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Indies vs. Amazon? Maybe it’s time for a new game

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I’ve been thinking about writing something about Indiebound (the indie bookstore website) vs. Amazon for awhile but I couldn’t decide if, as an author, it was my place. But then I read this op-ed about it at Publishers Weekly, which very much centered authors in the discussion, and I thought: yes. Let’s talk. Because I have Thoughts.

First, a preamble: I love indie bookstores. I love them as a reader, and I love them as an author, and I love them as someone who scratched out their living with a small creative business before I became an author. Over the last decade, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting ever so many indie booksellers, all of them vibrant and tenacious humans, and I’ve also had the pleasure of working with Fountain Bookstore in the US, Seven Stories in the UK, and Mabel’s Fables in Canada for every one of my releases, offering cool stuff to readers in a way I never could with a big box store.

I want a world full of indies. I can’t say “I’m on your side” because I feel like I am your side. I’m in this with you, and have been for a decade.

So I mean it fondly when I say: I think this conversation of “how do we fight Amazon” is absolute folly.

Indies cannot beat Amazon at their own game. Indies can’t even play that game. Let’s be perfectly honest: indies don’t want to. Because here’s the game Amazon’s playing: the buy a book and a cheap cotton hoodie and oh-right-I-bet-Amazon-might-have-that-organic-cheese-cracker-I-like-with-free-shipping game.

You’re trying to take down a grocery store. You’re trying to take down a place people can also buy paper towels, diapers, and electronics. Is that what you signed up for?

Paul Swydan’s op-ed in PW suggests that “IndieBound Needs a Makeover If It’s Going to Fight Amazon.” There are some really thought-provoking points in his piece (hi, Paul!), but it’s still framing the conversation the same way as always: Indies vs. Amazon. That’s a brutal match I’ve already seen playing out for the last few years. Fight? Books vs. diapers. At the end of the day, it still asks readers to compare a website featuring unlimited books at slashed prices and free shipping with a website featuring unlimited books at full price with variable shipping . . . and to choose the latter based upon principle.

That’s not a business model. It’s a religion.

I agree with Paul: Indiebound desperately needs a facelift. But I think its facelift should be less about getting more links to and “beating Amazon” and more about remembering what indie bookstores do better — and then bringing that experience online. The hard truth is that even if becomes every bit as sophisticated an experience as, Amazon is still going to be carrying the exact same titles at 40% less. If the playing field is leveled, you’re still asking the consumer to choose Indiebound only on principle. Buy one book from Indiebound and know that a far off indie that you might not visit gets to survive another day, or buy two books from Amazon and get it in two days with Prime shipping. Hmmm . . .

But luckily for indies, there are things they do better than Amazon. In particular, there are things independent bookstores have that Amazon never will: booksellers. Booksellers are humans who sell books. I think I’m going to put that on a line by itself.

Booksellers are humans who sell books.

They are indies themselves — individuals. Not only do they curate the impossibly huge selection, making it easier to make a decision by providing an emotional and subjective framework (the kind we fellow humans appreciate), they can give you hidden backstory and insider gossip on a book. Not only do you get a “if you like this book, you’ll probably also like this one,” but you can also often get a “this author once came to the store for an event on an elephant and their hair smelled nice, too” or whatever. Not only do you get a “Publisher Weekly gave this a starred review,” you can also get a “when I finished this book, I cried in the shower for three hours.”

This is the indie bookseller experience, and this is what I think Indiebound should encapuslate.

Imagine a world where when you searched for CALL DOWN THE HAWK by Maggie Stiefvater, you found the Indiebound page for it and clicked. What’s on this page? The book cover, the description, a ‘find it at my closest indie’ button and a ‘ship it to my home’ button with standardized shipping cost across all US indie bookstores. Standard stuff.

Imagine there is also ‘Books also by Maggie Stiefvater.’ Also, books you might like if you also liked Stiefvater’s previous series, selected by booksellers (not by the publisher, because God love them, but they cannot be trusted to not simply self promote an imprint). Imagine everything has attractive buy buttons and standardized bundled shipping prices should readers decide to impulsively grab everything in sight. Below, attractively formatted, is an interview with a bookseller who got an early copy and is dying to talk about it. Blurbs from four other booksellers talking about either the book or the author or related books. An interview with the author telling you some fun facts about art forgery or magic or both. A sidebar with pre-order incentives available only from indies: signed copies, bookplates, special swag. Events at indies coming up. Maybe a few other attractively formatted odds and ends about the book — audiobook samples, playlists, alternative covers, articles about the book’s subject matter or interesting facets of the author’s life. All on one site, not requiring the reader to click away to actually acquire the book.

As a reader, that’s an experience I could dig. That would be like thousands upon thousands of standardized author sites that I didn’t have to hunt down, all of them nicely formatted for my smart phone, giving me a personal, indie experience for each of the books I browse.

That’s worth list price.

Does a site like this sound impossible to auto-populate? Yeah, it does (And if it is possible to autopopulate, I think it’s probably not being done right.) I think a vibrant Indiebound site is one that requires booksellers — because that’s exactly what makes indies better than Amazon. Make the online experience as colorful and living as the in-person one.

I also think Indiebound can ask for author and publisher involvement. It would be an easy enough pre-publication step for publishers and authors to provide unique content. We’d be all over it — we want to send our readers to indies, and we want them to be informed, and we want them to click ‘save on shipping when you bundle three books or more’ or whatever, and we all saw You’ve Got Mail and want to do our part to make the world a more interesting place full of independent bookshops.

Independent bookstores are unique and full of things you can’t find anywhere else. should be no different.

I, for one, am tired of watching Indies vs. Amazon. I don’t like to see my faves getting punched down again and again because they’ve been put in a ring with a giant.

Let’s go play a different game, okay? You’re already good at it. Lemme know if I can help.  

Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

How I Write

Maggie Stiefvater Novels

Copyright 2012