When B comes before A

Bookshops beat Amazon every time

“Why walk down to your local bookstore … when, from the comfort of your sofa, you could just order one online?”

I’ll hit you with a blunt reality: only a handful of authors make a living selling books on Amazon. When Amazon started, it supplied a service that was never really needed but that they were smart enough to convince the world was essential. Why walk down to your local bookstore – run by somebody who has known and loved books since they could pull one down from a shelf – when, from the comfort of your sofa, you could just order one online?

The winters in the UK are tedious affairs: day after day of grey and rain, with the occasional break when everyone charges outside and convinces themselves for a few brief hours that Actually, Winter Is Acceptable Really. People hibernate more and more, snug in their houses, and the thought of heading to the shops becomes less appealing by the hour.

“I get it – Amazon offers something that we can convince ourselves we need.”

And then in the summer, those few glorious months when sitting outside is something akin to bliss, the sun stroking our skin, we don’t want to waste those precious moments with shopping. I get it – Amazon offers something that we can convince ourselves we need. There’s a reason Jeff Bezos is worth nearly US$182billion, which is that he was able to tap into our innate idleness.

Oh, he’s dressed up the website prettily enough. We can read reviews of books by those who have made a Verified Purchase – reviews that are invariably put in place by friends or, worse, have been bought and paid for by the author or even the publisher. Those few ‘1 star’ reviews that seem out of place? Perhaps they’re the ‘real’ reviews after all. Why do we fall for it so easily? ‘Ah ha, this book has over 200 amazing reviews, it must be the perfect pick!’ Really…?

I would no sooner walk down the street and ask a total stranger, ‘Hey! Do you think I should head to Madagascar?’ than I would ask them, ‘What do you think of this book?’ And yet here we are, a people enslaved to the likes of Amazon and TripAdvisor, looking to people we have never met for advice on how we should live our lives.

Time and again, we read of award-winning independent bookshops closed down – and does anyone remember the chain, Borders? They were killed off by Amazon, too. Jobs that were fulfilling and engaging have been replaced by machines or people wandering the endless lengths of warehouses. The postal service is struggling to survive in a country where Hermes employs people for a pittance to leave packages out in the rain. Taxi drivers are losing out to the likes of Uber, whose only plan is to lose hundreds of billions of dollars in order to take over the market – and then, what a surprise, they’ll raise their prices.

Why is it possible for some things to be offered so cheaply? Because it isn’t real, it’s a temporary gamble that is focussed on the long-term. And that applies to your 99p download, too. No writer wants to sell their book for 99p (and sometimes, Amazon will just decide to put it on at that price, another fun hidden gem for authors to discover).

I’d like to bet that the vast majority of Kindle users have a heap of unread 99p – or even free – ‘bargains’. And that if they added up all those little sums, they might realise that they could have purchased a couple of full-priced books they actually wanted and would genuinely enjoy. They could even have gone completely wild and gone into a bookstore, spoken to somebody and asked, ‘Hey! I absolutely loved reading Jane Austen years ago; which writers today might I enjoy?’ and been given an answer. By a person who stands a chance of knowing the answer. Not an algorithm.

“In a world where so much has been trivialised and where mediocrity has become the norm, why accept that when you don’t have to?”

I have made some wonderful finds since creating ‘Jolly Ollie Octopus’. I have discovered bookshops such as The Poetry Pharmacy where they offer a session on the psychiatrist’s couch and then recommend the perfect poems to soothe your soul; I have come across small startups such as The Travelling Bookshop who create beautiful book gift boxes with gorgeous packaging and touches of magic.

And that’s the thing. People who love books – really love books – provide so much more than merely a means by which to acquire masses of them. They add love and care and charm. They choose books that have purpose, meaning and beauty, that weren’t just written so the author could say, ‘I have written a book’ or to satisfy some clever marketing idea. In a world where so much has been trivialised and where mediocrity has become the norm, why accept that when you don’t have to?

The most important books in my life are a part of me: they have shaped my thoughts and ideas, my hopes and dreams. I am eternally grateful to the authors for writing them, and for the bookshops who sell them – those beautiful, hushed spaces where everyone is just moments from stumbling upon a little magic. And I think all of that is worth more than a casual click on a billionaire’s website; I think all of that is worth putting on my coat, heading through the rain into the blissful warmth of a bookshop, hearing the tinkle of the little metal bell as the door closes behind me. Roald Dahl, one of the finest writers of them all, sums this up perfectly – that moment of discovering our next companion in some enchanted space:

Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.

P.S. I’ll continue this another time, but for now let me just remind you that Amazon also owns The Book Depository and Goodreads.

1 Comment

  1. Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes

    I loved this! In times of pandemic when even bookshops are closed, there is the small, independent publisher struggling to showcase their authors and diverse voices. Go to their websites and buy from them.

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