Empty bookstore shelves make room for Amazon

By HATTIE LEFAVOUR

When the Middlebury College Bookstore stopped stocking physical books in 2018 — some say the ensuing collective groan still echoes in the hills — a large part of its rationale was students’ increasing use of Amazon. As a result, the bookstore replaced its concrete, in-person services with an online supplier called MBS Direct; Amazon orders swelled. While students have always scrambled to get their school books in time for the start of classes each semester, the Middlebury College Bookstore once provided the most convenient on-the-spot option that guaranteed timely access. By removing this source, the college has created space for Amazon’s fast delivery and low prices to occupy an even greater portion of schoolbook sales than it once did. Whereas students once used Amazon in take-as-needed doses, the college has now essentially written the campus an open prescription to mainline it, leaving the hazardous side effects to fall on the book industry. 

Many already revile Amazon for its laundry list of legal and ethical vices, though few are aware that the company had its not-so-humble beginning in book sales. CEO Jeff Bezos chose books as a jumping-off point because they were a uniquely exploitable commodity due to vast variety, worldwide demand and low unit price. The company has been dealing despotic blows to publishing houses and their authors ever since. After significantly expanding its merchandise, Amazon now relies on book sales for just a sliver of its revenue. However, the website is responsible for more than half of all books sold worldwide. So, while Amazon doesn’t rely on books, the company enjoys unparalleled leverage over book sales, including the ability to manipulate publishing houses and authors and abuse supply chains.

An example might help. As a student studying English and American literature and political science, I was required to order a total of 16 books for the spring semester — mostly novels and nonfiction titles published by single authors through conventional publishing houses. One item on my list is “Caucasia” by Danzy Senna, a phenomenal contemporary novel published in 1999 by Riverhead books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. A used copy, ordered through MBS Direct, costs $12; a brand-new copy of the same edition costs $5.88 from Amazon via a third-party supplier.

On paper, ordering “Caucasia” in better condition for half the price may seem like a no-brainer. But what does “third-party supplier” mean? Amazon intentionally leaves the answer murky. Oftentimes, these books are promotional copies circulated without permission; others are simply counterfeited. One thing that every purchase of a book from a third-party supplier has in common is that the publisher and author do not see a single penny of profit. Despite countless complaints, Amazon has excused itself from the responsibility of vetting these sources for such infractions, claiming that it is the suppliers’ responsibility to “ensure that [their] content doesn’t violate laws or copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity or other rights.”

Whereas students once used Amazon in take-as-needed doses, the college has now essentially written the campus an open prescription to mainline it, leaving the hazardous side effects to fall on the book industry. ”

Beyond the problem of third-party suppliers, the scope of Amazon’s business model allows it to routinely take intentional losses in book sales, often pricing books lower than the wholesale price it paid the publisher and making up for the profits elsewhere. The company then uses the sheer quantity of customers to strongarm publishing companies into agreeing to disadvantageous wholesale and royalty contracts. A notable example is a dispute between Amazon and major publishing house Hachette that occurred in 2014, during which Amazon raised listed prices of Hachette books and delayed delivery times by weeks — all the while advertising cheaper and faster-shipping books from other houses — to injure Hachette’s sales until the house was willing to renegotiate. 

Publishing houses rely on the revenue generated by big-selling titles. In turn, these revenues  provide publishers room to experiment with content, diversify their repertoires, take on new authors and publish the higher-quality, medium-to-low-selling content. These are the works that often win prestigious awards like the Pulitzer, Booker and Nobel Prize in Literature (and that we are often assigned at Middlebury). When Amazon uses its leverage to skimp publishing houses on profits or sells new copies from third-party suppliers, not only are these houses less able to produce high-quality, wide-ranging content, but new and diverse authors are dissuaded from entering the field at all due to lower financial rewards.

I am aware that, for many students, the cheapest option is the only viable option. Whether the bookstore is online or on campus, Amazon often fills this role, and I do not intend to shame students who use it for this purpose in any way. The problem is that, though the old Middlebury College Bookstore was not necessarily the most affordable, it was frequently the most convenient. By transitioning to an online supplier, the college makes room for Amazon to occupy this role as well. Thus, in the wake of the bookstore’s digitization, the student pivot to Amazon is unfortunately reasonable, as it is often the only service that can deliver books as quickly and cheaply as required by Middlebury’s quick-moving academic calendar and rigorous homework schedule — in one of my literature classes, for instance, my professor told students not to bother attending class until they have the book in hand.

By clearing the bookstore’s shelves and ushering students to the internet, Middlebury has raised a de facto white flag to Amazon’s literary abuses, inviting the company into our classrooms at the expense of the very books we study.

Hattie LeFavour ’21 is a Local editor for The Campus.