Take a look at this graph. The blue is Amazon’s share of book sales in the past six years. The orange is where we are headed if their average growth rate (8%) continues. If nothing slows their momentum, Amazon will control nearly 80% of the consumer book market by the end of 2025. Every single book lover should worry. After we’re done worrying, we must change the way we buy books.
Books are a fundamental social good that have an outsized impact on our development, individually and collectively. They move us forward. They have been fundamental to our moral and social evolution, our inner lives, and our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. What they give us is too precious to trust to a single entity for whom they are ultimately just a product, and whose algorithms value them only by the revenue and customers they bring in.
Popular books are so deeply discounted on Amazon that other bookstores have found it hard to compete. Why does Amazon sell books at prices so low they lose money? Cheap books are a loss-leader that devalue books to drive competitors out of business and help Amazon gain control of the market, leaving them with near-monopoly power.
What is lost if at the end of 2025, Amazon sells 80% of books in the US? If one mega-retailer has unprecedented control over what everyone reads?
For one thing, diversity. The vast majority of people will be reading the same top-selling books, as determined by Amazon. On Amazon, as The New York Times puts it, “Best Sellers Sell the Best Because They’re Best Sellers”. Amazon is algorithm driven; the books promoted by Amazon are the ones that are already selling well. That makes it very difficult for new authors to build audiences. It keeps lesser known, unconventional books from reaching the readers who would appreciate them. It narrows our national conversation down to a very fine point, and sands the edges off of human ideas and creativity. It excludes marginalized voices. It does to our culture what losing biodiversity does to our environment.
Authors and publishers need to worry. Once Amazon dominates 80% of the book market, who are authors working for? Authors will effectively be producing content for Amazon to sell on commission, and Amazon will have control over the terms. Everything we’ve seen from Amazon indicates that when they have leverage, they use it to squeeze the most profit for themselves at the expense of their partners.
Local bookstores are essential to a healthy culture around books. Independent bookshops are crucial for emerging authors, who find passionate advocates in the booksellers who hand-sell their books and can make their careers. They are where authors meet readers, where book clubs form, where children discover a love of reading, and where schools and businesses partner to increase the impact of worthy books. Every bookstore is an activist for the importance of books in our culture; they are the fertile grounds where all kinds of wild narratives are nurtured and grow.
If Amazon succeeds in putting bookstores out of business, readership will decline and the importance of books in our culture will diminish. Books will not thrive without the advocacy, passion, and resourcefulness of our booksellers.
Booksellers are people so taken by the imagination and insights of books that they have dedicated their working lives to them. Only a very special person makes that choice, and independent bookstores are filled with remarkable people. People with enthusiasm and curiosity, who can press a new book into your hands that you would never have discovered otherwise. We need that humanity in the book market, not algorithms.
I created Bookshop.org, a public benefit corporation, to help independent bookstores compete for online sales. Bookshop.org has just hit a major milestone — in the past 16 months we’ve helped bookstores earn $15,000,000 in profit, providing a lifeline for many stores. We’ve made progress, capturing about 1% of Amazon’s book sales. But it’s not enough. We need to shore up the culture around books against the forces of consolidation and big business. We need to make this a movement.
It’s easy to make the switch from buying books on Amazon to supporting local indie bookstores. Most stores have their own websites, and buying directly from them is the best way to support them. Ask your favorite store how best to support them. Bookshop.org and IndieBound both have maps that help you to find a local store to support. You can help spread the word by linking to your favorite store or Bookshop.org when you post about books on social media. Or, support Barnes & Noble, which in many parts of the country are the only local bookstores serving those communities.
It’s more than just bookstores that need our support, of course. Main streets and downtowns are the hearts of our towns and cities. We need community spaces. They are where we meet our neighbors, see our friends. We’ve all seen what happens when storefronts are shuttered and towns are hollowed out, the malaise and decay that replaces formerly vibrant spaces. Human contact, belonging, and a sense of meaning in our work and lives is what makes people happy. Those things happen on a local level. When we order online, we can do so in a way that supports local businesses who pay taxes that support local infrastructure.
The future is not something that happens to us. It is something we create. People all over the world are waking up to the fact that our small choices–from buying local, to recycling, to choosing clean energy, and shopping from ethical companies–are shaping the world that we live in. I want my children to grow up in a world that includes thousands of bookstores; if you do too, we need to change our habits.
If you agree, please share this essay, and tell people you’re committed to buying your books from local bookstores.
Sources for the #s in the graph above:
2015: roughly 35% https://www.statista.com/statistics/534111/amazon-book-market-share-usa/
2020: while book sales are not broken out separately, Amazon’s overall sales surged 38% overall during the pandemic, so 54% of the book market in 2020 is probably an under-estimate. https://www.seattletimes.com/business/amazon/amazon-posts-record-sales-and-profit-with-no-slowing-expected/