By Katharine Schwab, The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — In this city famous for its independent bookstores and pungent coffee shops — brick-and-mortar institutions that value touch, taste and long, rainy afternoons — a high-profile conflict about the business of selling e-books has left many readers feeling conflicted.
Their dilemma: balancing an addiction to the convenient and wallet-friendly services of the local Internet giant with their devotion to the local literary culture.
“I’ve spent more on Amazon just to support them just because everyone was boycotting them,” said Peg Manning, an Orcas Island, Washington, resident and self-described Amazon junkie who also loves wandering into her local bookstore with her granddaughter.
The boycotts Manning referred to have grown out of a three-month contract dispute between Amazon and multinational publisher Hachette. The companies are fighting over the pricing of e-books, with Hachette accusing Amazon of demanding unreasonably low prices and an increased percentage of sales.
Amazon has applied pressure on Hachette by delaying shipping and disabling preorders of the publisher’s titles, including J.K. Rowling’s latest book, The Silkworm, under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Because of its status as the largest distributor of books, Amazon’s tactics in the Hachette dispute have grabbed headlines and polarized consumers and authors. One national survey indicates some consumers are voting with their wallets — against Amazon — and an informal poll in Seattle shows the issue playing out at cash registers here, too.
In June, comedian Stephen Colbert, whose books are published by Hachette, shoved his middle finger through an Amazon shipping box during his late-night Comedy Central show. He and his guest that night, author Sherman Alexie, eviscerated Amazon. And Colbert encouraged viewers to use Portland-based Powell’s Books for online orders of Edan Lepucki’s California, a book Alexie was recommending. (Online sales at Powell’s shot through the roof, and there are 326 holds on California at the Seattle Public Library, two months later.)
Along with many well-known Northwest authors, including Maria Semple, Erik Larson, Garth Stein, Cheryl Strayed and Carol Cassella, Alexie’s names appeared in an anti-Amazon full-page advertisement in the Aug. 10 Sunday edition of The New York Times.
In bookish and techie Seattle, you don’t have to look far to find readers who have been impacted by the conflict.
Retiree Jon Sims of the Laurelhurst neighborhood has a Kindle and has bought about 10 e-books on Amazon over the past few months. But after years of buying only online, he’s bought about 15 books in print and avoids shopping on Amazon as much as he can.
“I’ve tried much harder to go to brick-and-mortar stores,” he said. “It’s a slow accumulation of what you learn about Amazon’s business practices over the years, but the Hachette dispute was probably the tipping point.”
Small contradictions — the Amazon lover who also supports the local bookstore, and the Amazon skeptic who still buys e-books for his Kindle — point to internal conflicts for readers who are becoming more and more aware of their purchasing power.
It’s a classic case of convenience versus conscience.
At a recent gathering of Seattle’s Meetup Book Club, for readers in their twenties and thirties, 11 members were split between those who prioritize convenience and those who view Amazon’s business practices as monopolistic and strong-arm.
But even during a civil discussion among the reasonable book-clubbers, it became clear this is a touchy subject in the land of Amazon.
One member, his Kindle resting on the table in front of him, said he was an ex-Amazon employee. He didn’t say much else. Down the table, a woman called Amazon a book bully, citing concerns about the company’s growing power. She emailed later asking that her name not be used because she works in tech and doesn’t want to limit future job opportunities.
Others in the group said the dispute didn’t affect them. Many buy their books at used bookstores, but believe their book group is unusual in its support of independent businesses when there are cheaper options.
Regardless of their personal preferences, almost everyone agreed the conversation about Amazon and the publishing world is one worth having. “It makes you think about your purchasing decisions and gives you an opportunity to think outside the box,” said Trinh Truong, the club’s organizer. “It’s important to be informed as book consumers.”
Around the region, booksellers have noted that customers seem to be more aware of their purchasing power. “Our customers are definitely interested in chatting about this,” said Susan Scott, the manager of Secret Garden Books in the Ballard neighborhood, which recently displayed Hachette titles in its window and received a positive response from patrons. “The dispute brought some aspects of Internet commerce to their attention that they hadn’t stopped to consider.”
Others took greater steps to capitalize on the conflict. Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books hand-delivered copies of The Silkworm to those who preordered at Third Place.
“Here’s the biggest bookstore in the world, and they are withholding books. That’s so antithetical to our ethics as booksellers,” he said. “I wanted to do something to remind people what being a bookseller is all about.”
Many readers are less concerned about Hachette’s bottom line and more worried about the effect the dispute will have on authors.
Local writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a Hachette author who says her book sales have been affected, claims Amazon’s tactics stifle “ideas and art and a marketplace” because “they are not working in the interest of authors.”
“Amazon’s reach is just so much farther than it should be,” she said. “It can be really harmful and restricting to authors’ projects.”
Still, Haupt has $150 in Amazon gift cards from friends, and she plans to use them.
Bainbridge Island novelist Jonathan Evison, who spends at least $100 at independent bookstores each month, takes more of a hard-line approach to Amazon, which he believes is seeking world domination (though he has friends who work at the company, and “they’re good people”).
“For me, the robber-baron tactics are symptomatic of the bigger issues,” he said. “What happens to the national conversation when we are all talking to a search engine instead of each other?”
As authors and the press theorize about the future of media consumption and bemoan the future of publishing, The Seattle Times reached out to dozens of book-club members by email to ask their views. More than 40 responded, and just over 50 percent of them said they care about the result of the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Of those, about a fourth has changed their buying habits. Nationally, about 7.5 percent of book buyers are buying less from Amazon because of the conflict, according to one survey by The Codex Group LLC, a book audience research firm.
“I am like 99.99 percent of the consumers out there,” said local author Robert Dugoni, who was previously published by Hachette but is currently under contract with Thomas & Mercer, one of Amazon’s publishing imprints. “I will always look for a product at the best price and the most convenient way of buying it. It’s hard to pass up the opportunity to sit at your computer, buy a product, and have it delivered to your home two days later.”
Dugoni, who buys all his e-books on Amazon and makes half of his paper purchases at independent bookstores, is convinced that the buck stops with book buyers.
“What a consumer is willing to pay will dictate what companies are going to do.”
AFP Photo/ Emmanuel Dunand