Independent bookshops against Amazon won’t be an easy battle for the former. Some would even jump to conclusion that it’s a lost cause. Those, perhaps, are the people who have never heard David vs Goliath’s story.
When Amazon launched in 1994, books were one of the company’s first main offerings. Within a few years, Amazon ramped up pace, attracting the attention of all major and independent bookstores.
In 1997, Barnes & Noble filed a lawsuit against Amazon exactly a day before its IPO. The lawsuit called into question Amazon’s advertisements wherein it claimed to be the world’s largest bookstore.
Little did Barnes & Noble guys know that Amazon, one day, will become the go-to place for most people to buy books. Today it gives professional and amateur writers the chance to sell their books thanks to print-on-demand as one of its services.
Yet, as Amazon grew, it toppled the little guy. Not just in the US, but all over the world. The local bookshop that stocked a low number of books faced the music from the Goliath.
Over the last two decades, as more people went online to buy books, local bookshops exited the business. Like Wal-Mart before it, Amazon priced competition out of business.
Independent bookshops are making a comeback, however.
With a new audience interested in going to a bookstore to peruse paperbacks, the indie bookshop community is fighting back.
Fighting the giant
Before Amazon hit the scene in the mid-1990s, the United States had a record number of independent booksellers. The American Booksellers Association (ABA) claims the numbers were at their highest-ever peak.
All good things come to an end, however.
Just five years later, the number of independent bookshops had fallen by 43% thanks to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.
By the end of the 2000s, the numbers were even lower.
Amazon didn’t only put small bookstores out of operation. It smashed Barnes & Noble and Borders as well; the latter filed for bankruptcy in 2011.
Now, customers are seeking something different than going online and buying a book.
Instead of using Amazon, many book-seekers want a completely different experience. Younger shoppers want a community experience that sees them visit a brick-and-mortar store.
The community experience isn’t just about going out, it’s about talking to someone, and finding a book they may not have planned to purchase.
The concept of buying locally was lost in the 1990s and noughties. People evaded physical buying in favor of buying from the comfort of an armchair. The children of those adults now want to bring back the “buy local” ethos.
New concepts to selling books independently
While Millennials and Generation Z get a bad name by major companies due to a lack of consumerism, these groups are leading the pushback. Bookstores around the US are building a relationship with the community.
Customers are being connected with books in shops to build meaningful relationships. These connections may not stop customers from buying the odd book or two on Amazon, but it sure helps. And, it brings them back time and again.
Passionate bookshop owners and employees are capable of fostering relationships with customers. That human touch, which is missing in most sectors, has come back and it can be translated over to other businesses such as fashion.
It isn’t just building a relationship with customers that is helping local bookshops fight back against Amazon. Many bookstores are learning about their customers to curate the content they sell.
One of the biggest advantages that Amazon had over indie bookstores was the amount of content available for customers. Bookshops couldn’t invest in inventory that may not sell. Therefore, a limited number of books were put on sale.
In many cases, customers couldn’t get the book they wanted. Shops could order in books specifically with ironically, some going to Amazon to get it.
Now, local bookshops are succeeding thanks to knowing the needs and wants of the community. Many indie bookshops are reviving the art of Handselling.
By handselling, a bookstore fills the role of matchmaker between a book on their shelf and the customer. They literally place books in the hands of customers.
Seasoned booksellers possess the ability to find hidden gems on their shelves. They can introduce a reader to a new genre or a never-heard-before author. They know which books are underappreciated and thus, deserve readers’ attention.
Late Italian author Umberto Eco and Spanish author Jorge Carrion highlighted this craft in their respective books.
Technically, handselling is what Amazon wants its AI algorithm to do. But so far it has come up short.
The resurgence of the local bookstore is also being fueled by people seeking a place to converse and meet others.
There was a time when many local booksellers hosted independent up-and-coming authors, poetry nights, and other events. This gave people the chance to go out and explore something completely different. It was a night out.
Successful independent bookstores continue to host events to bring people out. Many of these businesses are hosting more events than ever before.
From book readings to book launches, these indie bookstores are pulling out all stops to gain traction. As of now, it seems to be working.
Can Independent bookstores and Amazon co-exist?
The ABA announced in 2019 that there are more than 2,500 independent local bookstores in the US. Just 10 years earlier, the number was at an all-time low of 1,651.
If more indie booksellers learn the craft of creating a community, curating content, and striking interesting conversations, they might make a solid comeback.
That said, one has to be realistic. Waging a war against a behemoth like Amazon may not work. The best strategy could be to find a way to co-exist with it, by deploying new ideas.
There are just too many people seeking books quickly, easily, and cheaply to stop ordering from Amazon. Yet, independent stores have new hope.
Bookshop.org, the brainchild of LitHub’s cofounder, Andy Hunter, gives space to indie bookshops on its website to set up their storefronts. Upon sale, these bookshops will get 30% flat of the book’s cover price.
Only time will reveal if Bookshop.org is the messiah for the indies that it is being touted to be. But what can’t be denied is that the old flavor of visiting a local bookshop and chatting with the booksellers is back.
You also support the writers as indie bookstores are likely to pay a lot more than an Amazon for the books they sell. While Amazon might show you the exact book you were looking for, you can’t replicate the feeling of browsing wood shelves and discovering new worlds you never knew you were looking for.
Plus, there is a lot to love about what independent bookshops are now doing. With their backs against the wall, innovations and new tactics allow a new battle to occur. Local bookstores may not win, but at least they can co-exist.
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