Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Opposing Amazon

* Please note that this blog post is the viewpoint of a single Canadian bookseller and though there is cross-over viewpoint included, this is not meant to represent any other larger entity or organization.

When Stephen Cribar, Canadian Bookseller Association President, was unable to make it in to the CBC studio's yesterday evening for a live appearance on Politics & Power to discuss why CBA opposes Amazon's recent desire to set up a physical warehouse in Canada (Globe & Mail article, Quill & Quire blog, National Post article), as CBA Vice President, I stepped in.

The interview appears on CBC's website here at about 1 hour and 4 minutes. (It's an interesting show overall, but if you don't have time and are interested in the "book" discussion, you can skip through to about 1: 04 in the broadcast)

Reactions to CBA's opposition are mixed, and mostly due, I think, to a misunderstanding on why the opposition is occurring.

Here's my personal take on it, or why I personally support CBA's opposition.

CBA is NOT proposing that Amazon not sell into the Canadian market or that the government attempt to block Amazon from having access to the market.

First of all, it would be impossible, since the internet is pretty much available anywhere to anyone (at least in the free world). And second, let's look at the reality: Amazon is ALREADY a powerful and dominant presence in our market.

So what is CBA opposing?

CBA is opposing a ruling that would open the gate for this foreign-owned company to set up a physical location into Canada. And it's not necessarily because of what that simple warehouse means, but the fact that this step could be the first of many in which a powerful, rich "American Goliath" might be able to commandeer a different sort of presence in Canada that could systematically take down any semblance of independence and free-thinking that currently exists.

Is it likely to happen? Who knows? Is our Canadian independence and distinct Canadian voice worth fighting for? Damn right.

Since the explosion of internet bookselling and big box retailing, many independent booksellers across Canada have closed up shop. It's sad and frustrating to see. However, that's part of the nature of the business. Some stores continue to operate, and some just can't do it anymore. And yes, competition is good. Competition is GREAT, in fact. It allows the consumer to be able to have access to more choice about where they want to shop and how they want to shop.

CBA is NOT opposed to choice for consumers. In fact, choice is one of the underlying reasons why CBA is leery about what this move means for Canada.

Right now, consumers have a choice as to where, when and how they purchase their books. They can do it online via hundreds of various sources, whether it's their local independent bookstore, via Canada's largest chain, Chapters/Indigo, or via Amazon's US or Canadian website. Or they can do it via a variety of physical locations, whether it's a big box warehouse, their local drug, grocery or department store, Chapters, Coles or Indigo, or their local independent bookstore, all of which offer an incredibly complex and dynamic breadth to the cultural landscape of Canada, particularly when it comes to the written word.

In my opinion, consumers having that choice is wonderful. I WANT consumers to have that choice, to be able to decide where and how to spend their money on books. In my mind, the very fact that people are interested in purchasing books and reading is wonderful. And Canadian consumers should ALWAYS have such a wonderful choice between as many options as possible.

But what happens if an American giant is able to work it's way into Canada and takes over a large Canadian operation? The initial thought is that there would be more choice, more selection available to consumers. However, let's look at some things that have happened in Canadian bookselling in the past few decades.

Local communities and support of smaller local presses and local authors suffered significant blows when Canada's dominant bookseller moved their purchasing focus from being decided within the regions where their stores were located, and centralized them to a downtown Toronto office. How can a buyer in Toronto (no matter how great they are, and I personally know many of them -- they are truly intelligent, wonderful and very passionate book people) properly get a handle on a local interest title being produced in a small town in Eastern Canada, a title that perhaps isn't destined to sell well anywhere except in a particular region? A title that requires actually knowing something about the actual community, that requires being a part of that community.

Chances are, it'll get overlooked in the long run if due to nothing more than the red tape of a larger organization.

It's very likely that the local bookseller, whether it's someone who works locally in that chain store, or an owner or employee who works in the local independent bookstore, have their finger on the pulse of the local community, are in touch with the artists and creators and customers.

For the knowledgeable employee in a Canadian chain store to get their voice heard it takes a great deal of effort and energy to work against the "norm" and push for local content and support their local community. Because the system is set up for information and knowledge to flow from Toronto to all outlying locations, getting a decent flow of information back to Toronto that would be important to the local community, is a challenge.

There are employees within the chain stores that do it -- but it's usually because they persist against the odds and these are extraordinary people. Of course, employees and owners of independent bookstores can do these things quickly, easily and efficiently. They are extraordinary people, too -- and fortunately, there isn't a system preventing them from showcasing their passion for books and community spirit. They are, after all, independent, and with that comes freedom of choice and the lack of preventative red tape.

Imagine how difficult that struggle for the local bookseller might be if the bookselling operation and main purchasing decisions for Canada were located in New York rather than Toronto?

Imagine what might happen to those books which are produced that offer regional and local authors and publishers a chance to share their voice no longer have the opportunity to be accessible to consumers?

Sure, the local regional publisher might be able to set up an account to sell their books on Amazon. Sure, perhaps their titles are searchable via a million other titles on a gigantic website that screams selection, selection. The "Long Tail" of bookselling brought about by internet bookstores is truly remarkable. But the down-side of that is that the odds of a customer being able to stumble upon a locally significant title within the overwhelming selection are greatly reduced.

That's one of the side benefits of a local bookseller invested in a local community -- they are there to help consumers within that selection. To get to know their community and their customers. To help the customer make decisions based on previous reading, based on their viewpoints and perspectives. The book-shopping experience isn't just about buying a physical product, it's about the multi-level and complex cultural experience involved. Often, the physical browsing and the conversation between consumers and booksellers are what add a relevant and dynamic spice to the book-shopping experience.

The chances of that local authored and locally produced title being prominently displayed or discussed in a physical location within the region where that book is integral to the community or important to the local consumers is pretty strong. And sometimes it's those lesser known regional titles that end up making a significant stance in the Canadian market that were championed by local and regional bestsellers, merely because they existed, were able to support the book, the author, the publisher, and help it work its way into the hearts and minds of consumers.

Thus, we, as consumers, currently have a great system which is a combination of Canadian chain and independent operations, all offering slightly different things in terms of price, selection, availability and service. We also have access to rich repositories of online books both Canadian and foreign owned.

We need to keep that dynamic and rich selection available to consumers.

With the existing landscape of the Canadian bookselling market, with the wonderful and dynamic range of bookstores that Canadian consumers have access to, customers are nicely served.

In Hamilton, for example, where I live, consumers can go to Coles, Chapters, Bryan Prince or Titles Bookstore at McMaster (to give 4 good examples) to purchase their books. Similarly, they can also go online and seek out their books.

When I work at our general books desk at Titles Bookstore at McMaster I regularly get customers coming in and looking for titles, AFTER they have searched the Chapters and Indigo websites. What are they often looking for? Titles from a smaller press that might not have been able to crack into those markets. Wonderful books from independent Canadian booksellers written by local and regional authors that I, as a bookseller within Canada, either already have on my store shelves or can easily reseach and order. But it's not just my store, it's hundreds of stores across the country where the same thing is played out every day. If the customer's ONLY option were the online behemoths, is anybody going to bother researching and ordering their book in for them?

Again, I'm not saying that the online booksellers are terrible. They're great, in fact. I love them. I buy books from them as a consumer. (I buy books at my own store, and I also buy books online from Canadian and US websites as well as at bookstores wherever I travel. And I LOVE having the ability to choose and relish the fact that consumers should continue to have this choice)

Imagine yet another "Wal-Mart" type business setting up shop and focusing on a strategy by which they will continually sell items below cost in order to squeeze out all competitors.

Imagine what might happen when, in squeezing out all competitors, the Canadian landscape of bookstores remains nothing but a variety of online and physical bookstores all run from a distant head office located outside the borders of Canada?

We Canadians LOVE making fun of how little our U.S. neighbours know about us -- the fact that they have no clue we have a Prime Minister instead of a President, wondering if we all live in igloos, or when, during the Vancouver Olympics, NBC confused Michael J. Fox with Terry Fox. Of course, there couldn't possibly have been two different Foxes from Canada who did something significant. It's a simple mistake for an unknowing US journalist to make. But a ridiculous error made by simply not knowing anything about our culture and identity. What if a Canadian journalist confused Jamie Fox with Matthew Fox? Well, we know that wouldn't happen. We are already saturated in media from the U.S. and regularly see evidence of what a lack of knowledge about Canada in general means.

What if MORE decisions with respect to Canadian produced content and culture were given over to foreign or US owned companies?

What would happen to the richness of our choices, then?

As I stated before, this is merely one possible scenario that could happen. I'm all for selection, I'm all for choice. But I'm also all for a system in which consumers will continue to be offered choice, not have that choice taken away from them if all book-retailing decisions are made by a single powerful foreign owned entity.

Stranger, more frightening things have happened when people just sat back and watched rather than stuck their necks out, took a stand, and spoke out against something they strongly believed in.

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