I felt a close friendship with Amazon. We talked a lot, so much so that he had no problem recommending interesting books to me. (The “he” of Amazon is not a gender statement. It was just easier for Amazon to be a guy so that things didn’t get confusing between us spending so much time together.) Though he didn’t tell me much about the books he recommended, he introduced me to others so they could give me their opinions. Another marker of our friendship was that Amazon “hooked a brother up.” He gave me great prices on books, most often the cheapest in North America. Basically, he was more than a friend, he was my drug dealer. I’m always looking to get my book fix, whether or not I actually read them or not. I want to read them, but then I also want to read the next one I buy. The pattern continues as long as I’m getting my fix.
There has been some tension in our friendship as of recently, though. This was prompted by starting to work at the Regent Bookstore, and getting to know the book industry a little bit more. Throw in the fact that Regent feels as though it needs to comment “thoughtfully” on every addiction of my life with prerogatives like community, embodiedness, social enterprise, and has thus forced me to ponder how I buy books. Could my pal Amazon be the anti-Christ? Let me explain what I mean, by starting with the financial side of book selling.
Publishers produce books and sell them to bookstores (either through a distributor, or directly). The standard discount given to bookstores is 40%, give or take a few percentage points. The bookstore will then sell it at the normal price, and take that 40% as profit. So, a bookstore would make $8 for a $20 book. So, let’s take a small bookstore in Vancouver whose owner needs $45,000 a year to live ($3750 monthly). He hires one full time employee ($10 an hour X 40 hours x 4 weeks = $1600). We will put rent at $2500 a month. We are then looking at $7850 needed per month. Divide that by $8, and the owner would need to sell 982 books (costing $20) every month. That’s a lot of books for a small bookstore, and I’m being very conservative on the expenses.
Now, notice at Regent Bookstore (who has 2-3 people working a shift plus a full-time manager), there is a 20% discount on all books bought in store. This is to remain competitive, but the profit then cuts in half. There are now twice as many books that need to be sold then before. In addition, the shipping costs are often much higher for Canadian bookstores since they get a majority of their books from the United States. Whereas bookstores usually get free shipping from major distributors if in the United States, the added cost of moving them through customs is passed on to the bookstores in Canada. That, along with currency differences, has been the major reason for higher prices in Canada than in the States.
With this in view, how does Amazon make its profit? Most of its books (on the U.S. site) are discounted 32%, and often more. This would give them an 8% profit margin. Even supposing that the distributor has given then an additional 5% discount, it would only be 13% profit. It would be $2.60 profit per $20 book. But, then you have to subtract the cost of postage which Amazon absorbs to provide free shipping, bringing it to very little. With millions of dollars of monthly expenses to pay staff, rent, website maintenance, etc., books will not do. That’s why they have the Amazon Marketplace. Books get you in the store and still generate minor profits with the large volume they sell. But, it is the purchase of other things that generate its real profit. It is similar to grocery stores taking a loss on milk so that people will come into the store and buy other products.
Now, in many ways this is smart business, if making profit is the end goal. Plus, it only helps me out because the noble and godly act of reading a book becomes more affordable. I can buy more books for less money!!! As a student, every penny counts.
However, working at what is becoming more and more rare, a physical bookstore, I realize that every book purchase with Amazon is placing a vote for more and more bookstores closing down, because they don’t have an Amazon Market place that allows them to sell books so cheaply.
I think this would be tragic for many reasons, but let me just close with one that I think captures it most clearly for me.
Bill Reimer came to Regent Bookstore in 1989, and has since be a positive force in expanding its presence. As Kim Boldt, the overly competent assistant manager, described Bill’s impact to me saying, “He developed and grew Regent Audio, launched Regent Publishing, and has kept Regent Bookstore successful during booksellings best and worst times.” He knows Christian publishing inside and out. One of my favorite parts of working at the bookstore is picking out a random book from the shelf and asking him to tell me about it. Almost always he is able to provide a brief summary. As well, he usually gives additional information on the author’s life, what he/she is doing now, and what he likes about him/her. It is quite amazing.
It is why Regent has such an amazing collection of high quality books. Bill is intimately aware with what is out there, he is well-read (working on a PhD), and he knows the type of student that comes to Regent. It is why you come in for one book, and you see books on either side of the one you are looking for and go, “Hmmm, that looks great!” It is also a gift to be able to ask him, “I’m doing a paper on a certain topic, what books do you reccomend?” It is often much more helpful than an algorithm.
Beyond that, any profits that the bookstore makes goes back into the school. That’s why many conferences and seminars that are offered at Regent are hosted by the bookstore. Bill works hard to bring authors in for the enrichment of the community, like Alan Hirsh, N.T. Wright, Mark Noll, etc.
I could go on and on. At a basic level, though, I find great value and meaning in people like Bill, the purveyors of books, and am grateful particularly for Bill’s investment in providing an impressive bookstore. I wouldn’t say that Amazon is the anti-Christ, evil, or that it will steal my soul, I just don’t want them to steal anymore bookstores like this one. It might cost more, but I am finding more and more that there are other variables that are often more important. People like Bill seem like one of those.