Before we dive right in, I want to make clear that I make my living by selling books in a brick-and-mortar shop. I am biased toward shops and strongly oppose the price wars initiated by Amazon over the last set of years. This phenomenon is often blamed on large-chain book retailers, but the reality is that Amazon and non-book stores like Sam's Club and Target are the culprits – everyone else has to follow suit.
This article is not objective journalism.
Amazon's got Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for $17.99. At most brick-and-mortar shops, you'll get it for around $20.99 at the cheapest – that's 40% off. While the difference to the consumer may be an every-penny-counts $3.00, neither bookstores nor Amazon will be pulling a profit on this title. Brick-and-mortar stores have bills to pay, much greater payroll demands, and an expensive midnight release party to coordinate. Amazon's revenue from the title goes straight into their free shipping offered for it.
In an effort to compete with the online retailer, Borders stores are offering free shipping on the title if you prepay for your copy. The books are "shipping to arrive" on the release date of July 21st and since there's no real money spent to process the books this way, are able to turn a small profit on these sales.
Brick-and-mortar need the topline sales of HP right now, but make no mistake: as business models go, if every book release worked like Harry Potter, within ten years Amazon would be your only choice for books.
Publishing workes on "fixed pricing" structure – which means that titles are priced by the publisher, and no one can mark up from there. Units are aquired at a discount and the store sells these items at publisher's price. The difference between the discounted wholesale price and the publisher's price on the book is profit, which after payroll, rent, training expenses, and other overhead is reduced down to mere pennies (or a penny) on the dollar. Amazon, with significantly reduced overhead, can afford to pull really close to that wholesale price.
Two nights ago, I had one of those rare experiences that fuels me through the toughest times in bookselling – a true connection and positive sales experience. A father-and-son duo with tastes very similar to mine (both of them, though they both were very different) who, over the course of several interactions, exhibited a hunger for titles and authors both new and old to them. I spent a total of probably around 30 minutes with them dashing from literature to hand over Tom McCarthy's Remainder to SciFi, where I reinvigorated the father's passion for Philip K. Dick and handed the son his first copies of George Martin's A Game of Thrones and Herbert's Dune. It was a slam-bang interaction, myself grinning gleefully as I summoned title after title, ricocheting off the father's sly remarks of "already read that, read that one, read that, ok, show me that one!" At the end of the night, the two of them walked away with about $75.00 more in merchandise than they would have without me – very important to the store, but more important to me: they walked away not only with an enriching experience but with several titles that I felt they should have and exposure to titles they wouldn't otherwise have known. I'm a pro at that, and my job is to create a store full of people who are also pros.
It's called bookselling, and it is an addictive drug. Unfortunately, more and more of these interactions are missing from the lives of brick-and-mortar booksellers because people "can get it cheaper online" (the dreaded mantra of death to booksellers.)
I had a heartbreaking experience several weeks ago: a $200.00 return that a woman was making because she hadn't realized the books would be cheaper online. I spent a lot of time talking with this woman, practically pleading with her. She could obviously sense my distress, but at the end of the day, price won and we processed the return.
Sure, Amazon's got lower prices, and through book reviews and algorithms some of the cross-selling potential that can be obtained through a bookseller. I ask you this, though: can Amazon bring you face-to-face with an author that you love? Can Amazon hand you a book and say with utter sincerity, "you're going to love this." Can Amazon read your kids a book once or twice a week and do crafts with them afterwards? And let's not forget the sensual pleasure of browsing – the smell and feel of books, a comfortable chair, some jazz piping overhead? Not to mention Amazon's terrible service; I can't imagine why anyone would risk subjecting themselves to the task of getting a problem resolved on Amazon more than once.
These things and a list of countless others may seem trivial to you – unimportant compared to the steeper discount you'd get by ordering online. Trust me when I tell you, though, that they're the kind of thing you'd miss if it were gone. One day you just may take a look around, albiet with a much fuller wallet, and find online to be your only choice for purchasing books. No one wants to spend more money for the same item – we all shop for car insurance, books, cars, houses, etc., to find the best deal. The point that seems to be lost is that your extra few dollars into the bookstore buys you more than that object – you're not just purchasing, you're interacting and supporting a culture that is in increasing danger of being lost.
When Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince was released, thousands flocked to bookstores to participate in their midnight release parties. Enthralled and buzzing with anticipation, the crowds awaiting the toll of the clock, and at 12:01 am, the registers started beeping, spines were cracked, and a week of sleep-deprivation ensued as readers lost themselves in the world of Harry Potter once again. The winner of the costume contest at my store on the Main Line in Pennsylvania was a 7-year old boy in full Potter garb including thick black glasses and an etched scar on his forehead. His prize was to be the first to get a book, and the Main Line times snapped an incredibly memorable photo of his adoring, smiling face as he took the book from the cashier. That's good stuff. You don't get the same magic from a picture of a boy clicking their mouse.