January 03, 2004

Linking to Amazon.com: just say no

One of the first decisions I made as a novice blogger was not to link to Amazon.com or to Barnes&Noble. Although I expected to be in the minority of bloggers who chose to link to independent booksellers instead of the giant behemoths of online bookselling, I've been surprised to find no other bloggers who have made the same choice.

Thanks to this entry from en banc, referencing this post from Three Years of Hell, I'm now beginning to understand why this is the case.

Apparently, both Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble offer "associate programs" for people who run websites. Amazon's tempts you with this:

Link Up With the Leader. We have the largest and most successful online affiliate program. Over 900,000 Web sites have joined Amazon.com Associates because our program works for you. If you are a Web site owner, Amazon seller, or Web Developer, you can start making money today and earn up to 15% in referral fees.

These "associate programs," as well as their offers of free shipping and their habitual discounts, have got me really down and depressed. It seems that there's no reason why any rational person wouldn't just collapse under the marketing weight of the behemoths and abandon all their foolish attempts to support their locally-owned independent bookstores. Even if, as the en banc post points out, the terms of Amazon's associate agreement doesn't sit well with everyone, the obvious solution is simply to link to Barnes&Noble. Anyone who willfully, like myself, continues to link to Chicago's Seminary Co-op, or to Denver's Tattered Cover, or to Portland's Powell's Books, must simply be a fool.

Well, I may be a fool, but I'm proud of it. I'll continue to support independent booksellers. Here's why:

There is no such thing as a free lunch. True, you can reliably find the lowest prices at Amazon or Barnes&Noble, but you pay extra for their books in other ways. The Sylvester Stallone movie Demolition Man has gotten a lot of press lately for unwittingly predicting the political rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that movie had another prediction which is on the verge of coming true:

Lenina Huxley: [T]aco Bell was the only restaurant to survive the Franchise Wars.
John Spartan: So?
Lenina Huxley: So, now all restaurants are Taco Bell.

I don't like monopolies in the book business any more than I like monopolies in the TV or radio business. When all the independents are gone, the big booksellers will no longer feel the competitive pressure to sell cheaply or to offer free shipping. When all the independents are gone, we won't hear from authors that Barnes&Noble didn't schedule for readings. When all the independents are gone, the ability for smaller, local publishers to get their books on the shelf might decrease.

Given the tawdry history of Amazon.com's non-respect for privacy, do you think they would have stood up to an intrusive subpoena in the same courageous way that the Tattered Cover chose to do? I'd rather not have to rely on Amazon to keep my book-buying habits private.

If the only choice is Amazon.com or Barnes&Noble, that's no choice at all.

Posted by Carey at January 3, 2004 10:31 PM

Unfortunately, linking to smaller booksellers doesn't make that much sense in an online world. Online doesn't really have a local.

With an Amazon or a B&N, I can assume that my readers (if they want to buy a book I recommend) will get faster delivery, more professional service, and a website that's easy to use. Much as I like Tattered Cover (I used to visit there quite often during the short time I was working in Denver), unless I knew that a large percentage of my readers go there, I can't see why I'd want to use the links.

Indeed, I'm reticent to switch from Amazon, because several of my readers are international (both UK and Japan), and B&N won't be of any use to them at all...

Posted by: A. Rickey at January 3, 2004 10:54 PM

I don't think it's true that, if you don't support local bookstores, there will be one huge monopoly in book sales. There would instead be competition between larger, national-scale businesses. That might be a problem too, but it's a different problem than the one you've identified.

Posted by: Mark Ashton at January 4, 2004 09:35 AM

Good for you. When I first started blogging, I tried to avoid the call of Amazon for much the same reasons you state. However, I gave in for one reason: Amazon's reviews and customer feedback are just so helpful. I value seeing what other people had to say about a book, and leading my readers to that kind of information. Plus, after spending most of my life in places that had nothing but crap chain bookstores, Amazon is like a paradise of book shopping -- almost everything in print is available, and often for less than you'd pay elsewhere.

That said, I know I'm wrong. Amazon could easily become the Wal-Mart of the book business, and that would be a very bad thing. Perhaps I'll reconsider. I've been meaning to take the booklist off my page for a while now -- too difficult to maintain so it just sits there doing nothing. Also, the Amazon Associates program is a silly joke unless you have massive hordes of readers to click your links....

Posted by: ambimb at January 5, 2004 11:20 AM

You know, I thought of another problem with the idea that supporting local bookstores is good for competition. By supporting a local bookstore that has higher prices than a national chain, you are freeing them from the competitive pressure to lower their prices.

I'm a bit conflicted about this whole thing, because I love local businesses. But Barnes & Noble and Amazon do a great job at providing a product I want, with services I desire, at a great price. Shouldn't they be rewarded? Is the inevitable outcome really a monopoly, or even an oligopoly?

Posted by: Mark Ashton at January 5, 2004 12:18 PM

Actually, I think the 'Wal-Mart of the Web' problem is less likely with Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com than it is with real, physical businesses.

First, let's face it: as much as I love Tattered Cover's physical stores, and as much as I appreciate people wanting to save it, it's a lousy online bookstore. Leave aside the affiliate schemes, the lack of XML integration, etc (the reasons, admittedly sometimes odd, that I judge by): it's simply less-usable, less-user-friendly, and offers fewer features. It's not as attractive in so many ways. And this makes sense, because Tattered Cover doesn't want to be an online bookstore--it wants to be a retail store with an online appendage.

If my blog were a purely local phenomenon, than linking to places like TC would make sense. But if you have international readers, or even a broad reader base, why link to TC? My motivation when I link to a book is to encourage a reader to buy it on an impulse. Not because of the affiliate scheme--that's worth so little cash it's not funny--but because these are books I'd like to seem more widely-read. It makes no sense to link to a mostly-local bookseller whose distribution network isn't up to snuff, and who my readership are far less likely to have a pre-existing account. Every additional click it takes to buy a book is one less chance that some little-known work I enjoy will get promoted.

There's no such thing as a 'local' online bookstore, and I don't see a reason to try to link to one if it's not of the same quality. TC competes with B&N's offline stores, but this isn't the same.

Posted by: A. Rickey at January 5, 2004 02:31 PM

Would you mind sending me an email re how you got rid of amazon as the underlying link? Thanks.

Posted by: T. Gracchus at January 5, 2004 03:07 PM

Good for you for taking a stand on principle. The trouble is, the "cost" of Amazon and B&N taking over the book world will be bourne by everyone, but the people who link to those sites will reap all of the benefits, so the "rational self-interest " choice is to put the link in. Same thing with the wal-martization of America. A good artcle is Garett Hardin's tragedy of the Commons.

Posted by: Larry at January 6, 2004 06:36 PM