Church Street versus Amazon: The Battle for Books

We try not to talk about Amazon much on this blog, or on anything that Church Street produces. It’s a subject that means a lot to us (me and Cal, especially), but it’s also a difficult topic. We started Church Street because we want to bring people together, to foster community, and talking about something like Amazon can divide us instead of bringing us together. But now that The New York Times and The Colbert Report are talking about Amazon’s latest abuses, lots of our customers and readers have been asking what’s going on. So we decided it’s time to talk. Because community is a big reason we started Church Street Coffee & Books, and intelligent debate is an important part of building community.


photo(1146)For more on why controlling books is a bad idea, read Fahrenheit 451. To buy these (completely amazing) banned books matches, visit Out of Print Clothing.


Amazon controls most of the book market, and we believe this is dangerous, because we don’t want our books to be controlled by any one entity. When that happens, the very ideas that shape who we are as people (and as a community) become subject to the whims of one organization. That’s a problem.


That’s exactly what’s been happening for the past month over at Amazon. Here’s what’s up: Amazon wanted a bigger cut of ebook profits from the publisher Hachette, and when Hachette said no, Amazon started punishing their authors. When you search for a book by big Hachette authors like Malcolm Gladwell or Stephen Colbert, you get a message that the book won’t ship for two to three WEEKS — an eternity in Amazon-time. (The books are sitting in Amazon’s warehouses and ready to ship. They’re refusing to ship them to punish the publisher, even though it hurts customers.) Smaller Hachette authors are being hit even harder: If you search for one of their books, Amazon displays a prominent message encouraging you to buy a different title they say is similar and much cheaper (because they’ve raised the price on the Hachette books, too). Also, Amazon has taken the pre-order option off of Hachette titles. Pre-order numbers are a big help to publishers in figuring out how many books to print, so without Amazon’s pre-order numbers, fewer books are likely to be printed in the first place.


This is bad for us as readers, and it’s bad for our communities and for our country. Now, Amazon’s screwing around with books because they’re not getting the price they want (a price that hurts artists and writers, by the way). What happens when they decide that certain political books hurt their business, or when it’s not good for their stock price to carry religious books? This is the danger of putting so much of one industry, and especially an important industry like books, into the hands of one company.


Books aren’t trivial. They contain ideas that shape who we are as people. Their philosophies — and free access to their philosophies, not access dependent on the whims of one company — are the building blocks of a free society. Books (and pamphlets, and papers) are what built our republic in the first place. The stories we find in books connect us to each other and help us understand and empathize with people who are different than we are.


Cal and I sell books because we really believe these things. I don’t hate Amazon because I own a small bookstore — I own a small bookstore because I hated what Amazon was doing to books, so when I had the opportunity to be a part of the fight against them, even in a small way by opening an independent bookstore, I stepped forward. My part in the fight for our books was to start a bookstore. Chances are, yours starts with buying a book. Come into Church Street and see what it’s like to have free access to books — what we don’t have, we’ll order for you, regardless of whether or not we like the publisher. (Want proof? One of our biggest sellers is an Amazon-published title. I don’t agree with the company, but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to withhold ideas from my customers.) Come take a shot at having your next book picked out by a human being instead of an algorithm. Oh, and you can get a pretty great latte and a Breakup Cookie, too.


If you’re interested in learning more, Colbert has some great videos on the topic over on his site. Here’s Colbert with author Sherman Alexie, and here’s a follow up Colbert video mentioning other Hachette authors like Malcolm Gladwell and J.K. Rowling. You’ll see in these videos that the Edan Lepucki book, California, has become a bit of a poster child for the anti-Amazon movement, so if you’d like to pre-order the ebook through Church Street, the link is below.


Carrie Rollwagen is co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee & Books, and independent bookstore and coffee shop in Birmingham, Alabama.

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