Digital Digest: Indie Retailers and the Amazon Effect

Adrian Versteegh
From the March/April 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

For the country’s largest book retailers, 2012 was a year of international expansion. Shortly after the launch of Kindle stores in India and Brazil, Amazon announced a further push into emerging markets in December with the debut of its twenty-five-thousand-title Chinese e-book platform, a development that, once approved by radio-communications regulators, should finally allow residents of the country where the Kindle is assembled to purchase the device locally. Meanwhile, last fall saw not only the arrival of a Kindle store in Japan—accompanied by the first Japanese-language edition of the device—but also a series of Amazon ventures in Europe, including a new lineup of e-readers, the expansion of the Kindle Singles program into the United Kingdom, and the launch of Appstores in five countries. By year’s end, the retail giant had left no doubts about its plans, as Kindle vice president David Limp told Agence France-Presse at the Fire HD launch in September, to “get into as many places as we possibly can.”

The preholiday season also marked the first overseas venture for the last of Amazon’s major bookselling competitors in the United States, as Barnes & Noble rolled out both its range of Nook e-readers and its PubIt! self-publishing service in Britain. The devices, including the latest high-definition models, are being hawked through the Nook’s U.K. website as well as in about 2,500 bricks-and-mortar locations (compared with the approximately 680 stores Barnes & Noble maintains at home), thanks to partnerships with a handful of retail chains. Not to be outdone, Apple—which, by most estimates, controls over half the tablet market—spent the year expanding its iBookstore operations: By October it had raised the number of countries it serves from nineteen to fifty.

The scramble for underexploited markets hasn’t escaped the notice of industry watchers, many of whom have been warning against an online version of the stifling of local competition and the across-the-board reduction in wages sometimes termed the “Wal-Mart effect.” Reviewing the year in the Huffington Post, Smashwords founder Mark Coker made the connection explicit: “Amazon’s actions…have revealed their intentions to do to all bricks-and-mortar stores what Wal-Mart did to Main Street America” (although, interestingly, the megaretailer and its counterpart Target have both dropped the Kindle in favor of the Nook—Amazon being, presumably, too close a competitor to support). Indie booksellers, worried about the implications of what Steve Wasserman, in a June article for the Nation, dubbed the “Amazon effect,” have responded with digital alliances of their own. In January, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) exchanged one Kindle alternative for another, when its agreement to sell e-books through Google expired and was superseded by a contract signed last summer with e-reader manufacturer Kobo. About four hundred vendors run their digital storefronts through the ABA’s open-source IndieCommerce platform, and the organization also maintains IndieBound, an online hub that connects consumers, publishers, and independent retailers—whether booksellers or other merchants.

For advocates of the small-scale and the personal, the antidote to retail homogenization is curation. New York City–based literary platform Zola Books, which launched in limited beta late last year, offers digital portals to publishers, booksellers, critics, and even authors looking to leverage online communities and word of mouth to sell directly to readers. The site, which counts authors Chandler Burr and Audrey Niffenegger among its backers, released its first batch of exclusive, device-agnostic content--along with iPad and iPhone apps—in January. In addition to reviews and social plugs, a trademarked “Curation Engine” takes into account both “collaborative filtering (crowdsourcing) and expert analysis (similar to semantic labeling)” in order to gather information and suggest titles to users. “No existing retailer,” those behind the still-nascent project promise, “combines all these avenues of recommendation to provide the best answer to readers’ biggest question: What should I read next?”

Other ventures are moving away from algorithm-abetted curation entirely. Digital marketplace reKiosk, which opened last summer, bills itself as a return to what CEO Aziz Isham calls “human-based curation,” and puts its faith in the power of social media to re-create the corner-store experience. “People are becoming less interested in what a computer thinks they should like,” Isham wrote last August in Digital Book World, “and more interested in what their friends recommend.” Dispensing with the requirement—still in place at IndieBound and the Chicago-based retail network Little Independent—that sellers maintain a bricks-and-mortar presence, reKiosk allows anyone to set up a storefront and flog digital wares. The platform—which hit the news when OR Books, indie publisher of Julian Assange’s Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet (2012), set up shop—passes 70 percent of returns on to content creators, promising sellers up to a quarter of the sale price as commission. And lest there be any doubt about retail philosophy, an FAQ page makes the contrast clear: “If Amazon is like a Wal-Mart, reKiosk is like a covered bazaar.” But it remains to be seen whether consumer tendencies that have been so starkly expressed in the bricks-and-mortar world can be so radically reimagined in the digital one.

Adrian Versteegh is a MacCracken fellow at New York University. His nonacademic writing has appeared recently in Dissent and the Brooklyn Rail.