Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Serendipitous Discovery

...or why Amazon needs the High Street bookshop

I spent some time browsing round Waterstones in Guildford yesterday, knowing I had a couple of hours or so to kill. It's an entirely different experience to trying to cram a visit into a lunch hour you didn't really have time to take in the first place. Mooching around the shelves gives the kind of opportunity to discover new writers in a way that Amazon, for all its "customers who shopped for Seven Habits of Highly Effective People also bought Who Moved My Cheese?" can never fully replicate.

So let's say you were writing a noir detective novel, you know the kind of thing - a former cop with battered integrity, a beautiful but dangerous woman, the police as corrupt as the criminals. Where would you set something like that? First answer, because you know the cliches and you read Chandler, Hammett, Ellroy, is Los Angeles. Unless you love to be derivative, you'll probably move beyond that. How about, instead, 1930s Berlin? Perfect, no? That's where Philip Kerr has set March Violets, the first of a series of novels about Bernhard Gunther, a private investigator trying to make a living as the Nazis consolidate their grip on Germany. As Gunther wryly observes, there's no shortage of missing persons cases, as long as you take commissions from Jews.

As the subject matter suggests, this may tread a well-worn thriller path but the setting means it's hardly light entertainment. In the 60 pages I've read so far, Kerr has got inside the mind of the Reich, and particularly the ordinary Germans, in that peculiarly intimate way which novels can do better than straight history books. He has a nice way with the one-liner and brings the tawdriness of the period into sharp focus. This is a writer whose stories I want to read.

But here's my morally grubby compromise, my own noir moment. Having spent an hour reading the book on the soft seats at Waterstones, I didn't buy it. Seventeen quid for a paperback! (Admittedly a trilogy). Instead, I went home and bought it on Amazon for a tenner. (In my defence I should say I did buy three other books, rather more reasonably priced, in the shop instead). In this instance, Waterstones did OK - if every browser bought three books they'd be laughing - Amazon prospered too, as did four writers. And Penguin, the publisher, badged the trilogy as "Berlin Noir", an obvious title but one that got me take it off the shelf, so full marks to their marketing people.

If I were Waterstones I'd be worried that price-sensitive customers will always buy their books elsewhere (hence the ubiquity of the 3-f0r-2 table) but Amazon, equally, will surely realise that without bookshops acting as their physical showroom, their own commercial prospects will be damaged. Shoppers in Waterstones will buy books they didn't know they wanted, but on Amazon most purchases will still be consumers looking for a particular title. They may be in competition, but their markets are subtly different.

Meanwhile, as a I wait the "2 to 3 business days" for SuperSaver shipping (you didn't think I'd pay postage, did you?), I can reflect on my ethics as an "Amazon Tart".
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4 comments:

Matt Curran said...

Tim, this is a good point. These days, because pricing matters, bookshops tend to be the places I window-shop more and more in, while the internet is the place I buy. Ironically, if you and I and everyone else continues to do this that option will no longer be available as the traditional bookshop will cease to exist due to competition (which is a bad, bad thing…).
I’m not sure how bookshops can compete with the likes of Amazon’s pricings and as consumers we are being spoiled. I suppose the only option is that publishers grew a pair and decide to dictate prices to Amazon rather than the other way around and make pricing more consistent.
Either that or the author takes a big hit on the royalties as shops like Waterstones slice down the retail prices of all their books to keep up.
As readers and writers we just can’t win!

Tim Stretton said...

It's tricky, isn't it? I definitely buy more books than I otherwise would because of their discounting strategy (Waterstones didn't lose the sale on a £17 paperback, because I would never have bought it at that price). But of the books I do buy, fewer come from High Street bookshops than would have been the case if Amazon didn't exist (or the Net Book Agreement stll did...)

As a writer, I can argue that a market which sells more books is surely a good thing; and as a reader being able to afford more books is good too. The worry is whether the present arrangements are sustainable: will the traditional bookshop eventually go to the wall?

David Isaak said...

Hmm. It often works the other way round for me. I'll read somethign by an author, and then search Amazon to see what else that author has written. Then I'll hop over to the websites of bookstores in my area to see if they have it in stock, and if they do I am quite likely to hop over and buy it...because, as you mention, it's alwasy fun to nose around in an actual bookshop.

Our local Barnes and Noble and our local Borders are open until 11 pm every night, and they are always crawling with people (and doing a brisk coffee business while they are at it). Amazon may have a third of the market, but the bookshops seem to be holding thier own.


On the other hand, books seem to be somewhat more expensive over there than over here, no matter what the exchange rate does. So there may be a tipping point coming...

Alis said...

I wondered if I was an 'Amazon Tart' too so I checked what I've bought recently and they were all reference books that I couldn't (or couldn't be bothered to) source locally. I think I tend to want my fiction NOW, in my hand.
My dilemma would be whether I left Waterstones and went and bought everything at full price in an independent bookshop which had no 3 for 2s. But we don't have an independent here in Canterbury, so I'm saved from that dilemma...