Home » Amazon, Bookstores » Amazon’s Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Are Not Built For People Who Actually Read

Amazon’s Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Are Not Built For People Who Actually Read

31 May 2017

From The New Yorker:

On Thursday, Amazon opened its first brick-and-mortar bookstore in New York City, in Columbus Circle. It is situated on the third floor of the Time Warner Center, a baffling place that, on any given weekday, seems populated exclusively by tourists, sharply dressed professionals taking two-hour lunch meetings, and people with the aura of those C.G.I. figures in architectural renderings—people who are there just because they’re there. The books in the Amazon bookstore—assembled according to algorithm—feel like that, too. They exist far less to serve the desires of the reader than to serve the needs of Amazon, a company whose twenty-year campaign to “disrupt” bookstores has now killed off much of the competition, usurped nearly half of the U.S. book market, and brought it back, full circle, to books on shelves.

The Columbus Circle location is Amazon’s seventh bookstore, so far. It is reminiscent of an airport bookshop: big enough to be enticing from the outside but extremely limited once you’re inside. The volumes on display are spaced at a courteous distance from one another, positioned with their front covers facing out. Greeting customers, front and center, is a “Highly Rated” table, featuring books that have received 4.8 stars or above on Amazon.com, among them Trevor Noah’s memoir, Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook, a book by the couple on the TV show “Fixer Upper,” and a book about kombucha. Other offerings are determined by digital metrics such as Goodreads reviews, Amazon sales, and pre-orders, and by input from the curators at Amazon Books. The store, in other words, is designed to further popularize, on Amazon, that which is already popular on Amazon.

. . . .

It will be clear by now that I am not the ideal customer for the Amazon bookstore in the Time Warner Center. This doesn’t stem, necessarily, from my dislike of Amazon itself. I support the company’s terrible labor practices by making active use of my Prime membership, and I’m generally happy to buy books anywhere—the Barnes & Noble near my old office; Greenlight, my local indie; or, if I need something obscure quickly, Amazon. But a central draw of Amazon’s online bookstore is its limitless selection, and it’s odd to see the company’s brick-and-mortar outpost offering such a limited mix.

. . . .

The store’s biggest shortcoming, though, is that it is so clearly not intended for people who read regularly. I normally walk into a bookstore and shop the way a person might shop for clothes: I know what I like, what generally works for me, what new styles I might be ready to try. It was a strange feeling, on Thursday, to do laps around a bookstore without feeling a single unexpected thrill. There were no wild cards, no deep cuts, no oddballs—just books that were already best-sellers, pieces of clothing I knew wouldn’t fit me or that I already owned.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Amazon, Bookstores

29 Comments to “Amazon’s Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Are Not Built For People Who Actually Read”

  1. I was ready to hate this article with a headline like that, but I’ve been in an Amazon Books store and I sort of agree with the thesis.

    Either way, the introduction of an Amazon brick-and-mortar in the heart of the trad pub world has proven to be wildly entertaining so far.

    • Although I haven’t been in one, based on pictures I’ve seen I can see where this comes from…

      There were no wild cards, no deep cuts, no oddballs—just books that were already best-sellers, pieces of clothing I knew wouldn’t fit me or that I already owned.

      Almost everything seems to be what I see when I pull up Amazon’s book page minus what is targeted to my purchases. It reminds me of iBooks home page. A combination of, as she says, “books that are already best-sellers” and other things BP hopes I’ll overpay for that I won’t. It is a mass market bookstore.

      • When was the last time Barnes and Noble had any of those books? The only oddballs I find there are different toys or puzzles.

        • B&N stocks a crap ton of genre books. Also much more robust nonfiction, in every category, than what Amazon can do in its footprint. That said, having B&Ns footprint is a losing model in today’s retail economy.

    • I suppose we would have to know the retail tastes and preferences of people who actually read before we could endorse the thesis.

      • Felix J. Torres

        Details, details.
        I mean what does Amazon know about what people buy and read, right?


  2. Ashe Elton Parker

    Considering what this writer had to say about the Amazon Books store, and Gene’s comment above, I’d have to say this is Amazon’s effort to cater to the occasional reader, rather like the Tradpubs seem to with their Hunt For The Next Great Bestseller.

    I tend to think we real readers are more meant to continue frequenting Amazon’s website for the books we want, and if we desire, any local bookshops we may have access to.

  3. Maybe… just maybe, the purpose of the Amazon brick and mortar store is to entice new customers by encouraging people who don’t “actually read” to … read more?

    Stay with me here.

    If you want to expand your customer base, one way to do it is to literally expand the base of potential customers. So much of what I’ve always thought the publishing industry did wrong was how they made reading this elite privileged activity. If you are “a reader” you’re a cut above everyone else. Which is fine if you only want to sell to that self selected group. But that kind of exclusivity is exactly the wrong way to encourage more people to join the group.

    Assuming that the store ISN’T for hardcore readers, but to entice people who don’t normally read to pick up books, it sounds to me like there are some great choices here.

    Turning the books facing outward is huge. It’s much more engaging than an intimidating row of boring spines. The eye is far more likely to see an inspiring image and get drawn in, and you don’t need to know what you are looking for.

    Fewer selections focusing on things that are popular is less intimidating. I’ve had the experience where I walked into a book store and literally did not recognize a single book. It didn’t make me want to buy anything it instead made me feel out of place.

    Having only one or two of the most famous books by a well known writer is a good way to prevent a new customer from being overwhelmed. You don’t want them to feel uneducated, you want them to pick up Steinbeck and give it a try, because they might like it! Likewise mixing “serious” books in with more pop cultural fare doesn’t diminish the serious books. It makes them feel accessible. You can like Carrie Fisher AND read a classic. This presentation sends a message that that’s normal and acceptable.

    • Ashe Elton Parker

      This is a good point, and it makes sense, and could well be what Bezos intends with his B&M bookstore.

    • Your cognomen is well-chosen. A brilliant analysis.

      Even if this is not what Amazon intends with their brick and mortars, it may very well be what it accomplishes.

  4. Patricia Sierra

    I’m going to make a wild guess that Bezos understands what kind of marketing should take place in his B&M stores.

  5. Y’know what is designed for people who read regularly? A Kindle. Beats any B&M bookstore you’ll find for efficiency and variety.

    Also, I’m sure I’ve posted this clip before, but I really do miss the days of this kind of shopping experience in book/music stores, when one could be judged for not buying the right thing (NSFW): https://youtu.be/-ECyX8A3iP0

  6. “This doesn’t stem, necessarily, from my dislike of Amazon itself.”

    Nah, not a bit there bub. No doubt your boss asked you to write this piece because they knew your dislike would put the proper ‘spin’ they wanted on this blog bit.

    Haven’t been to one myself, but I’ll bet it’s better set up to get me to buy something than B&N are – or to get me thinking of hunting something on the web (three guesses which site I might try first.)

    “They exist far less to serve the desires of the reader than to serve the needs of Amazon, a company whose twenty-year campaign to “disrupt” bookstores has now killed off much of the competition, usurped nearly half of the U.S. book market, and brought it back, full circle, to books on shelves.”

    Funny, I missed your column a while back on B&N’s “campaign to “disrupt” bookstores has now killed off much of the competition, usurped [a good chuck] of the U.S. book market.”

    Strange how you and the others saw that as ‘progress’ and Amazon just taking it to the next step as ‘disruptive’.

    Unless you mean the part of Amazon freeing the readers from only seeing what the big publishers/bookstores wanted them to see/buy? All those indie/self publishers that the bookstores ignored being sold on Amazon? Yeah, that was ‘disruptive’, and the only people that have a problem with it are the ones that used to be in control, the old gatekeepers.

  7. What Michael said about Kindles. Looking at the information floating around, and talking to people on Goodreads etc, I find myself thinking that this is probably what is happening: the majority of voracious readers are moving to ebooks.

    Which leaves the occasional readers as the target market for B&M – and for them, as has been said above, you want to stock the books they’ve already heard of, because that’s probably what they came in for. “Have you got ‘The Girl on the Train’?” or whatever the bestseller du jour is. If you haven’t got it, they’ll walk straight back out. If someone is not a keen reader, they’ll go for what’s familiar; once they’re more familiar with the book landscape, then they’ll start to branch out.

    Plus, if you’ve got to pay all the overhead for B&M, you want to be stocking what you can guarantee people are going to buy. And since you don’t have infinite shelf space, that means bestsellers and stuff with a high rating. Because stocking the improving books that people ‘ought’ to be reading has been going so well for the bookselling industry of late…

  8. Desmond X. Torres

    Oh come on!
    THIS is the best hit piece The New Yorker can come up with? Are you freaking kidding me? The frikkin’ ‘tome de la tomes’ of the New York Literati scene could only come up with ‘I don’t like the selection’???

    Where’s Strietfield when ya need him? At least he gave us Whale Math.
    Boring writing- no insight at all, and frankly, immature. For example- why does the writer feel the need to tell us she has a grad degree?

    Look, I know the masthead saying The New Yorker was a dead giveaway that this piece would be negative on the store, but that’s not what I have a problem with. My problem is that it’s so weakly written.

    • For example- why does the writer feel the need to tell us she has a grad degree?

      That goes along with actually reading. It’s a useful class distinction if one wants to speak for people who actually read.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Don’t knock it.
      It’s a conciousness raising piece.
      Now we know we’re fakers, pretend readers, instead of People Who Actually Read™.

  9. The purpose of these stores is no great mystery. It is to showcase AMAZON products, services and yes, books from their publishing labels. Any other purpose would be stupid, in particular trying to service self-important intellectuals who want to browse for books they might have forgotten they want to read.

    Nor is the purpose simply to sell as many books as possible, otherwise, they wouldn’t even bother to carry ANY of the literary fiction titles the writer complains are under represented. Amazon carries just enough of a varied selection to pass muster as a “bookstore” rather than a gadget store and hopefully lure a wide variety of readers (including occasional readers) to buy their stuff.

    The stores provide a great showcase for Amazon’s own publishing arms, which have been boycotted by many indie bookstores. It provides a national print market presence and can be a lost leader that mostly helps with publicity for the books they are promoting.

    It’s perfectly fine for the owner of a bookstore to cater to their own taste, and they can over stock books that don’t sell in mass simply because they like them or they want to appeal to a particular clientele. But the big publishers perverted that system on a national scale for decades by buying up self-space and filling it with books that readers barely were interested in. Their primary goal was not to appeal to readers, but to limit the choices readers have in order to force them to buy what the publishers wanted to sell. That devil’s bargain ultimately drove away readers who then flocked to Amazon online so they could choose what they wanted.

    The irony of all this, is you can be sure that the big publishers will soon start paying Amazon big bucks to try to get their favorite literary darling (or corrupt political paid off with a book deal) into the Amazon B&M. Another win/win for Amazon.

  10. Felix J. Torres

    Okay now, if there is one thing nobody disputes is that bookselling is a pareto-like business: at any point in time a fraction of the books provides the bulk of the sales while the bulk of the books generate a comparative trickle of peak sales, relying instead on the long haul to deliver their return on investment.

    This is hardly news.

    Back in the day, the warehouse bookshops used their promise of a “deep” catalog to draw in traffic, by stocking everything they could cram in that they *thought* might appeal to somebody. A good chunk of that catalog ended up as dust covered decor.

    So, what did the OP actually think Amazon was going to do? Sit on their treasure trove of locality-based reader preference data? Waste floor space and money decorating their stores with books they already know won’t sell enough to justify the space they take up?

    Design a store for literary one percenters instead of a store that might actually turn a steady profit?

    All the OP’s thesis does is prove how they are out of touch with what the masses actually read. Which isn’t what they want them to read. But the fact is Amazon wants mass sales, not the approval of snooty literary types.

    Because a second thing nobody disputes is that focusing a bookstore on the snooty literary types doesn’t pay the bills.

    • All the OP’s thesis does is prove how they are out of touch with what the masses actually read.

      People who actually read would rather go to a NASCAR weekend than share a bookstore with the masses.

      • Felix J. Torres

        I’m starting to wonder if the OP has that term trademarked.

        Maybe we should stick with the acronym version, PWAR, to be safe. That way we can distinguish the PWARs from those of us that only pretend to read.

    • focusing a bookstore on the snooty literary types doesn’t pay the bills.

      Oh yes, let’s look at what she couldn’t find or didn’t buy.

      White Tears – Knopf
      Kindle $13.99, Hard $14.14, Paper $8.70 (used)
      “a smart, incisive portrait of music, male friendship, and race.”
      An Amazon Best Book with 5 print media blurbs.
      31 reviews that fall into a ‘bulge’ pattern – mostly 3 stars.

      The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley – Random House
      Kindle $13.99, Hard $16.08, Paper $17.05
      Something something Dad Criminal and his daughter.
      An Amazon Best Book with 27 (count ’em) print blurbs including Oprah and a number of authors.
      99 reviews in a ‘shelf’ pattern ie, mostly positive.

      The Book of Joan – Harper
      Kindle $12.99, Hard $17.62, Paper $10.86
      gender confused dystopia in space.
      26 print blurbs, at least, NYT cover review, etc.
      26 reviews in a ‘wall’ pattern. The star levels are more or less equal, with as many 1 star reviews as 5 star. The 5 star reviews don’t look very authentic to my eye.

      Like the ‘bulge’ pattern of the first book, the ‘wall’ pattern is an instant turn-off for me.

  11. On principle, I try not to shop at physical stores that don’t accept cash. Based on this article, it doesn’t sound like I’m missing much. And Amazon Books isn’t missing my business too much either. That’s perfectly fine: I’ve too many books to read in my possession already, plus whatever’s available on Project Gutenberg. I do hope Amazon Books converts non-readers into avid readers. That would be so, so lovely.

    If I feel the urge, I can walk twenty minutes to the Harvard Book Store or Porter Square Books. Or The Coop. We vote with our dollars–no need for government intervention (which is what one commenter on Nate’s blog seriously suggested).

    I hope everyone enjoyed May 2017. 🙂

  12. More NYC ADS.

    “Let’s go down to the Amazon Store and hiss Bezos.” (Apologies to FDR.)

    “One store to rule them all.” (Apologies to JRRT.)

    “Winter is coming.” (Apologies to GRRM.)

  13. “Amazon’s Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Are Not Built For People Who Actually Read”

    Actually, they’re not built for people who pen opinion pieces in The New Yorker.

  14. A typical but nevertheless bizarre article. I haven’t been to a physical Amazon store bu t look forward to being able to in the future. Just for a look. I am not interested in purchasing print books.

    What stands out for me in this and other similar articles is the Pollyanna attitude not only towards physical bookstores generally but the big box dinosaurs. The wild cards, deep cuts and oddballs are all certainly available from Amazon online, and in my opinion more easily found. I always found the stock of most book stores, especially large ones, to be depressingly common amongst stores. I would have thought the Amazon stores would stand out from the others simply by offering the Amazon and Indie titles which those others simply refuse to stock. One good reason for Amazon to open such stores is to bring these books to the customers without a Kindle and who they are simply not reaching online.

    Yes, it was nice to be able to kill some free time browsing when there was no alternative, but I find doing so online instead far more satisfactory.

    As for stock levels, I note Shatzkin’s article on the new store talked about stock turnover of between 10% and a massive 30% per week! Also, I imagined the rear wall of an Amazon physical store concealing a window into their nearest warehouse. Combined with fast delivery it would be like a physical bookstore with an almost limitless number of books. Has anyone actually ordered something from a physical Amazon store? Will they let you order something and collect it later from the store? Same day? Next day? Or perhaps staff will help those who need it order for home delivery?

    Combined with the opportunities for data collection and promotion of Prime and other Amazon products including Hardware, these stores are here to stay. And may well attract so-called “people who actually read” simply because they can buy books at these stores which conventional stores refuse to stock. Including some exquisitely boring literary fiction for those who want it.

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