- Three Found Haiku from the Found Poetry Project: McDonald’s, the YMCA, and Beverly, MA, through a poet’s eye
- Geek the library: how does your library bring out your inner geek?
- Partially Clips: This is Not a Metaphor: from way back in May–talking animals = parable
- James Kelman rues Booker prize win from Times Online: also from May, James Kelman reflects on the negative aspects of winning the Booker in 1994 for his phenomenal novel How Late It Was, How Late (if you haven’t read this novel yet, you must; it’s the best adult read-aloud since Ulysses, but make sure the weens are abed: it contains 4,000+ occurrences of a solid Anglo-Saxon word starting with “F” worth at least 13 Scrabble points)
- Authors lobby UK government for statutory school libraries from the Guardian: Philip Pullman, Michael Rosen and Francesca Simon petition for universal access to quality public school libraries; and, to paraphrase Sammy from Mr. Kelman’s book, for f*** sake, why shouldn’t all kids have access to a f***ing library?
It’s been over a month since the #amazonfail brouhaha swept Twitter and the web, which is about a century in Internet time. Since then, the Twitterati have moved on to more pressing issues (“#3turnoffwords” and “Patrick Swayze” are trending to the top of the Twitterverse as I write this). The questions that the fiasco raised have largely gone unanswered.
I don’t live at Internet speeds, though, so I’ve continued to think about what Amazon’s flub means and what can be done about it. My own sphere of influence is pretty tiny, but I’ve finished up a little project that is my own practical response to the Amazon leviathan: a WordPress plugin called BookLinker that makes switching from the Amazon affiliate program, or at least augmenting Amazon with other resources, a whole lot simpler. You can read about all the geeky stuff that went into this plugin here; more important, though, are the reasons behind this project.
Why link to books?
Web sites that review books, or discuss books, or otherwise have a bookish nature, typically provide their readers to some sort of external link to the books in question. There are some good reasons for this:
- The linked pages provide some additional context for the book: reviews, author biography, history, etc. The thing that sets a web review apart from a print review is that the context can be made richer by relying on external resources, and the review itself can be made leaner by leaving a lot of expository and extraneous information to those outside sources.
- Readers should be able to get their hands on the book quickly if it interests them. Being able to buy the book, or request it from your library, while you’re reading the review, is a great service to readers; I can add an intriguing title to my reading queue with a few clicks of the mouse, and not have to scribble down notes on a 3×5 card.
- The affiliate programs offered by Amazon, Powells, and IndieBound can be valuable for some high-traffic sites; these programs are a key source of income on really popular and successful book review sites. For the less popular sites, they don’t really offer much payment, though the occasional windfall is nice enough.
The web is all about linking, and so linking to book sites should be a key piece of Internet book reviews.
Why link to Amazon?
Amazon is by far the biggest player in the book link world, for some good reasons:
- The depth of selection is astounding; most books that are in print are available on Amazon, and through the relationships that Amazon has forged with used book retailers, lots of out of print books are easy to find as well. If you want to review it or read it, Amazon probably has it.
- For the reviewer/blogger, Amazon’s tools are the best. The link-creating widgets are nicely integrated into the site, so in just a few clicks you can generate a nicely-formatted affiliate link to a book and paste it into your page. By contrast, IndieBound has one link format that can be created from the book pages (easy enough for an HTML-savvy writer to tweak, but not as intuitive as Amazon’s options), and Powell’s requires you to enter your affiliate ID and the book’s ISBN on a separate screen, making two-tab browsing an annoying requirement.
- Amazon is ubiquitous. For better or worse, it’s the default on-line shopping destination not only for books, but also for CDs, toys, electronics, and household goods, and a huge player in digital downloads as well. Most people who are going to buy something on-line probably have an Amazon account already, and are more likely to buy from Amazon simply because they’re familiar with it. Getting someone to buy a book from Powell’s, or go through an independent bookseller through IndieBound, is an uphill struggle.
- Amazon has economy of scale. Its prices are low, its discounts are deep, and its shipping policies make it easy to buy an extra little something on impulse for the “free” postage.
- The Amazon web site is very rich in content; there are lots of reviews (some better than others), links to related books, and information about authors and publishers. Most of this content is in service of selling books, of course, but that doesn’t detract from its usefulness to the reader.
That’s a lot of inertia, which makes the lack of serious change after the #amazonfail fiasco unsurprising.
Why NOT link to Amazon?
For some people, the #amazonfail event–the sudden, apparently accidental, de-listing of a whole range of gay and lesbian titles–was enough to make them stop linking to or buying from Amazon. It’s the sort of issue that a small number of people feel strongly enough about to change their behavior, like not buying lettuce during the Chavez boycott or steering clear of Coors beer (and not just because it’s a lousy beer). But it’s not sufficient to get enough people exercised to really shift the marketplace in on-line book buying.
For me, there are two other compelling, and related, reasons to avoid buying from Amazon. And though I thought that the #amazonfail event was badly handled by Amazon, and the arbitrariness of the flub was offensive, I think these are more important reasons.
First, Amazon represents a monoculture in the book marketplace. They’re not really a monopoly–there are other places to get books, and they don’t get any particular government largess (that I know of, at least) to support their business–but they are so gigantic that they set the tone for everyone else. Indeed, their ubiquity gives them incredible power over how we read. The danger with a monoculture, though, is that it makes the entire ecosystem vulnerable to the ailments of the big player: when Amazon de-lists a whole class of books, or promotes certain kinds of books more than others, or introduces proprietary technology (like the Kindle) that locks users into a particular stream of content, the quality of the entire book world suffers.
We saw a similar invasive monoculture in the book world in the 1990s, when the big chain stores–particularly Barnes & Noble and Borders–started to squeeze independent booksellers with their low prices and deceptively wide selections. (Full disclosure: I was a Barnes & Noble bookseller myself for about five years, though I remained a lowly floor walker for my tenure.) The sheer mass of the chain stores shifted the way publishers worked with retailers, and affected the kinds of books that got attention on the sales floor. But once the wonder of the big box book store wears off, most readers will discover a numbing sameness to them all.
And that’s the other, related, reason that I’m now starting to steer my readers toward IndieBound rather than Amazon. IndieBound is an umbrella site for the American Bookseller Association, made up primarily of small, independent bookstores. Unlike Amazon, IndieBound directs your dollars to a store near you, a store run by local people who know and love books and readers. Rather than “crowd-sourcing” books through Amazon’s ranks and comments, independent booksellers are hands-on matchmakers, trying to connect readers with books based on human interaction. At an independent bookstore, you’ll be offered suggestions based on insights rather than algorithms.
I’ve also included, in my WordPress plugin, links to the other way to get books: your local library. My book “shopping” lately has been confined to the library, and I’ve been very happy with how that’s worked out. My local library is an easy walk away, and the online book ordering system means that I can get books delivered there from any branch in Hennepin county or, with a little more effort, from a good number of places around the country. And if the book isn’t in Minneapolis, I can probably find it across the river in St. Paul. WorldCat links the catalogs of many libraries and makes finding the books you want almost as easy as Amazon does. And if you think independent booksellers are book people, just wait until you meet your librarian.