Sorry, Literary Community: I Love Amazon And E-Books

Sorry, Literary Community: I Love Amazon And E-Books

Part 1: Amazon Versus Bricks-And-Mortar Bookstores: Not A Simple Bad Versus Good

In most places I hang out, this is a given: Bricks-and-mortar bookstores are glorious, and online competitors like Amazon are crushing our intellectual and literary culture. As with so many other orthodoxies among the proudly non-conventional people I tend to enjoy, I disagree. Yes, rebels often band together to form their own culture of questioning, complete with notions that few in their circles dispute. The rebellion becomes steeped in its own brand of conformity. In this case, Cambridge intellectual types will tend to stand against enormous businesses in favor of their local stores.

And I get it. Neighborhood gems like Harvard Book Store (an independent store with no formal ties to the university) and Porter Square Books are fabulous places where a curious soul can hear intriguing book talks by big names and less-known but brilliant writers, chat with friendly fellow browsers — and, perhaps most important, discover new books by walking through the aisles, reaching out for inviting-looking volumes, and loving the words they discover. This scenario feels much more magical than sitting in your living room, researching alone on your computer. But there’s so much more to it.

When Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers, my book about Hasidic teen girls, came out, I was thrilled by the prospect that physical bookstores where people hung out and browsed would sell it. I had to make sure of certain logistical details to make that possible: mainstream bricks-and-mortar bookstores only stock books that offer certain kinds of discounts to stores. University presses like the one publishing my book market some books solely to the academic world, offering discounts that school bookstores will accept for textbooks, but that create a poor business risk for most physical stores. Stores have a hard time turning a profit, so they want books that they can sell for the going rate while still earning an acceptable amount. If, say, they can buy a book for $10 and sell it for $20, they’re much more likely to stock it than if they have to pay $15 for a book that sells for $20.

After many tense discussions, I figured out that my publisher was in fact giving my book a full trade discount — in other words, a discount big enough to attract mainstream bookstores. I was relieved and thrilled. I wrote it for a mainstream audience and was glad the publisher realized that. If the marketing people had deemed my writing more standardly academic, I would have had to drop my dream of finding my book in neighborhood bookstores: the business model would have been off for them.

Many writers with academic presses don’t care much about getting into bookstores; their main concern is getting their work around the academic world, through conferences and course adoptions. My publisher wasn’t expecting me to be so concerned about bookstore sales, and they weren’t used to fielding my questions about discounts and such. But I did determine that the discount they were offering was as high as possible for an academic press… so my dream of seeing my book in local stores was alive.

For a good few years, I could find my book in many local bookstores: in Boston-area independent stores, in many Barnes and Nobles I popped into, in many NYC bookstores, and in many bookstores in NJ, where I grew up. I heard through the grapevine that the book was available in a variety of other stores around the country, particularly in urban areas with large Jewish populations. I relished the thought of people exploring in their beloved local bookstores, discovering my book on the shelves, and taking it home to read. This image must be key in many writers’ minds: a symbol that they’ve created something that other people might discover on their own, seemingly at random, at a magical time… and in a place that represents all good things: community, reading, and local people supporting each other socially and economically.

Then I stopped finding my book in stores. For a while, Judaica shops continued to stock it, but eventually I stopped seeing it even there. One afternoon, I was in a pleasant little Brookline, MA Judaica shop, seemingly the perfect store to stock my book: liberal in slant, thus unafraid to sell something that might discuss problems within an Orthodox community. I checked the shelf where my book would have been, and… nope.

Sheepishly, I headed over to the cash register to try to get some information. I much preferred my earlier role of happily discovering my book on shelves… and, every once in a while, even being recognized by someone in the store who had read it. I had been demoted several pegs in my quest for whatever I was seeking in order to feel good about my place in the world. But, if I had to act like a self-promoting nudnik in order to figure out what was happening, I would do it.

When I mentioned Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers to the affable middle-aged guy at the register, he said he remembered my book (Score! Maybe it hadn’t descended into oblivion like I had feared!) and thought he could order it again to sell in the store. But, when he looked it up, his face soured. “The publisher isn’t offering a big enough discount for us to stock it,” he told me. “It just wouldn’t be worth our while. We’d make practically no money on it.”

I was shocked. After all those discussions with the publisher about making sure my book’s discount would be acceptable to bricks-and-mortar stores, I thought that issue was secure. But, when I contacted the publisher, they informed me that they had switched the discount to an “academic” one, and they weren’t at all surprised or disappointed that physical stores that didn’t support books for classes at schools had stopped carrying it. They said that this was par for the course. At this point, we could make more money offering the book at a lower discount to college bookstores and online venues, so that switch was made.

It felt like the end of a charming and affirming era for me: a time in my life when I felt like a true writer whose work could be discovered with relative ease, while people hung out in their trusted local stores. True, students would read the book in classes, and people could still discover it in libraries, but I had always associated books and reading with local bookstores where I purchased books I had chosen, with no connection to any class.

I was quietly devastated. Quietly — and not gravely — for one key reason: Amazon was still selling it, with no sign of letting up. When people asked where they could buy the book, I could send them there. Many in my circles were opposed to Amazon: when I suggested it, they made faces. They wanted to support their local bookstores. But those stores were no longer supporting my book. And of course I didn’t blame them; it no longer worked within their business model. But I wasn’t ready to give up the possibility of some curious soul browsing around for a new book to buy and discovering mine. And neither was Amazon.

Sure, someone could buy my book from my publisher if they knew about it and just wanted to track it down, but very few people hang out on the NYU Press website. Meanwhile, many thousands explore on Amazon, searching for books. If they look up a book on a related theme, Amazon might well suggest mine as an additional option. Some browsing through the book is available on Amazon’s site: roughly similar to thumbing through a potential purchase at a physical bookstore.

It’s not as glorious as the thought of someone finding my book in a physical store, drawn by the look and feel of it, then even more entranced by the words, but that’s no longer possible. Nor is it possible for the vast majority of books in print. As spacious and mind-expanding as they seem, physical bookstores are extremely limited in what they can keep in stock, just like any physical store. Meanwhile, Amazon stocks an incredible breadth and depth of books, put out by every type of publisher I have heard of. The people who tend to attack Amazon often value egalitarianism and non-elitism as essential values. Amazon’s book-stocking policies embody these ideals, with self-published tomes available along with Knopf’s latest offerings. The Walmart greeter who tried her hand at novel-writing can see her book for sale, just like the celebrated young author who got a seven-figure advance for his supposedly earth-shattering take on the very notion of storytelling.

Some might say that, if it weren’t for Amazon and other online booksellers, physical stores would have an easier time stocking more books: they’d be more likely to thrive and grow without that constant, outsized competition. That’s almost surely true. But I think most books that do not become bestselling classics have limited shelf-lives in physical stores. They always did, long before online bookselling began. Even without the discount shift I mentioned with my own book, each season, stores need to make room for their favorite publishers’ newest lists. This necessitates letting many other books go.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s stock seems fabulously expandable; new items co-exist with thousands of old-timers. For sure, Amazon promotes the new and the hot above all else, just like practically every place in our culture. But at least they stock the other stuff, and allow it to come up during searches. The Walmart greeter gets a shot, if people happen to discover her work and love it. It’s unlikely she’ll achieve objective success by most professional writers’ standards, but at least she has a chance to sell her work through an internationally recognized company and get it around to whatever extent she can. Amazon is one of the least PC companies I know of in my circles, and, while I understand the distaste for the huge company overtaking all the lovely little stores, key parts of the story are ignored and unrecognized.

As someone with very quirky tastes as a reader, I often come away from local bookstores empty-handed. When I check out Amazon’s mind-blowing diversity of books, I always find many enticing options. Ironically enough, Amazon takes care of the odd reader, and the writer who has not achieved fame, with much more success than the local bookstore. I don’t mean to condemn our local bookstores even slightly. They are wonderful, inviting institutions. But they can only do so much. Amazon also has a key role in the attempt to spread ideals of writing and literacy as broadly as possible.

Of course, there’s the issue of Amazon underselling physical stores. I know many who feel strongly that they should pay a few dollars extra per book to support their local bookstore. That makes sense to me, and I applaud that effort. Physical stores need to sell products to stay in business and enrich their communities with in-the-flesh literary culture. But even here, adamant bricks-and-mortar bookstore supporters need to see another side. It’s easy to advocate paying a few extra dollars for a book if those few dollars won’t mean much to you. If you’re someone who has trouble paying your bills, and who finds small decreases in earnings difficult, but who, at the same time, loves buying books… Amazon’s lower prices might be a godsend.

Some might say that people who can’t afford to buy a book from a physical bookstore should borrow from a library to avoid supporting Amazon. And libraries are wonderful places for readers. But I say that the fantastic experience of owning a book you love, able to read or look through it whenever the mood strikes you, should be accessible to as many people as possible.

When the poet who lives mostly off of his neurosurgeon wife’s earnings exhorts his struggling painter friend to spend a little extra to support the local bookstore, a lack of empathy might be at play. True, Amazon is not seen as PC in many circles, but isn’t supporting those who struggle financially but want to enjoy cultural pursuits the most liberal possible goal? Amazon figured out a business model that discounts many books beyond what most physical stores can offer. This is both chilling and fabulous, depending on your point of view. And both points of view are very valid.

Part 2: Physical Books Are Great, But So Are E-Books

Many of the same good-hearted, independent-minded souls who slam Amazon condemn e-books as well. “There’s nothing like a real book,” they’ll say. “The feel of it, the smell of it, the experience of turning those pages and feeling their texture.” I agree: there’s something very special about devouring a physical book that you love, immersing yourself in a new world, another mind, or even an old world that once existed but is now beyond your grasp except through reading.

You know what else is special… in a way that’s similar and yet, in some ways, completely different? Reading that same wonderful writing in e-book form. I often read books on my iPad, and I still enjoy the novelty and the ease. When I can, I get them from iBooks, through Apple, but Amazon sells them too… along with many other companies. The novelty of an e-book still delights me. Electronically turning pages, adding a bookmark with the tap of a finger, looking up unfamiliar terms just by touching them on the screen, adjusting the print size with another simple tap… I love it. It makes reading feel like I’m playing with a toy, kind of. A toy with many super-fun and, at the same time, useful functions.

Aside from all the delightful features, an e-book is available at a reasonable price as soon as it comes out, without having to dish out extra money for a hardcover. “Cheap-ass!” you might say. “You should support your fellow writers and buy the hardcover.” But, for better or worse (mostly for better since I can’t imagine being married), I am not that artist with the neurosurgeon spouse. I need to conserve whatever resources I’m lucky enough to have for my own projects and needs.

Along those lines, e-books take up no room beyond electronic space. If you’re lucky enough to have a large room designated as a library, with spacious shelves throughout, this may not matter much to you. For the rest of us, this is fabulous. We can buy as many books as we want without wondering where they will fit on our shelves. All those egalitarian souls who gush about buying more and more physical books may have conceptions that are inadvertently skewed towards wealth. It’s not deliberate, of course. But I think the potential signs are clear.

Even if you do have a lot of space for books, if you’re organizationally challenged like I am, it’s always easier to cut down on physical stuff. Our electronic devices organize e-books for us with no mess or clutter. It’s fantastic. No more wondering whatever happened to that book about a fascinating monastery you bought years ago, and finally feel in the right mental frame to read. It’s there, easily, with the click of a finger.

The organization and ease benefit travel as well, both local and long-distance. When you’re like me and your local travel happens mostly by foot, e-books save the back and clear out the knapsack’s clutter. If I take my iPad, I have all of my e-books in one easy place. No need to lug an additional book so I have something to read on the subway.

I know several people, ages ranging from elementary school to 70s, who rediscovered reading because of e-books. They found the process of reading them fun and different; the various bells and whistles were an attractive conduit that brought them back to something far more fundamental: reading an entire book for pleasure. Some may say they’d learn or remember more from these works if they were reading traditional, physical books. That may be true in some cases; I think it all depends on the individual and how they process information. Even if it is true, the fact remains that they wouldn’t be reading for pleasure at all without e-books.

Take my mother, who had simply gotten out of the habit of reading books in recent years. She discovered iBooks when she bought her iPad, and just loved everything about them: the features, the fact that she could read them on her beloved new device, the magical feeling of ordering a new book that intrigued her and receiving it in just a few minutes. Physical books just weren’t drawing her in. E-books, on the other hand, were delighting her. I say anything that gets people back into the magic of reading is a positive force indeed.

And we shouldn’t forget the obvious factors that e-books are much cheaper and more environmentally sound to produce than physical books… and that their lack of physical dimension allows vendors to stock many, many more of them than physical books. Some bricks-and-mortar bookstores sell e-books, allowing readers to support their independent stores while enjoying this relatively new way to read books.

Some link e-books to a gloomy possibility: the eventual death, or near-death, of the physical book. Could we reach a point where physical books are mostly museum exhibits, with an occasional quirky soul keeping them around, similar to the eccentric psychiatrist I know who collects typewriters and is on a mission to rekindle their popularity? I suppose it’s possible; I’m no expert at predicting the long-range future.

Different knowledgeable people hold a range of opinions. Caleb Mason, founder of Publerati, an independent publishing company focusing on literary fiction, argued forcefully that this day will come… signaling great improvement overall for literary culture. This was part of a debate exercise: he was tasked with taking this side as part of a December 2015 event in Portland, Maine. But the points he makes, touching on business efficiency, reader experience, and overall preservation of knowledge and thought, are intriguing.

Others argue just as convincingly that print books will always have a key place in mainstream culture, like writer Josh Catone, whose 2013 Mashable essay brings up many key points: the collectability of print books, the special feeling a unique print copy of a book gives the owner, nostalgia for the feel of print books, and the particular reading experience they offer — different from reading an e-book, which also has its merits. No one knows for sure what will happen far into the future, but we can look at young readers for clues. Physical book lovers might like that most of my current college students seem to prefer physical books, at least for classes: they want to write notes in their books, and they enjoy the feel of a traditional book.

Part 3: What Does It All Mean For Literary Culture?

I’ll be honest: I’ve never met a literary culture I enjoyed. Well… let me amend that: I love the community I’ve met through writing for Hevria: a site that focuses on spiritually oriented, creative, often limit-pushing Jews. I also love the writers and other artists who frequently get together to present their work at the home of some wonderful friends here in Boston. For the most part, though, I haven’t found any niche or comfort in writing communities: particularly ones that include people whose books are getting published in the ways I’ve long hoped for. I’ve frequently gotten attacked when I’ve shared seemingly tame pieces in online writers’ groups, and I haven’t bonded well enough with fellow writers who have the kinds of connections that could foster my publishing dreams (with a few treasured exceptions that I deeply appreciate). I just don’t feel much attachment to any kind of mainstream literary world. For sure, this is at least partly my fault for lacking the proper savvy to benefit from avenues that have boosted many others, but, until I figure something out, we are where we are, as my wise uncle might say.

Perhaps this helps me see issues from an unusual perspective. In most writing circles I’ve encountered, accepted opinion is that independent physical bookstores are far more worthy than Amazon and other large, predominantly online booksellers, and that print books far transcend e-books in value and potential contribution to the future of reading and writing. Since I feel little connection to those communities, maybe I am unusually able to step beyond them as I consider these questions.

Many complain that, in putting local bookstores in jeopardy, online behemoths like Amazon are destroying local literary culture. But local literary culture is far from a pure and glorious entity. It’s filled with gossip, jockeying for power, and hurt feelings, just like any other group of humans who band together in order to achieve some form of success. Please don’t misunderstand: I love my local bookstores, and that includes the people who hang out in them and speak about their books in them. But there’s something truly lovely about Amazon giving a chance to that Walmart greeter who never would have had the clout to support a book talk at a physical store. This may sound like heresy, but, if I had to choose between that greeter and the well-known professor slated to speak at my neighborhood bookstore in a few days, I’d choose the greeter. The professor has other avenues to get her work around. Amazon is giving the greeter a shot that she’d be hard pressed to duplicate anywhere else.

Likewise, if forced to make a choice, I side with the struggling writer who has no car over the book collector with a large private library. Let the writer save his back as he carries his knapsack to the subway with his reading material stored on his electronic device of choice, and let him save his wallet when he wants to read the latest by his favorite novelist without paying hardcover prices.

And yet, as I wrote the above words, I felt sad, guilty, and wistful. I adore physical books. I was thrilled when my own came out and hope with deep emotion that more will follow, complete with signings and the wonderful feeling of holding that first book in my hands. I love looking over the books on my shelves, remembering when I bought them, when I read them, what was happening in my life when they first entered my mental universe. Somehow, e-books just don’t have the same resonance or depth of memory for me. And many of these memories involve finding the book in a physical bookstore: thinking about who I was with, what I was doing, what that store might have meant to me.

Thankfully, I don’t think these are either/or situations. Readers and writers are diverse enough to support various ways to buy, and various ways to read. Many seem to feel that literary culture has hit some kind of watershed, with the most basic orthodoxies (bookstores and physical books) on the line. But I think the literary world has had notes of disaster and doom long before these issues arose. Even as a child, I heard about how hard it was for writers to succeed by typical objective standards, how unfair the publishing process was, how fewer and fewer people were reading because almost everyone preferred to watch television or drink with their friends or hang out at the mall when they carved out some precious free time.

The story is largely the same; only the surface-level specifics have changed. We still worry about the future of literacy and writing. And yet, many of us — more, I’d say, than some might guess — are reading and buying books. I believe that’s the important factor here. The rest is fascinating and deeply contentious commentary that can inspire rich debate, and possibly some intriguing new solutions.

Part 4: Potential Solutions

With physical bookstores, solutions may well come from drawing people into the stores for reasons other than buying books, ironic as that may sound. This is far from a new idea: for quite a while, Barnes and Nobles have offered drinks, snacks, and comfortable tables. In many areas, the local Barnes and Noble is an inviting place to meet a friend for coffee or some such. Once people are in a bookstore, they may start to browse, and… all kinds of things can happen. But, even if book sales are down, if coffee and snack sales are up, the store might be thriving overall, and the “extra” sales can compensate for lagging book profits.

Here in Cambridge, a friend of mine spends many hours each day caring for her ill, elderly mother… and Porter Square Books, across the street from her home, is a spectacular resource for her and her local friends. They offer drinks, snacks, light meals, and a place to sit. The store has become the highlight of my friend’s life because it combines an opportunity to savor a treat outside the house with an intriguing selection of books. There are other cafés my friend and her mother could frequent, but the books make this one their preferred hangout. If the store had only books, it wouldn’t work nearly as well for them. It offers a very comfortable place to sit, relax, and enjoy being out of the house, allowing my friend to browse through the books while her mother rests.

Many bookstores do not have the space or the facilities to offer a café, but they have other possibilities to diversify. Book talks are one of the most reliable ways to encourage people to buy a book at a store: you can’t get a signed copy with a note meant just for you from Amazon. Harvard Book Store right near me has succeeded for years despite the changing economic climate. They offer an astonishing array of talks, which happen very frequently. The talks often attract large crowds. A sizable number usually seems to buy the book being promoted, and people typically hang out in the store for a while afterwards, which often tempts them to buy something else. Harvard Book Store also sells chocolate, nuts, greeting cards, and other goods, and they have a popular used book area which intrigues many and offers a chance for true bargains. If they counted on sales of new books by browsers off the street, I’m guessing they would fail, even in book-loving and independent-store-supporting Harvard Square.

If physical bookstores became community hangouts, they’d almost surely boost sales. Maybe stores could allow instructors to use some space to teach classes, requiring some kind of fee for the privilege. They could stock relevant books and display them near the events. Classes on writing and literature would be naturals, but pretty much any topic that could inspire a class has books written about it. If bookstores have even small amounts of excess space, they could host little discussion groups on all kinds of topics… again, with book tie-ins. If there’s enough community interest in a particular book, a store could host a discussion about it and display the book prominently. Regular book clubs looking for a spot to meet might convene at a bookstore, which would become the easiest, most obvious place to buy their reading material. For that matter, bookstores could advertise their own book clubs, choosing books that seem popular among their customers. Anything that gets people into a store tremendously increases the odds of sales, whether they involve books or other items that help subsidize the books.

I sincerely want all the various options I’ve discussed — physical bookstores, online bookstores, physical books, and e-books — to survive and thrive in some vital way. Each one offers great pleasure and opportunity to many throughout the world. I’ve always preferred games where everyone wins, and that includes real-life games where actual money and businesses are at stake. That’s often not possible, but, in a case like this where I see good across the board, I can hope.


Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine's 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.

Leave a Reply