A New Low for Amazon

Josie Leavitt -- December 8th, 2011

I was having a lovely evening the other day until I read a Facebook post from a fellow bookseller about an Amazon promotion set to run on December 10th. The promotion: quite simply, to walk into any store, take a picture of the item with the price with your Amazon price checker app, and get $5 off on that item when you order it from Amazon. You’re allowed to do this three times on Saturday.

So, Jeff Bezos has decided or at least approved this scheme that all bricks and mortar stores should be visited, left empty-handed so folks can shop on Amazon while giving them price info from other stores. Wow. The thoughts I’m having about this promotion cannot be printed here. If I weren’t so riled up, I’d be despondent at such a horrible attack on stores. Perhaps folks will go to chain stores, and not arrive at small, independent stores, scan a QR code and leave.

The details of the promo (buried deep on Amazon’s home page) don’t mention bookstores, probably because Amazon doesn’t need to know about book prices, since they know we can’t compete with their books as loss-leader mentality. If I sound angry, it’s because I am. This feels like an underhanded business tactic. To encourage people to snoop at other stores and report back to Amazon so they “can keep their prices competitive” is pathetic.

Any independent bookstore has fought against Amazon since the day Amazon opened its website and started undercutting us on price. Some of us are tired of having to explain why our prices can’t be as low as Amazon’s. We’re tired of explaining why you can’t buy e-books from us if you have a Kindle. Honestly, I’m sick of Amazon. I’m tired of people saying, “But it’s so much cheaper than what you can offer.” Yes, it’s true, the new Steve Jobs book is 49% off at Amazon, and that’s 3 to 6% more than I can buy the book for from the publisher or a wholesaler. So, yes, I’m sick of Amazon acting as its own retail distribution center and getting a far better discount than I can. I’m tired of faithfully paying sales tax and having customers tell me how much they like saving money with Amazon.

Here’s what I do: I pay sales tax, I donate thousands of dollars to local schools, charities, Little Leagues, church pie suppers, school trips, Geobee prizes, etc. I support my community and that means going to local stores and buying things there. Price is not the only factor for me. I know there are lots of folks on budgets, and to them I say: lots of children’s books are not discounted at Amazon. And does Amazon bring authors to your children’s schools?  No.

I am not the only retailer who is mad. There has been a Facebook event started by Kim Gavin at Powell’s Books to rally around all indies. Occupy Amazon, on Saturday, Dec 12th, encourages folks to shop at any independent store this weekend. Folks are supporting the movement and it’s heartening to know that I’m not alone in my outrage, and there are lots of people who will go to a small business this weekend.

So, while it may seem Amazon has hit a new low, it’s had a galvanizing effect on folks, which is probably the last thing Jeff Bezos wanted. And that makes me very happy.

59 thoughts on “A New Low for Amazon

  1. Mandy

    All bookstores should set up a stand at the front of their shops with a sign under it “PLACE ANY BOOK ON THIS SHELF FOR AMAZON PHOTO AND PICK YOUR PRICE!!” There should be a stack of price cards that people can choose to use and then … “SNAP AWAY!”
    See how Amazon likes it!!

  2. Gerald Perrin

    I also notice that Amazon often dips into my account to charge for products I have not purchased. Very small amounts and it happened twice before I caught it. When I blew the whistle, I was told it was a credit card issue. I notified the credit card and was told it was an Amazon issue. Back and forth until two months later they gave up and returned my $15 but only after I told each that I would change vendors if I didn’t get my money back.

  3. Mark MacKay

    “It’s not personal. It’s business.” Well, actually, it IS personal and it’s bad business. Does Amazon sell books on business ethics? Why doesn’t Charlie Rose ask Bezos about these issues when he’s on PBS hawking the Kindle?

  4. Iowagal

    Those of you who have limited walk-in access to independent bookstores may not be aware that Amazon is not the best option.
    Our local independent bookstore in Iowa City, with a national reputation, sells ebooks and books on tape plus has an 800# to call to order books if you have a credit card and they will send it. They have a web site and, most importantly, they have knowledgeable staff who actually read and can guide you to the best books for your interests.

  5. Bonnie Shimko

    I live in Plattsburgh, NY. During my growing up years, my father owned a lovely, successful toy store. When I was a teen, I watched as he had to close his store because the chains had come and muscled him out of business. That horrible experience made me especially empathetic toward small business owners.

    I’m a writer. I’ve had three books published (two young adult, one middle grade). My first book won a Lambda award and was published in Chinese and Italian. Both my first and second books were included in the Bas Bleu Bookseller by Post catalog (not easy to get chosen). My third book received 2 starred reviews, a 5 rating Voya review, and was chosen as an ALA best book for young adults for 2011. Each time I stopped at the Vermont independent bookstore, I inquired about my books. The owners said they didn’t carry them in stock; they’d have to be ordered. The owners knew me. My books could have been hand sold. They weren’t. They were “available for ordering.” I lost a tiny bit of empathy for that store and didn’t feel guilty about ordering books on Amazon.

    My fourth book has been sold to Marshall Cavendish (with my favorite editor ever) and will be published by Amazon. It won’t be hand sold by my independent bookstore, but my other ones weren’t either.

  6. Christine

    Have you not noticed all the advertising about being instantly able to compare pricing on smartphones? And getting discounts and coupons automatically loaded up? Amazon is hardly the only company doing this although they certainly seem to be more blatant about it. As businesses struggle to gain any advantage I’m sure this will become even more prevelant although I don’t know how indies can compete. Sorry but for those of us who A) have NO bookstores anywhere near us, B) no transportation, and C) may be homebound, online ordering–and not just from Amazon–is a lifeline.

  7. Donnell Wisniewski

    As one of the Borders casualties, I can honestly say that I stopped customers every week from taking photos of our books, or anyone in front of our books. I was the photo nazi and would go so far as ask to see if they had erased it (if they got the shot before I got to them). Most would say – why? We can take photos anywhere. But actually, I told them almost everything in here has a copyright and you don’t have a written exception from the author and the CEO.

    This issue is just one of many that boils down to RESPECT. Very few customers respect the store or company anymore and it goes both ways. I also do not shop at the Big WM (my son is a union member and I don’t like their employee practices). I seldom shop at KMart because the store near me is always in shambles. I do not buy any of my books on-line and my ebooks come from my library. I also do not have many of luxury $ due to Borders closing, but still prefer to shop with those that I know contribut to my immediate community.

  8. Jeanette Healy

    Here’s the issue that is what makes Amazon so popular. I just went searching on Indiebound.org and my closest indie book stores are in livingston manor which is 30 miles from me or in new paltz which is 22 miles from me. This is where Amazon wins folks. When you are that far away from a book store, even a big box book store you just don’t go, it’s easier to go on line.

    I’m not saying I support what Amazon is doing, I’m just saying when your options are that slim you shop where you can when you can.

    1. Susan Blackaby

      Amazon isn’t your only option for online, off-site book buying if you are out of indie range. Farflung indies will order for you, of course, and unlike Amazon you can develop a relationship with them that will benefit both of you. Or, hello, Powells in Portland, OR, a mega indie that has everything and ships anywhere. Just sayin.

  9. Beth

    Books are not among the eligible categories in this promotion (according to the details of the promo). That said, I’m sure if this is successful, books will be included sooner than amazon promised to deliver the latest Harry Potter. We the people have to counter it by shopping locally–just do it.

  10. Eric Luper

    What timing. I just got back from buying $85 in books at my local indie. I’ll go back this weekend and buy more. Everyone I’m getting gifts for this season is getting a locally purchased book!!

  11. Sharon Jackson

    Don’t worry, Amazon, as awesome as it is, will never be able to compete with retail bookstores for their ambiance. I love walking into a brick and mortar bookstore where you can buy a cup of coffee and sit down to look at the book you are contemplating purchasing, to talk to the people at the desk about new books, or just to walk around and absorb the great vibes that are always present. Can’t get that online! I am also an Amazon customer, but use this kind of shopping for those hurried transactions that do not allow time to savor the experience.

    1. Ruann

      That brick and mortar ambiance sure didn’t work for Borders. I think most people liked to hang out, wrote down the names of books they saw and wanted, then went home and bought them at Amazon. I was certainly guilty of that at times, but with my budget and the number of books I buy for myself and gifts, I can’t avoid Amazon.

  12. Barbara

    As an author with both an ebook and a paperback on Amazon I am very torn by this new policy. My book is not in all stores and so I will not be part of this despicable policy. With a Canadian publisher there are few places to get the book, but I am hoping to bring it by some of the indies in my area. Selling books is difficult for authors these days and when Amazon does these horrible things it makes me feel all icky. Unfortunately, I am stuck in the middle as an author.
    I would sign the petition, but I’m not sure this will do any good. It’s better to boycott Amazon, but don’t boycott my book:) If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor. Mine is a YA and perfect for girls and some boys ages 10 and up.

    I hope you get a lot of signatures on that petition and believe me, I am with you in spirit.

    1. Darrell

      I’m not certain why this practice is despicable. Retailers have been doing this for years. Almost 25-years-ago when I got my first job at a drug store we had a similar policy — except you needed to bring in an ad or a receipt, and we played up the fact that tax was cheaper at our store (though not 0%) than the larger city next to us.

  13. librariankc

    Thank you for sharing the link to Occupy Amazon. I already was planning to shop tomorrow at local bookstores as I start my holiday shopping, but perhaps I’ll postpone until Saturday. I am fortunate to have not one, but two children’s bookstores less than 5 miles from my house. I’m a children’s librarian so I know what I’m looking for, but I am always impressed by the staff’s knowledge of what they stock when I visit these bookstores. Can’t get that from Amazon.

  14. Phillis Gershator

    Thanks for this article, Josie, and the great discussion.
    What can an author do? We’re involuntarily part of the Amazon machine. And now our publishers are beginning to be bought up by it too, starting with Cavendish!

    1. Heidi Pickman

      Occupy Amazon looks like the effort of Powell’s Bookstore and is urging people to buy local on Saturday which is great. We are taking it one step further with a petition asking Amazon to withdraw it’s “promo” and apologize to small businesses.

      SIGN PETITION! http://chn.ge/s3JyrS

      Anything you can do to spread the word with your networks would be wonderful.

  15. Peter Glassman

    Josie, I totally am with you on just about everything you wrote. Just one exception. Booksellers don’t pay or charge sales tax. The government charges it, the consumers pay it, and we’re caught in the middle being required to collect it.

    I think it’s high time we started a movement to have books declared tax free just like periodicals are (at least in NY and NJ, the two states I’ve worked as a bookseller over the past 36 years). The rationale behind not charging sales tax on periodicals, at least as I’ve heard it, is that periodicals are a major disseminator of political speech (think Thomas Paine’s Common Sense) and it would be considered restriction of political speech (the most protected form of free speech under the constitution) to tax it. However, since these days just about every political candidate and pundit has or is publishing a book expressing their views, I believe it could be successfully argued that books are as much a dissemintator of political speech as periodicals.

    And I have just the slogan for us to use in our campaign: “Why is Hustler tax free and not The Cat in the Hat?” I’d love to see state legislators defend that!

  16. Pete

    You CAN buy a Google eBook from an indie bookstore and read it on your Kindle Fire. I own an indie bookstore–I bought the Fire, downloaded the free IndieReader app for Android, and could immediately read my eBooks there and shop for and buy more eBooks at my own store. Kindle Fire only, not older Kindles. Also works on Nook tablet.

    PS I returned by Kindle Fire a few days later. As a tablet, it was weak sauce. As an ereader, it was even worse. And I love real books.

  17. Theresa M. Moore

    When Dec 10 comes, you won’t find my ebooks on Amazon. They will be in draft status until the sale ends. In fact, thanks to Amazon’s habit of undercutting the competition no matter what, it is no longer profitable to post my books on Amazon. I am considering the idea of disabling distribution there and keeping my ebooks off in future for all titles. See, everybody forgets that it is not the end of civilization if your books are not on Amazon. Barnes & Noble has always been a better seller, and it does not engage in such underhanded practices as Amazon. You won’t find me impressed with Amazon at all and I don’t own a Kindle or any other Amazon device, and if you are such a loyalist of Amazon you don’t see the damage it is doing, then I bid you farewell and hope the door doesn’t hit you on the way out.

  18. LoisP

    We, as a culture of consumers, have created this-and other-monsters just like it.
    We want more, sooner, for less. And rarely think of the cost to community, our neighbours, and the industry that should be nurturing and promoting literacy rather than books (and clothes and electronics and other crap) as mere commodities.
    I am constantly tempted to ask people who rant about Amazon’s practises whether they continue to shop there. Afraid to ask.
    As an author I can’t avoid having my books on the site (my publishers choice, not mine) but I continue to direct people to local and independent bookstores to buy them. Even if they have to wait longer, and pay a little more.

  19. Lynnette

    Get real! You really think that people AREN’T walking into bookstores and taking pix of books for various reasons already??? Get out from under the rock and face it! Yeah some are doing (or might being doing) the ‘compare with Amazon’ bit but I’ve also seen people openly (in front of the clerks no less) stating that they’re comparing Store A’s prices against Store B’s prices to see who can give them a better deal! I’ve had bookstore clerks openly recommend Amazon or even Sears (!) websites for some hard-to-find or lower priced items! I’ve even heard a clerk at an (gasp!) ‘independent bookstore’ make the same suggestion to more than a few customers one afternoon! Amazon’s here folks and instead of whining about it, how about seeing how it can be put to the stores’ advantage??? Why don’t you independent folk make YOURSELVES known on Amazon so customers can also ‘see’ your stores especially if they live in another part of the state or surrounding states???? I’m more than happy to spend my money at an independent bookstore on-line but I need to know you exist first!

      1. Lynnette

        Then why did you bother answering in the first place hm? I do visit my local bookstores about three-four times a week and usually buy at least two books or a magazine each time. Since you’re going with the ‘holier than thou’ attitude, how about you post what YOU do to support YOUR local bookstores. I know some independent sellers in our local area who do post on Amazon and have said it’s helped their business quite a bit. If you’re going to take the ‘I’m better than you’ attitude that you’re so willing to post, then finish it. You read the article you read the comments. Let’s hear what you have to say.

        1. Theresa M. Moore

          I did already. If you take pains to read it, I said what I was going to do in a whole paragraph. My “holier than thou” attitude, as you put it, is based on 30 years of experience in writing and publishing. I shop at bookstores in my area, and as a matter of fact, though my books are on Amazon (soon not to be, i expect) I have never bought a single book from Amazon. I have always bought at local bookstores. I see that you are too young to excercize any respect for people who take the contrarian view, so right back at you.

    1. Josie Leavitt

      Lynnette, there is a website called indiebound.org and it lists almost all the independent bookstores in the country. If you’re sincere in wanting to shop at indies, just go there, type in your zip code and it will give you a list of stores in your area, and it will tell you which ones have websites.

      I’m sure there are countless bookstores who would be happy to fulfill your book and ebook orders.

      1. Lynnette

        Josie, thank you for the information. I didn’t know there was such a site but I will defiinitely add it to my list and expand my shopping areas! Thanks again for the information!

  20. Heidi

    I will gladly support Occupy Amazon this weekend. And, by the way, I think I do the exact opposite of what Amazon is supporting: I check out Amazon for books I want and then I go to my local independent bookstore to buy them!

    1. Kitti

      I have done this, too. I put in a favorite author’s name, wrote down the “you might also like these” author names, and went to a brick and mortar store to look up, peruse, and purchase the recommended books. :)

  21. Donna Paz Kaufman

    Josie, I have sent your blog entry to my book group and all of the people in my life I know have relationships with Amazon. I hope others will do the same to help build momentum for Occupy Amazon. There is a very high cost to cheap and we have to hammer this message over and over again.

  22. Stephanie Scott

    Additionally, I think the communities with the strongest allegiance to local business will keep their independents in business, but sadly I see in the larger scope more people concerned about saving a couple bucks and buying at big box retailers and amazon. Even grocery stores are expanding into books now – and more than just the harlequin paperbacks. I personally don’t shop at Walmart because of their business practices and instead buy groceries at a midwest chain that I’ve gone to for years because I think theya re more ethical in how they pay their employees. The prices are good but maybe not rock bottom. To me it’s worth it, but some people do not believe they have that luxury to choose, and some people don’t have the luxury at all.

      1. Mary

        Many retailers and small businesses do this as well because they can’t afford to offer healthcare to their employees. I have noticed this trend across many fields including public libraries where I work. I am the only full time employee at my workplace. We have 6 part-timers and myself.

  23. Stephanie Scott

    I know some people would say “it’s business” but it’s dirty business. Amazon is already closing down bookstores – it even partially contributed to the demise of an entire chain. I suppose it’s “eat or get eaten,” but I still think it’s an underhanded move. It’s not Amazon’s job to keep indies afloat, but they don’t need to use a gimmick so blatantly destructive.

    I admit to having scanned through prices at Borders for comparable Amazon prices. A lot of times with the Borders coupon is was worth it to get it there and have it right away rather than wait for Amazon, unless the title just wasn’t available. But I don’t have Borders anymore so my options are more limited. I purchase from an indie now fairly regularly, but for big ticket gift books (like the latest Kennedy book) I admit I do look at Amazon to see if it’s a better deal.

  24. Michael

    Ah, yes. I remember those days (pre-internet). If I wanted a book, and if they had it available, I had to pay full retail price, no discounting. Most of the time, they never had what I needed, and I had to order it, pay upfront, and wait. And the wait time was usually 4-6 weeks, (once they “lost” the order, even though I had already paid for it!).

    It’s not Amazon they need to be afraid of, it’s the internet. You just can’t compete with that, you need to learn to provide a service people want to use.

    1. Peter Glassman

      I don’t know in what country you lived before Amazon and internet shopping, but book discounting dates back to the 1970s. Both Barnes & Noble and Crown Books (now out of business) promoted their stores with slogans that went along the lines of “If you paid full price, you didn’t buy it at Barnes & Noble!” (Or Crown Books). Crown Books actually used to use publisher’s co-op dollars to run ads that exclaimed in large type, “BOOKS ARE TOO EXPENSIVE!” and then would go on to say how they discounted all their books. The internet did not bring discounting to books — but it did introduce the idea of selling books as an entire category as loss leaders to get names of people who were willing to buy online. Bezos was very smart. He knew that book buyers were more educated and more open to adapting to new technologies. So buy selling them books at close to or even below his cost, he got the names and email addresses of people willing to buy online. He never had to pay list brokers $1 – $5 per name and send out hundreds of thousands of catalogs or emails to see who would reply, aiming for a measly 2-3% response and paying as a result between $20-$40 per name. He just sold people a product they loved at near or below cost and though he might have lost a dollar or two on each transaction, he got the name of a proven buyer — true gold in the direct marketing world.

      I just wonder what publishers are going to do after people get used to paying 30-40% below their suggest list price when Amazon, Wal-Mart, etc. decide that books aren’t the best loss leader for them anymore and move on to another product. A huge proportion of their market will consider paying a reasonable price unreasonable — and will simply move to buying used books at pennies on the dollar instead. Oh, wait — isn’t that how Amazon is making most of its money already? Isn’t that why they bought ABE.com? As I said, Bezos is smart. He doesn’t care about books — or, perhaps I should say he does care about books, much the way a vampire cares about humans. And he’s having our industry for lunch.

  25. Dianna Winget

    I’m on your side, Josie. Just the other day I walked into a very small local bookstore and spent $34. It felt great. The owner was very friendly and that made it all worthwhile. I’ll be going in there again. For any locals who might be reading this: It’s the Corner Bookstore in Sandpoint, Idaho. I also have a brand new author website up and have put links to my local bookstores.

  26. bookzilla

    Despicable. As someone w/o a lot of spending money, I can appreciate wanting the best deal for my wallet. But I also understand that quality of community comes with a cost, so I am willing to support as many indie business that I can in my community in order to keep the Main Streets open (and not boarded up).

    I like your point about supporting your community, and would like to remind people that Amazon doesn’t give you raffle prizes, post your posters for your high school theater group, support your little league or let you use the bathroom in an emergency! Put your money where your heart is, America.

    1. Shelley Rogers Landes

      Good point! I wonder if I walked into Target and I scan a bar code and take it to the manager and ask him to price match Amazon, I wonder if they would honor that? I’m almost certain WalMart will do it….they do it with printed ads all day long.

      Instead of Occupying Amazon (because they really could care less) maybe brick and mortar pricing matching for the day is the way to go.

    2. Kitti

      Because 1) Amazon sells books at a loss, and 2) there is no tax on sales thru Amazon. The former is part of business warfare; they’re using books as a loss leader. The second is out and out unfair; they have the political clout to keep this advantage.

      1. Darrell

        I am a little surprised that Amazon is still in business. The majority of their sales are books which they sell at a loss and then they sell their various Kindles at a loss so that they can then sell e-books at a loss.

  27. cuntlazors

    who can see he line between fair competition and exploiting assets these days? It’s a shame the elements forcing companies to co-exist is dissolving.

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