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31 May 2022

How Amazon surrendered in its war on bookshops

The e-commerce giant has increased its prices, while the number of independent booksellers continues to rise.

By Katharine Swindells

Let’s set the scene: it’s the year 2010, the Viggo Mortensen-fronted film The Road has just been released in cinemas, and you want to read the Cormac McCarthy novel the movie is based on. You could buy it from Waterstones for the recommended retail price (RRP) of £7.99 – or you could go to Amazon and buy it for half the price, just £4.

Twelve years later, if you want to read the same novel, the balance has changed: while the novel’s RRP has only risen to £8.99, on Amazon the price has gone up to £7.35. That 50 per cent saving Amazon customers made in 2010 has narrowed to less than 20 per cent.

Amazon is now so ubiquitous that it can be easy to forget it began as a bookseller – but Mike Shatzkin, the publishing industry veteran and the author of The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know, says that when he first heard about it in 1995 he knew it was “f***ing brilliant”. “Books are the very best thing to buy online, because you don’t have to smell it, you don’t have to try it on,” Shatzkin says. “It’s exactly what it says it is.”

For traditional bookshops, which had to invest in inventory and pay for shop staff, it was impossible to compete with Amazon’s prices. “Amazon was selling books cheaper than we could buy them for,” says Jo Legerton, bookseller at Chorlton Bookshop in Manchester. “There was a genuine fear that actual physical bookshops would be forced out of business.”

The figures bore that out: a decade ago, annual sales of print books were undergoing rapid decline. Between 2012 and 2013, data from Nielsen’s Books & Consumers survey shows, print books sales dropped 7.5 per cent, and then fell another 5.5 per cent in 2014. In 2011 the author Ewan Morrison confidently told Edinburgh international book festival that “within 25 years, the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books”.

But since 2017, when the number of print books sold in the UK was below 250 million, those numbers have begun to recover. In 2020 the pandemic boosted sales to 257 million, driven by adult and children’s fiction. And the latest Nielsen analysis shows that level of sales held strong through 2021.

Meanwhile, the number of independent bookshops in the UK has been growing steadily since 2017. In 1995 the UK had 1,894 independent bookshops, according to the Booksellers Association. By 2016 the number had halved to just 867. But despite the pandemic’s effect on small businesses, in 2021 the number of independent bookshops grew 6 per cent, surpassing 1,000.

“I was working in Borders on Oxford Street a decade ago, and it felt like bookselling was going in that direction – huge American-style stores with miserable, undervalued and underused staff,” says Miranda Peake, now manager of Chener Books in south London. “There was a very depressing homogenisation of what was on offer by the few big chains, in terms of stock and the look of bookshops. We now have a slew of excellent new bookshops, run by knowledgeable, brilliant booksellers, who are really actively driving trends in reading and promoting new publishing.”

Of course, no one is denying Amazon's immense influence over global commerce, but analysis of the company’s bookselling shows a clear change of strategy. If (like me) you read To Kill a Mockingbird at school in 2012, you could buy a new paperback copy on Amazon for £3.50, while an RRP copy cost £6.99. Today (as of 30 May) you can get it at Waterstones for £7.99, or on Amazon for £6.55. Just as it has for The Road, your Amazon saving has halved.

What we are seeing, explains Shatzkin, is the central role books played in Amazon’s original plan. “In Amazon’s early pricing strategy… [it] wasn’t in the book business to make money, but to acquire customers,” he says.

In other words, Amazon’s goal was never to become “the world’s largest bookstore”, it was to be the world’s largest everything store. It now has 200 million Prime members globally and made over $30bn in 2021 on subscription fees alone. Once it had cemented its position in the public mind as the most efficient place to buy anything and everything, it no longer had to bother with discounted books.

But even as Amazon drew back on its aggressive book-selling strategy, it was too late to halt the trends it had set in motion. In 2012, 32 per cent of all books bought in the UK were purchased online, which grew steadily to 42 per cent by 2019. Of course, the pandemic turbo-charged this trajectory: in 2020 half of print book sales were online, and that barely changed in 2021.

But in many ways, explains Roland Bates, who works at Kirkdale Bookshop in Sydenham, the very technology that once posed an existential threat to independents has become hugely beneficial. Wholesalers’ increased efficiency means many bookshops, Kirkdale and Chener included, are able to order books for customers to be available for pick-up the next day. Meanwhile, endeavours like Hive and aim to offer a comparable service to Amazon Books while giving shoppers the ability to nominate an independent bookstore to receive a proportion of the sale, which Bates says was particularly useful as a revenue stream during lockdown.

That doesn’t mean independents are entirely out of the woods. A decade ago, booksellers feared the growth of Amazon's Kindle and in 2022 e-books made up 22 per cent of all books sold in the UK, and 43 per cent of all adult fiction sold. But after a rapid rise in the early 2010s, e-books sales have started to fall, and many think audiobooks are the latest threat. In 2021, 13 million adult fiction books were sold in audio format in the UK, less than 10 per cent of the volume of all adult fiction sold, but a 30 per cent increase year-on-year.

In 2020 and 2021, half of all audiobook sales were through a subscription model, up from 29 per cent in 2016, a clear win for services like Amazon’s Audible. In comparison, just 14 per cent of e-books are sold through a subscription like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited.

But the recent rise in print book sales, with adult fiction growing faster in 2021 than children's/young adult fiction and non-fiction, shows that perhaps a growing reading market doesn’t necessarily have to pit formats against one another.

Ultimately, says Bates from Kirkdale Bookshop, independent bookshops have to stop seeing e-books, audiobooks and Amazon as direct competition, and instead focus on what they uniquely offer.

“Back in the early 2010s, we had a notice in the shop window – ‘10 reasons why it's better if you shop at an independent bookshop than at Amazon’ – sort of making the moral case, and I wasn’t comfortable with it at the time and I’m not now,” Bates says. “You can be as moral as you want about it, but you don't want someone to miss out entirely on reading because they can't afford it.”

Bates says the care put into the curation of his bookshop, and the role the shop plays in the community, is building loyalty. And, he says, however good Amazon is at recommendations, it can’t replace the ability of an expert bookseller to recommend something based on gut instinct.

“It's not based on data; it’s just a vibe,” Bates says. “But if you land a pleasant surprise on somebody, they'll come back and they might get another pleasant surprise. So I think we're one up on the algorithm.”

[See also: Why Goodreads is bad for books]

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