As Amazon.com still battles for domination, here’s the tale of a minnow in its shark tank

08/29/2014 5:36 PM

08/29/2014 5:47 PM

Almost 20 years ago, during one of my brief but most notable periods of insanity, I bought a bookstore.

Yes, I ventured into the bookselling business. I was floating on some years of experience as a book critic, journalist, book buyer, reader and idealistic dreamer about the kind of life where only good bookish things could happen.

Not so insanely, I kept my day job. That meant for seven-day work weeks and an insane amount of effort to revive what had been a long-struggling but proud and independent neighborhood bookstore.

In business, one might learn, timing is everything.

You want timing? The very year I became an independent bookseller in Kansas City two significant things occurred in my world. For starters, the Barnes & Noble chain planted a toe from its expanding national footprint on the Country Club Plaza, just two and a half miles from my little place in Brookside.

Item number two: Amazon launched.

Now, Barnes & Noble was a competitor our operation did not have much to fear because we had a knack for personal service and an atmosphere that felt inherently local.

Amazon, of course, was another matter. The online retail giant became gianter every day because its formula of undercutting prices and shipping items quickly became irresistible to many customers who didn’t quite understand that small bookstores operated at a distinct disadvantage while trying to hang on to the solemn virtues of real book browsing and human book conversation.

Amazon’s march to retail domination continued way beyond books, and its creation and marketing of the Kindle e-reader helped launch another revolutionary change in customers’ reading and consumption habits.

By that time, you will not be surprised to learn, my adventure in bookselling was deep in the past. It lasted about three years, and when I came to the conclusion that I’d hemorrhaged enough of my meager personal fortune, I walked away from the dream.

Now, I don’t begrudge Amazon.com from being the secretive, rampaging, unrepentant business shark that it is. But I did experience a bit of schadenfreude when I noticed the recent headline that, despite ever-increasing revenues, Amazon posted a huge, unexpected loss in the second quarter and was expecting to lose even more — $800 million or so — in the current quarter.

I’ve also been watching with interest as Amazon battles it out with publishing giant Hachette and its authors over pricing. It seems Amazon has been holding Hachette books hostage — works by big-name authors and newcomers alike — because the publisher won’t roll over and agree to the retailer’s ridiculous, $9.99-fits-all terms.

The parties have been sniping at one another in a fitting duel of words, and a few Sundays back 900 authors signed a letter in a full page ad in The New York Times in a public attempt to dent Amazon’s armor.

Good luck with that.

Amazon and its CEO, Jeff Bezos, seem far more interested in winning than in serving the book community of readers, writers and publishers. Bezos may have looked like a thoughtful philanthropist when he bought The Washington Post under the guise of helping to create a new future for the news media. But I suspect the impulse was far more complicated and self-serving than that.

Amazon’s most egregious effect on America’s cultural landscape has been to foster an appetite for generic entertainment while doing very little for the writing and publishing models that manage to survive and sometimes thrive without them.

In other words, Amazon has turned the whole book business into something like insanity.

To reach Steve Paul, editorial page editor, call 816-234-4762 or send email to paul@kcstar.com. Twitter: sbpaul.

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