goods there. Of course, that doesn’t mean to say companies like Amazon aren’t going to prosper, but the supermarkets will do better out of it.
Which brings me back to the now common perception that Amazon are the reason book shops are disappearing. It would be naive of me to suggest they’ve had nothing to do with it. Together with their dominance in the eBook market, they’re undoubtedly having an effect. However, the bigger impact is being felt because of the supermarkets.
A few weeks before the lockdown, I called in at a branch of Tesco. I was on a journey and only using it as a stop-off point to take a break and stretch my legs. Out of curiosity, I wandered into the book section. There were few surprises when it came to the authors: long-established bestsellers in all genres or so-called celebrities – I’ll leave it to their readers to judge whether a ghost writer was used or not. Aside from these, there were a few names I recognised as up and coming talents, but they were in the minority. Then I saw the prices. Forget ‘3 for 2’ offers, there were paperbacks selling for less than the price of a typical eBook, and even a hardback going for a fiver.
Jack Cohen, the founder of Tesco, used the motto ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’. Clearly, it’s a philosophy that still applies today – only it applies to all the supermarkets. No independent bookseller can compete with this. As more of them go out of business, the selection of books available to us as consumers will diminish, unless we go online and are prepared to look hard for new authors to read.
At the moment, I’m grateful I can get supplies from the supermarkets – my other options are limited, aren’t they? But what will the long-term situation be when we eventually return to whatever the new normal is? Book shops aside, we could do with other small retailers being supported by the likes of Amazon, otherwise our choices are going to be limited across the board.
Does that mean I think Amazon are the good guys? No. There’s a lot I don’t like about them. But none of us are all good or all bad, are we? And they have opened up opportunities to authors like me – I can pretty much guarantee my latest book, Carrion, won’t show up in a supermarket any time soon.
In the short-term, though, I’m glad some booksellers will benefit from their donation. By being able to continue to trade, a lot of authors, and not a few readers, will benefit too.