June 6, 2013

Is Amazon trying to place Kindles in indie bookstores?


“Order ten and we’ll throw in the pale severed hand of some other bookseller absolutely free!”

On the face of it it seems absurd. Selling Kindles in indie bookstores? It’s as if Amazon is conducting some sort of troop strengthening exercise. If their team can withstand the loud derisive laughter of booksellers around the country, perhaps they can stand up to anything?

It’s like asking booksellers to start a lucrative sideline in pit vipers, or open flames. “Perhaps you’d be interested in stocking a fistful of live scorpions? No? What if we matched Kobo’s price?”

But as Amazon has proven exhaustively in the past, they are ready and willing to test out absurdities—even cruelties—if they think it will give them an edge.

The recent question of Kindles in indies began with a blog post by Charles Hauther of Skylight Books, describing a strange but seemingly conversational call by someone claiming to be an Amazon sales representative, sounding him out about interest in stocking Kindles.

“He said he understood and that he knew Amazon was facing a number of ‘hurdles’ they would need to cross in order to implement this program. that being the case, would i be willing to clarify any specific problems that i might foresee as being a dealbreaker. i repeated his request back to him partly out of disbelief and partly to give him a chance to back out of the way of this oncoming rhetorical trainwreck, but he insisted he wanted to hear my concerns. so i said ok and let him have it.”

Paul Constant of The Stranger has been following up on the story, and has gotten reports from other indie booksellers claiming to have received similar calls. His main question, barring comment from Amazon, who don’t generally respond to press and are busy shipping pudding or whatever, is whether these calls are legit. The number of stores called would seem to indicate as much, and when he reached out to the email address given by a caller to one of the booksellers, which pointed to an amazon.com domain, he got an auto-reply pitching wholesale Kindles. About the venture as a whole Constant writes, dryly, “I don’t expect it to go very well.”

Whether or not the idea is likely to succeed (“Care to stock these vicious kicks to the groin in your store?”), it’s not without precedent. Readers will remember that one of James Daunt‘s first projects at the helm of Waterstones was to partner with Amazon and place the devices in the UK bookseller’s stores. Here in the states Target carried the devices before coming to their senses.

Amazon, for all their corporate culture of concern with the customer, is often tone deaf to the reactions of the public. Their attack on bookstores with their showrooming app, for instance, provoked widespread outrage and helped galvanize supporters of independent booksellers. There’s much to be said about this antinomy of the Customer and the Public, and Amazon’s obsession with the one and pointed hostility to the other,  and I think our extensive coverage of Amazon’s emnity to any kind of collective welfare is a good jumping-off point for that discussion.

The point here, however, is that it is unsurprising if Amazon is honestly and even naively trying to place Kindles in bookstores. Amazon either does not have a good understanding of why the very idea of that cooperation (“Maybe you’d like to stock these suppurating buboes in your store? They’re the latest model!”) is offensive or, and this is most likely, they don’t care. They’ve managed it before.



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.