My Trip To An Amazon Bookstore: A Review

Last month, I went to Austin to give a workshop to the local RWA, and while there, I had the chance to pop into a brand spankin’ new Amazon Bookstore.

Now, stepping foot into a physical Amazon bookstore is immediately surreal, in part because Amazon has for so long been a purely digital entity — so, when you enter this space, you become momentarily concerned that you have just shoved your Meatspace Body into a Cyberspace Realm, like you’ve broken some critical rule of reality. “WAIT IS THIS THE MATRIX. IS THIS THE OASIS. IS THIS REAL. ARE MY FINGER-TOUCHES ANALOGOUS TO MOUSE-CLICKS. IF I TOUCH A BOOK DO I BUY IT. AM I JUST TALKING IN BINARY CODE NOW.” (“Sir, you’re being weird,” one of the booksellers helpfully whispers into my ear.)

The other aspect of surreality comes from the fact that all the books are face out.

This is amazing.

This is terrifying.

This is weird.

Bookshelves as a rule are a great way to store books, but not a great way to display books to make them enticing. Authors and publishers gnash their teeth over book cover design, and all for books that are then turned sideways and slotted intimately next to other books, rendering the attractiveness of their covers utterly moot. A shelf is a great way to demonstrate books-as-information-clumps and a poor way to put them forward as tantalizing culture products.

Amazon has solved this by making every book a superstar.

Face. Out.

Glamour Shot.

RAZZLE FUCKING DAZZLE.

Again, this is:

Amazing, because it gives the book covers their due, and makes the books seem as much like art and culture product as they are wads of content.

Terrifying, because I’m pretty sure it feels like all the books are watching you.

Weird, because this is… not how we use bookshelves, generally. It’s so out-of-sync with how we experience bookshelves and bookstores, you get the feeling that the person who set them up doesn’t know what bookshelves do. It’s like seeing someone wear a boot on their hand or use food as a hat — it looks interesting, but it also looks like something a moon alien would do when trying to masquerade as a human meatbag. So, it’s jarring enough to feel like you’re in a bookstore that doesn’t know it’s a bookstore, even though it’s ostensibly a much sassier, sexier way of displaying the books for sale.

“Look at me,” the bookstore says, “I’m a real bookstore.”

“But this isn’t how real bookstores look,” you say.

And then the bookstore morphs into a fist that punches you and a mouth that eats you as you realize far too late that it’s actually just a Mimic from the old-school D&D Monster Manual.  [Edit: or home to the Lurker or Trapper from the same book!]

The other side effect of this display is, of course, that the bookstore features… well, very few books. It’s like an art gallery — you can only hang so many paintings on the wall. A single shelf on a bookshelf with the books spine-out can fit, let’s say, 20-30 books. But you can only display one face-out book per, I dunno, five or six spine-out books, so you’ve seriously limited how many books can be on display.

And what I found there was a mix of three kinds of books:

New, popular books — bestsellers or bestseller-adjacent.

Classic books, like, in SFF, analogous to Dune or ASOIAF or Wrinkle in Time.

Buzzy books, books you have heard about — at least, books you would’ve heard about if you pay attention to books and book-related things.

Folded into those three categories are a reasonable mix of Amazon-specific books, meaning, books published by the various wiggly arms of Amazon Publishing. (I’ll quietly make a sad face here and note that none of my A-Pub books were in the store, but that’s just me being mopey. Still: mope, mope, mope, you can’t stop me from moping, just you try.) My thing when I go into any bookstore now is to go to the SFF shelves and, honestly, look for the work of my friends — like, lately, B&N has been falling down on that front, especially when it comes to new releases. The Amazon store had a mix of SFF cohorts (Myke Cole, Delilah Dawson, Erin Morgenstern, NK Jemisin, and A-Pub author Marko Kloos), but the overall representation was fairly slim. But a great deal of SFF isn’t represented there at all. Again, in part because (I assume) you just don’t have much room on shelves.

(The perhaps ironic component of this is that the online Amazon store is theoretically limitless, while the physical location is eerily finite.)

I can contrast this with two other bookstore experiences —

First, that same day, I visited BookPeople in Austin (and signed some stock there), and that is a well-managed, beautiful store — a lot of stock, huge SFF and horror section with a deep bench for readers and authors. And then their whole children’s section was — *whistles* — imaginative and alive. I wanted to stay, play, frolic amongst the book garden.

Second, with B&N, which I just visited yesterday — our local B&N is starting to worry me. There were a few end-caps and central display shelves that had no books on them at all, giving them a ghost-town feel (and this was on a weekend, when foot traffic was high). And the SFF shelves had very few new releases by authors — no Cat Valente’s Space Opera, nor Fire Dance by Ilana Myer. (Their website says the former is in stock, but the person there didn’t know where, which tells me maybe it was in a box in the back.) This hurts first-week sales and so when B&N does their metric on subsequent books by those authors they’ll cite those first week sales as a reason to not carry the books, which of course wasn’t the author’s fault and — well, you see how it goes.

(Also, B&N feels less and less like a bookstore. My son breaks my heart whenever we go there because he always acts like he forgets they sell books. Which isn’t surprising, given how books are pushed to the margins while the ‘stuff’ like toys and such are brought into the center of the store. I can’t blame him for failing to realize B&N is a bookstore. He has no such confusion at our local indie, Let’s Play Books. Or same with Doylestown Bookshop.)

The Amazon Bookstore is a curious interstitial, then — it’s somewhat sterile, having none of that warm, lived-in reading-nook feel you get from a lot of indie stores. But it’s also surprisingly book-facing. Yes, there’s your standard part of the store dedicated to selling you the Kindle, but the rest is pretty much all books. Very few toys or other dongle-widgets to compete with the books. And this is Amazon we’re talking about. They could use those stores to sell books plus leaf-blowers plus pet food plus stuffed animals plus literally anything else Amazon sells. So, it’s nice to see… a bookstore that displays and sells primarily books in an attractive, book-forward way. But then they kinda fuck that up by putting front-and-center reader reviews and star ratings, which introduces something… off-kilter to the whole proceedings. When I’m in a bookstore I care very much about what the booksellers are reading, not what Guy In Aisle Five likes. And knowing how easily the ratings at Amazon can be manipulated… and having heard that the stores don’t tend to carry books with ratings below four….

…nnnyeah that’s a bit anxiety-inducing as an author.

And all told, there’s something icy and inert about the store. It didn’t really make me want to buy any books? It had that Silicon Valley vibe to it, a too-clean, tech-industry standoffishness. The staff stayed off in corners, talking to one another. The selection was sadly slim and if they had a big space (similar to the old Atlantic Book Warehouses) it might feel like more of a fun shopping experience instead of a sterile book boutique. I didn’t hate it, but didn’t love it. It felt more like an augmented reality experience of a bookstore than an actual bookstore. I don’t mind if more show up elsewhere, but also hope like hell they don’t replace any actual bookstores, because… well, it just isn’t a 1:1 replacement. It can’t be, the way it’s designed. There’s simply more pleasure walking around and exploring a nice indie store or a B&N (especially a well-curated B&N, like the Rittenhouse Square store in Philly) than this place.

(Here is where I make my plaintive cry to support indie bookstores whenever possible. And here you may say, ah, but I have no such store in my area, to which I give the retort: ahhh, oh-ho-ho my good book-buying friend, many such bookstores now ship to you wherever you are. You can find some such bookstores via Indiebound. And if you want signed books by me, you can buy them direct from Let’s Play Books in Emmaus, PA — I’ll sign, they’ll ship. And note if you can’t do a bookstore, always check out the library. You can even ask your local library to order books by your favorite authorpeople.)