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Adding A New Voice to The Argument, or: Raising The Din

Today I read an article by Farhod Manjoo called “Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.” Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I read a more backwards post about the topic of literary culture. The basic line of thought in the article (as is hinted by the title) is that Amazon.com is doing more for books, authors, and readers than any other organization. Throughout the article, we hear these arguments in favor of corporate shopping and participation over local, independent shopping experiences. The most brilliant part of the article is not the arguments in favor of “corporate culture,” but the word choices used by the journalist to create a sense of rhetorical unity with those already supporting his position as well as striking a patronizing stance toward independent bookstores, dismissing them as something blase and remnant of a time long past. In this post, I’ll be analyzing both the rhetorical choices made by the author, as well as contesting the false claims made by the author.

The first paragraph of the essay by Manjoo shows him creating a bond between the consumers upset by Amazon’s latest “bonehead” move of giving discounts to folks to who essentially turn spy at their local bookstore and report the cost of items back to Amazon. Manjoo then concludes his paragraph with an act of full disclosure by announcing that the magazine for which he writes is an Amazon affiliate and as such it gets a cut of Amazon’s profits when a customer clicks on an Amazon link on Slates page and buys something.” Here we see Manjoo lining up on the side of those upset with Amazon, apologizing for Amazon’s attempt at a short con, while in the next breath and paragraph he is preparing us for an even longer con by adding parenthetically that the Amazon promotion that had upset so many people only lasted for one day. This is a subtle rhetorical move used by Manjoo–though he is very upset by what Amazon did and believes “it deserves all the scorn you want to heap on it,” he is very subtly saying that what Amazon did is not that bad because it only went on for one day. The reason it only happened for one day, Manjoo fails to mention, is that the promotion offered by Amazon was a sort of corporate/retail trial balloon, if you will. In politics a trial balloon occurs when an idea is floated (from unspecific sources) that says that a political mind like the President is considering doing X–the reaction for/against that idea is then measured in order to gauge how angry the public would be if such a measure were to be made permanent. Amazon obviously registered a negative reaction and decided to down its balloon before things got too out of hand.

In the second paragraph, we get that Manjoo is generally in favor of price comparison, but that he also understands physical retailers’ fears of the promotion that Amazon offered widespread. After this, he subtly shows how price-comparing is already in the works by presenting a hypothetical situation where a customer goes to Best Buy, has an employee show him a big-screen TV, and then goes home and purchases it for less on Amazon. This hypothetical situation is another way of lessening the pressure on Amazon by showing how they already create an atmosphere of price-comparison without needing to offer discounts to customers who report back with their findings, so what’s the big deal, really? Then Manjoo switches tone in the next sentence by saying that he gives quite a bit of money to Amazon, but is that any reason to be so “wantonly  callous about destroying its competitors?” The see-sawing effect of the second paragraph enables Manjoo to keep his good rapport with those who disagree with Amazon’s aformentioned policy (as well as their attempts to avoid taxation) while still allowing him to make little references to the idea that Amazon is really not doing any harm, thereby setting up his next paragraph where he shows the true target of this piece: Amazon’s competitors.

Beginning his third paragraph by saying how he was “primed to nod in agreement” with novelist Richard Russo’s New York Times piece taking on Amazon, Manjoo criticizes Russo’s argument against Amazon by saying that Russo made a critical and common mistake by not focusing “on the ways that that Amazon’s promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents), Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores.” Here, Manjoo’s true target comes into view. His target is not the big electronics stores. The target of this article appears to be the independent bookstore. Manjoo, while appearing concerned about all the employees of big-box electronics stores, fails to note those employed by local independent booksellers and seems little concerned for their well-being. Instead, he zeroes in on the attack by characterizing bookstores as inefficient, user-antagonistic and mistakenly mythologized. The first mistake Manjoo makes is that he seems to believe that independent bookstores and Amazon are dedicated to the same things. They aren’t. And this is revealed in the arguments that Manjoo makes. Manjoo characterizes independents as inefficient–what he means by this is that everything is not easy and customers can’t do everything by themselves. This may be a cause for concern if all you are after is turning a profit. However, independent bookstores are not built on profit–rather, they generate profit by creating connections between themselves and those in the community and by helping the customers who walk through their doors find what they need. The second critique leveled at independent bookstores is that they are not user-friendly. If by user-friendly, Manjoo means that customers can’t do everything themselves and that nothing is instant, then he is correct. But the literal meaning of “user-friendly” finds itself heavily on the side of independent booksellers. Can any book-buyer say that he was given better customer service by a computer screen than by a real, live bookseller? Independent bookstores and booksellers thrive on relations with customers and as such, they see the customer in front of them as the most important person in the world–everything else goes by the wayside to find them that one book that they are looking for. Is that inefficient? Yes. Is that splitting and wasting resources? Maybe. Is that customer-friendly? You bet your ass. And that’s what independent booksellers do. If they have to spend 20 minutes personally calling other bookstores in the area, if they have to root through the stacks, not only out on the floor, but in the back of the store, they will to get that book in the customer’s hand. Yes, Amazon has a computerized, up to the moment inventory. But do they even care that a customer is satisfied? The text on the screen may say so, but does Jeff Bezos personally make sure they have been satisfied? No. Because the entire system of Amazon has been built to make people feel that they have been taken care of without having to make any extra effort for this to happen. Customer service online is a mirage. It doesn’t actually exist. That is why Amazon is so efficient. The third charge leveled against independent bookstores is that they are mistakenly mythologized. That is a matter of opinion. However, if one takes a look at what is going on in the world of authors and readers, who is standing up for independent bookstores? Certainly not those who are in the business of making money. Authors, artists, appreciators of art–those are the people who are standing up for indpendent bookstores. The makers and dreamers of dreams. Maybe I’m in the act of again mistakenly mythologizing something, but doesn’t it also have the ring of truth? Independent bookstores are not about profit. They are about experience, community, and support of the arts. Manjoo calls bookstores “cultish, moldering institutions” that are wrongly considered the only way to foster “real-life literary culture” (quote from author Tom Perotta). Manjoo then concludes the paragraph by sneerign at Russo’s claim that Amazon, unlike the brick an mortar bookstore “doesnt’ care about the larger bookselling universe” and has no interest in fostering literary culture. But where is Russo wrong in this? While Manjoo takes his time sneering at Russo’s claim, he does nothing to refute that Amazon cares nothing for the greater bookselling community. In fact, wasn’t it Manjoo himself who only a paragraph before was lamenting Amazon’s methods and asked, “But does it have to be so wantonly callous about destroying its competitors?” Here we see Manjoo’s facade as an Amazon skeptic revealed. His rapport established, he hones his argument in on the institution that has critiqued Amazon the most and that has the most cultural and community capital in its arsenal. But why? What would an affiliate of Amazon have to gain by attacking independent bookstores. Here’s what I think: The biggest competition that Amazon has is also the biggest voice that has spoken against it. Independent bookstores have been and will continue to be the most outspoken voice against corporate online book retailers like Amazon.

Next, Manjoo dismisses the claims that Amazon doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe as “completely bogus.” Then he says, “No company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books.” Now that is completely bogus. Amazon has helped foster a national passion for buying, yes. But not for buying books. If that were so, Amazon would have been content years ago to remain a bookseller and create new ways for books to be relevant in today’s society. Instead, Amazon extended its reach and has assisted in fostering a national passion for convenience and consumption, with books thrown in a heap among other salable commodities including bean bag chairs, big screen TVs and electronic sex devices. After making this grand claim about Amazon’s being the savior of books, Manjoo gives no data and no examples whatsoever to back up his claim. Instead he lets it sit there, sure that his claim will remain without analysis. He doesn’t even attempt to use the Kindle as an example of helping books remain relevant–and even if he had, I would still point out that Amazon has again extended its reach beyond books with the new Kindle Fire, which not only allows for book reading, but also consumption of music and movies, just another finger in another pie. Attempting to strengthen his rapport, Manjoo says that he had previously believed that Amazon would go on to ruin the book industry and then pulls a 180 by announcing that “if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.” This constant switching of positions creates a whiplash effect and engages in a bit of rhetorical schizofrenia. Instead of telling us how he got from point A of fearing the end of book culture at Amazon’s hands to point Z of saying that the crushing of corner indies should be celebrated, Manjoo ends his paragraph and gets on to the next paragraph and on with further his argument.

The first argument in favor of Amazon over independents makes me wonder if Manjoo has ever stepped into an independent bookstore and given it a try. Manjoo’s first argument centers on the different in recommendation and quality of customer satisfaction. Citing Amazon’s ability to give customer reviews, recommendations based on what you’ve previously read, and quick and easy search features, Manjoo claims that “Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like.” While this quote may be partially true, bookstores can also suggest books based on others you’ve read and in many different ways. Whereas Amazon may only give recommendations based on what other people who have read that book also bought, real competent bookstore employees can also give recommendations based on subject of the book, style of narration, point of view, qualities of characters, and/or time period, among others. Does Amazon ask, “So, do you like books with positive or negative endings?” Does it ask, “What things are you interested in?” So then a recommendation for both fiction and non-fiction books could be made on that? No, because it doesn’t have a soul. Amazon makes connections like a computer–booksellers make connections like humans. Though it’s true that customer reviews are in short supply, an internet connection can easily fix that and often comes in handy when a bookstore employee lets a customer check out reviews for himself online. With the rapid proliferation of smart phones, the customer usually is equipped with his own internet connection and thus renders this particular argument moot. Amazon’s search features are by far quicker and the computerized inventory allows them to keep track of their stock down to the number. This is true. But bookstores have their own resources, such as phoning other stores in the area to assess whether or not a customer would be able to attain a copy at another location (as Half-Price Books does). Also, indpendent bookstores do something Amazon doesn’t. They will actually send customers to another competing store if it means that the customer will be able to get his book. Amazon does use other booksellers and allows other sellers to use its site to sell books, but it always takes a profit. This is the difference between a place like Amazon and independent bookstores–independents exist in a far different capacity than Amazon does and they know it.

Manjoo then goes onto his next point, discussing the one advantage that brick and mortar stores used to have over online retailers–customers could read any book before they purchased it. But Manjoo now claims that the playground has been leveled by the advent of e-books and the ability of customers to read the first chapter of a book for free before purchasing it. And, Manjoo reminds us, “you can do all of this without leaving your couch.” Here we see again the two main things that Amazon has encouraged in American consumers: convenience and consumption, not love of books. It’s true that Amazon allows readers to preview the first chapter with no commitment. So does a bookstore. More than that, a bookstore will let you read the whole thing without bothering you once. I don’t know about you, but in my time I have certainly come across a book or two that has promised much in the first chapter that it could not live up to and didn’t end up living up to. Though Amazon is probably hindered by online piracy laws and is unable to provide an entire book without charge, Amazon knows that and more, they know that there’s no profit in allowing a customer to consume the entire product without any recompense. That’s just bad business. And inefficient. But bookstores don’t care about that. They are there to promote love of books and a sense of belonging and comfort, which Amazon knows–they compete with that sense of belonging and comfort by offering customers a different approach–they can get some of that free preview of a book with an added bonus–they don’t have to leave the house! This is Amazon’s genius at work. The first chapter is free and the customer doesn’t have to leave his home in order to do it. However, if the customer wants it to read the rest, he either has to order it by mail or buy the e-book, which arrives in less than a minute! By offering the customer the carrot of free convenience, Amazon then relies on consumer demand after the free carrot and then closes the sale by turning that same thing that was the draw of the product in the first place (convenience) back onto the customer, using it against him to get him to buy the product. The convenience is both the marketing and the thing that eventually prompts the sale and makes it so alluring. Fucking genius, if you ask me.

Manjoo’s next argument comes in the form of the financial inefficiency of brick and mortar bookstores. Taking into account rent, utilities, and employing a large number of employees, Manjoo says that the only way for independent booksellers to turn a profit is by selling everything at a ridiculously high markup, concluding that you could get two books from Amazon at the price you paid for one at a brick and mortar bookstore. While this may be true for certain bookstores, Manjoo neglects used and new bookstores like Half-Price Books that hardly ever sell books at the markup claimed by Manjoo (30 for hardback, 9-15 for paperback). Most of Manjoo’s argument about book pricing is centered on new books. However, when one looks at selling books that have been in print for years, his argument quickly fall apart. On Amazon’s website, they offer to sell the book Catch-22 for $10.88 + plus shipping. At my local bookstore, I purchased an old copy of the same book for 75 cents. The quality was fine, but it was a mass-market paperback. The newest edition was selling for 7.99 + tax. Figure the price and there you are. Brick and mortar wins over Amazon in that particular instance. I understand that that example is only a drop in the bucket. However, it just serves in one instance to dispute Manjoo’s claim about how bookstores price roughly 100 percent more than Amazon (referring to the 2 for the price of 1 claim).

Manjoo’s next paragraph is preoccupied with deeming the benefits of a bookstore as “ancillary” and trying to make an analogy between shopping at independent bookstores and shopping at Whole Foods, thereby labeling it all but burgeoise. With this paragraph we can almost see the writer typing this with his eyes closed and eyebrows raised in the same pose as those who fart in their crystal goblets and then smell it on an episode of South Park. The activities and benefits that Manjoo deems as secondary to the mission of a bookstore are misguidedly labeled as such. Activities like author readings, unlimited browsing time, etc. are considered by Manjoo to be nothing more than secondary activities and necessary to sustaining the relevance of bookstores. While these activities are necessary, they are the lifeblood of the literary culture that Manjoo spends the essay sneering at and are hardly secondary.

After this, we then get another rapport-generating confession from Manjoo who, in a hurt tone, says that what really rankles him is the “hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo, especially when they argue that readers who spurn indies are abandoning some kind of “local” literary culture.” Manjoo believes that folks who are in favor of independents attempt to bully people into seeing things their way, so much so that they become what Manjoo actually calls “cultist”. And this blog post will probably be seen in that light as well. We are then told that there is little that is “local” about local bookstores. A comparison is drawn between local bookstores and farmer’s markets and Manjoo argues that local bookstores’ shelves don’t have much to do with their own communities (certainly not as much as farmer’s markets do)–in fact, the product that Amazon sells is the same that is sold by local independent bookstores. It is argued that it’s the same all over. I guess it all comes down to where you focus the argument. If all we were talking about in this argument was product and business and capitalism and that “may the best man win” attitude, then I would say that Manjoo’s argument is basically sound. So far we’ve been subjected to the argument that Amazon is more efficient than independent bookstores. And what those in favor of brick and mortar bookstores are saying is that there is more to bookselling than turning a profit. I am a resident of one of the most independent bookstore-friendly towns in America, Seattle, Washington. We in Seattle understand that bookstores do more than sell books. They create a very important place for people of the community to come together and experience art and to expose and market literature in reading the only way possible with limited funds–having author readings and signings in their own place of business, as well as contributing to local and national charities and various other causes. What Manjoo refuses to see with his article is that the brick and mortar bookstore serves the role of the modern-day equivalent of the Greek “piazza” where people could meet and experience a sort of community devoid in our modern way of living (which Amazon contributes to by enabling us home shoppers to never leave the couch except to go and pick up our packages–or maybe not even that, because we just bought the latest model of the Kindle!)

But, Manjoo asks, aren’t those employees and owners of bookstores benefiting from patrons’ decisions to buy local? Of course they are. So this means that since bookstores operate inefficiently, they are benefiting at the expense of someone in the economy and as such they are robbing the citizens of the opportunity to spend money on something else–namely “on authentically local cultural experiences” such as going to see local theater productions, visiting your local museum, or going to a farmer’s market. The problem with this logic is that Manjoo seems to see an authentically local cultural experience as something that you spend money on and that can only be quantified and that involve the consumption of commodities other than books. What’s more, out of all the “cultural experiences” listed by Manjoo (including bookstores) independent bookstore readings and signings, community book drives, or other volunteer opportunities are the only activities that do not charge anything and that do not necessitate a financial commitment. In order to give to a farmer’s market, you can’t just view the produce–you have to pay for it. To go to a museum, you have to pay quite a bit; to go to the theater, same thing. So Manjoo’s claim that brick and mortar bookstores rob citizens of other enriching opportunities is simply false.

The argument then draws a bead on what it thinks is the central point. Say someone doesn’t care about cultural experiences, Manjoo posits. Say they only care about books.”Then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read.” Manoo says that the most critical flaw of Russo’s argument is this: he omits the “most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.” But what Manjoo doesn’t realize is this: that the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture isn’t about getting people to buy a whole heckload of books–it’s about getting as many people as possible to read a whole heckload of books. If this wasn’t the case, then why would libraries still be valuable resources even in today’s fast-moving world of computers and rapid information exchange? Librarians are warriors of an even more zealous caliber than independent booksellers. Readers and the act of reading is what librarians and booksellers get into the game for. Owning a business and making a profit is nice, but it’s not everything. If booksellers were in the business of making money, they wouldn’t be selling books. Amazon proved this by quickly moving on from selling books and selling other products–big screen TVs, other electronics, and nearly anything else you can name, essentially becoming the online Wal-Mart. Russo’s argument isn’t flawed because it doesn’t talk about making money from books because the name bookseller has the notion of making money from books already built into it. What independent booksellers really do is sell an experience and a belief in this culture that is kept alive by what Manjoo has deemed “cultish” and “moldering” institutions called bookstores.

“And here is where Amazon is unbeatable” Manjoo proclaims. Yes, Bezos will sell books at a lower price. But he also won’t lead you around his store and tell you how much he enjoyed a certain book or invite you to come around next week and attend a reading by a great local author for free. He also won’t let you sit in his store for all business hours reading the latest hardback for free. Then Manjoo touts the Kindle, “which has turned the whole world into a bookstore” and which turns customers “into monster book-buyers” and it also has started a self-publishing limb that lets anyone publish books. And finally it has also allowed magazine articles and essays to be bought. So basically Amazon is a money machine. Who hasn’t known this all along? And isn’t this part of the problem? Amazon has turned up another notch on the culture of convenience and has gone about quickly convincing us that this is for the good. But consider this: if the Internet suddenly broke down, if somehow the Internet was no longer working, what would become of Amazon? Where would it be in the scope of literary culture without a platform from which to sell? The reason I’m asking this question is because Manjoo’s last claim in his piece is that Amazon “is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it.” What Amazon do is allow people to purchase books for cheaper than many places and as such, undercuts the competition and makes it a major player in the bookselling market. But what does it do for writers, the makers of these products, besides allowing anyone anywhere to publish work (which is probably not of quality and not fit for mass-readership). And what does it do in order to encourage that books and those involved with them receive a real and personable experience and that they feel like a part of a community?

The biggest problem that I see with Amazon is that they aren’t committed to what they sell in the same way that independent booksellers are. Brick and mortar stores stake their lives and livelihoods on their relationships with people and with the item that they are selling. The product they put out is a part of themselves and the people they support are a part of that as well. For Amazon, books are just another product that they can sell at a cheaper rate than many places can, because of their unique position of selling on the internet. Amazon seems to me to be the business equivalent of something without a soul and Manjoo seems to be its champion. He knows that bookstores are financially inefficient and so does everyone else. But what he doesn’t want to admit is that a book-reading culture does not thrive on buying books. It thrives on reading them. Books and plays have been written for thousands of years and for a good amount of time, they were not bought in the manner that they are now. The spirit that kept books alive then is the same as the spirit that keeps books alive now–the interaction and cooperation of people dedicated to stories. Not the ones who make the best profit from it.

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