The best way to understand what bookselling is like right now is to understand what selling coffee was like in the late 90s. Back then, while Starbucks store launches were routinely protested, the Seattle-based company’s growth was accelerating. If you were involved in roasting or selling coffee, it was beginning to seem as though you’d eventually either have to entertain the possibility of a Starbucks buyout, or find yourself dead by their hand.
There was nothing really wrong with Starbucks. The company was expertly run, and, though coffee snobs proclaim Starbucks’ offerings taste like dishwater, it was Starbucks that introduced ‘coffee snobbery’ to the United States in the first place. Yes, the company destroyed competitors through predatory pricing, but that’s not strictly ‘evil’: that’s business. The real issue with Starbucks was philosophical: monopolies, as a rule, aren’t good for culture. Monopolies make things boring.
Amazon is Starbucks. At this stage, in 2013, Amazon is so powerful that their eventual dominance of the entire publishing industry has already been written. After doing away with Barnes & Noble, Amazon will focus on more fully controlling publishers. In a decade, Amazon will either control one or more of the Big Six, or, more likely, they’ll have made the Big Six irrelevant.
This is very scary indeed. After all, books aren’t cups of coffee. If one company controls coffee, that’s a bummer, but if one company controls books, we’re in Orwell territory.
So it’s interesting to examine what happened to the coffee industry over the last decade. Starting around the mid 90s, entrepreneurial coffee enthusiasts began to accept that Starbucks wasn’t going away. Now, the question: was it possible to run an independent coffee shop in the shadow of Starbucks? Roasters and retailers like Portland’s Stumptown and Chicago’s Intelligentsia decided to change the rules and offer value Starbucks couldn’t. Beans were roasted on site, sourced from a single origin, and brewed using alternative methods. These brewers laid the groundwork for what is referred to as the ‘Third Wave Coffee’ movement. Over the last decade, the Third Wave has been responsible for the re-diversification of the coffee market. Starbucks is still the biggest player, but the Third Wave has proven that an exciting, non-homogenous coffee culture can thrive without Starbucks having to lose.
So, let’s accept that Amazon will continue to grow. Can we create an interesting and vibrant culture around bookselling in Amazon’s shadow? If we take old-fashioned bricks-n-mortar bookstores as the ‘First Wave’, and Amazon as the ‘Second Wave’, what could ‘Third Wave Bookselling’ look like?
Right now, we’re at the beginning of shaping this culture. Instead of accepting Amazon’s dominance, many booksellers are still in denial, believing that weak, well-intentioned initiatives like National Bookshop Day can pull customers back from Amazon’s clutches; or are simply depressed, resigned to Amazon rendering them irrelevant.
Third Wave booksellers won’t really need to worry about Amazon, because they’ll be playing a different game. Instead of attempting to compete with Amazon, they’ll specifically exist to offer products and services Amazon can’t or won’t. Third Wave booksellers probably won’t try to compete on price or convenience, because that’s where Amazon excels, but perhaps they’ll compete on quality, or fun, or community. The first step is figuring out what Amazon can’t do, and then building around that.
What does Third Wave Bookselling look like? I’m not sure Third Wave booksellers will share many defining traits, and maybe that will be part of the point. A Third Wave bookstore could exist online or offline, and it could sell the same books as Amazon, but in a different way, or unique work you can’t find elsewhere.
In San Francisco, 826 Valencia is an organization that runs writing programs for young people, as well as a bookshop that doubles as a ‘pirate supplies’ store. In Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Art Library lets you browse through a huge catalogue of unique artist sketchbooks and add your own to the library, which makes me wonder about the viability of a hypothetical Third Wave bookstore full of unique, one-off titles. Online, StoryBundle sells curated packages of multiple ebooks from independent authors using a ‘pay what you want’ model. Byliner is an online bookseller-cum-publisher trafficking in short works of nonfiction (that also uses Amazon for distribution). On Kickstarter, writers are crowdfunding the publication of their own work, essentially taking on the role of bookseller themselves.
Just as the rise of Starbucks was what precipitated the rise of Third Wave coffee shops, what will make Third Wave bookstores fun is seeing how they play off Amazon’s peculiar weaknesses. No matter how much of the publishing industry Amazon manages to swallow, there will always be opportunities for booksellers to operate in its shadow. The most successful booksellers will the ones able to make themselves comfortable there.
Connor Tomas O’Brien is a Killings columnist. An Adelaide-based web designer, he’s currently working on a PhD in the form of a novel exploring the intersection between text adventure games, cults, and Facebook. He’s the co-founder of the ebookstore platform Tomely.