How to buy books and avoid Amazon

How to buy books and avoid Amazon. If you don’t yet understand the many reasons you should avoid having anything to do with Amazon, please hop online, it won’t be hard to find some links.

1 If it isn’t too late, if it hasn’t closed down yet, visit your local bookstore. Buy books they have in stock. Ask them to order books for you. Be happy to have had a nice walk, a browse in a shop stocked by people who care, be happy to talk to a human being in the flesh. Understand that paying them extra is what you have to do unless you want your books to be shipped to you from a migrant undercutting the local workforce whilst housed in some sort of camp guarded by dogs. You probably wouldn’t want to have to do your job like that – whether you be a teacher, an accountant or a street sweeper – and neither should a bookseller have to live like that. Do your local streets look better if they have book shops and bric a brac shops, clothes shops, butchers, bakers and green grocers? Or do they look better if your local streets are full of nothing but OxFam shops and supermarkets whilst Amazon hides somewhere you can’t see it, waiting for you to press the button.

2. Buying online. Secondhand books. My business was part of the movement at the time that established ABE as the biggest of the databases that exist now. These are collectives of secondhand booksellers who joined forces so that the customer could go to one place and see and compare what was available from them. Some of them have real shops as well, some don’t. We haven’t had a shop since the late 1970s, but that’s a story for another time.

My business is still on ABE even though it has been taken over by Amazon. Why? Partly because we find that we would have to close down without being on ABE, but also because although Amazon now owns the company we built up in the same way goodreads members decided to put their weight behind that particular company, it hasn’t resulted in any changes at all that we are aware of. Certainly not for us. We are still a large number of independent booksellers just as before. We still all independently pay our tax. I know we pay every cent we owe not only legally but also morally. As my father who started the business, once said to a new accountant: ‘Don’t tell us how to avoid our tax. We live in a society. Somebody has to pay tax.’ Yes, we are on the poor side!

However, whereas our moral weight used to be in support of ABE, it no longer is. We are part of other databases too, which aren’t owned by Amazon. I most highly recommend biblio which is a very friendly institution still on the side of both the bookseller and the book buyer. For Australians, at least, there is also which is a very basic site, no frills, but lots of people love it for that. Both these sites are large databases of big groups of booksellers. From any of these you will also get links to individual sellers and their sites – we have a site and a blog, for example.

I would beg you to go to secondhand booksellers rather than Oxfam, which with various unfair advantages, is aggressively and hostilely competing with booksellers. Again. If you buy from your local bookseller, you are giving money to the person who will buy meat from your butcher, clothes from your clothes shop, eat in your restaurant, pay for their kid’s music lessons. If you want to live in a community, support the community. If you want to live in a wasteland, shop at Oxfam.

May I add another complication. All sites like biblio and ABE start off with high standards, you have to demonstrate in some way that you are a bookseller of repute, because it is by their thus established good name that they are able to start letting in all and sundry without any standards. So, there are lots of sellers on all these sites now which aren’t what I think of as genuine booksellers. They will have vague descriptions of books up like ‘may have marks’ or ‘this item may ship from our warehouse in Sydney or in London or in NY’. Booksellers are little people. They don’t have warehouses all over the world stocking millions of books. They can see their books, they know what they look like, each book is a precise entity. They are like us, we have about 45,000 books listed on line with maybe another 50,000 we are struggling to get through to list. Personally I try to buy from ‘real’ booksellers. I also avoid the ones who tell you that they are employing sheltered workshop people which is why you should buy from them, or that they give 5% of each order to charity. P-leeease.

3) Buying online. New books. Quite the saddest moment in my book buying life recently was discovering that The Book Depository is now owned by Amazon. It was the leading competitor. As you will be aware, there is an organisation in the UK that makes sure big companies like Amazon don’t swallow up the competition. However, that organisation works in support of Amazon by letting them take over at a time when they can argue it isn’t fundamental to the industry. So, Amazon waits. If (say) The Book Depository stays really small, it ignores it. If it starts becoming a meaningful competitor it buys it before it gets so big that the powers that be won’t let it be swallowed up. That was the argument that led to the ruling that permitted Amazon to buy The Book Depository.

To be fair, realising that there are various ways of being owned by Amazon, I started a written discussion with The Book Depository to find out if they are still paying their taxes as they did, ie in the UK and in an (one hopes) honest way. I never received a frank answer to this. That has me now at a point where I have decided to stop buying from The Book Depository, even though it is with a heavy heart: living in a non-English speaking country it is relatively hard to buy books in English. BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE. We do have a couple of new bookshops here which stock English books, one of which is specifically and only English. I love it being there and I hate the thought that it is going to close down sooner (or later) because we all want to save a few bucks by buying online.

10 thoughts on “How to buy books and avoid Amazon

  1. I was wondering if you have any advice on buying academic books online while avoiding Amazon? Obviously the big publishers like OUP and CUP need to be avoided like the plague, but it’s the little ones with sketchy websites and questionable credit card security that worry me.

    • Lucas, I’m sorry, I missed your comment! I am going to write something about OUP and CUP soon. For now I will say that they aren’t quite the same thing. There is certainly a strong case for avoiding OUP.

      Regarding the little sites – I really don’t think you have to worry about that. I always feel like small sites are safer and less of a target than big ones. But if worse comes to the worse, the credit card company is always on the side of the customer.

      I’d be interested in your giving me some links to the kind of sites you are wondering about so I can take a more specific look.

  2. hi not, just read this in publishers weekly may 20th 2013

    Home > Digital > Retailing
    Looking for the Next Goodreads
    An Indie Quest
    By Judith Rosen |
    May 17, 2013

    When Amazon announced in March that it would acquire Goodreads in the second quarter of the year, there was much handwringing, along with tweeting and Facebooking, especially by independent booksellers. This blog post from Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., to its customers was typical: “Because we are an independent bookstore and Amazon is in direct competition with us, we’ve deleted our Goodreads account.” Cinda Meister, co-owner of BookSmart in Morgan Hill, Calif., was equally “dismayed,” she told PW. “It’s just Amazon having one more piece of the book business,” she said. The megaretailer fully owns one Goodreads competitor, Shelfari, and acquired a 40% chunk, later diluted, of another, LibraryThing, through its purchase of AbeBooks.

    As booksellers and publishers get ready for BookExpo America, some are hoping that the American Booksellers Association will find an alternative to Goodreads by the end of the show. “It certainly came up at some of the spring forums,” said ABA content officer Dan Cullen, adding that the subject is on the agenda for the ABA board meeting directly before BEA. “To me,” said Michael Herrmann, owner of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., “at the bottom of this discussion is how we think about our customers. Online sellers think of them as data points, and the Goodreads deal merely proves that. Bookstore people think of customers as fellow readers whom we are trying to serve and make a living in the process.”

    PW issue Contents
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    But that’s only one piece of it. Some bookstores, like Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill., used Goodreads internally as a closed group. “We used it to make blurbs, shelftalkers, and to submit for IndieNext,” explained co-owner Becky Anderson. “You put it down once and can reuse it,” she added. Anderson, like other booksellers, searches Goodreads for comments on advance reading copies to see how bloggers and other early readers react to forthcoming titles before placing buys for the store. While ABA weighs what it can afford to build and how long it will take, Anderson is considering other possibilities. “We’re thinking of creating a separate Web site that will link to our site to let people put down their reader blurbs,” she said. Even if that is successful, she’d like to see the ABA create an app with all the book recommendations that it’s received over the years.

    Booksellers in Northern California, where Goodreads is based, have trust issues after partnering with the company for the holidays on the Goodreads Choice Awards. “I saw that as a first step in a bigger partnership,” said Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz—one of many to feel let down by the purchase. “We have so much in common with Goodreads. It was one of the sites where we felt that there was trust to promote it to our customers.” While she recognizes that it’s unrealistic for ABA to recreate an indie version of Goodreads by tomorrow, Protti would like the booksellers association to consider taking parts of the Goodreads experience and making them its own. “We need to be interactive,” she said. “We need to figure out a few of the buckets of how people used it and do what we do best, working with the community, and translate that into our digital space.”

    Other platforms are eager to fill the vacuum left by Goodreads and to lure away at least a portion of its 17 million members. In recent weeks, several competitors have been launched, including Riffle, which has been garnering bookseller buzz since it went live in early May. At the request of customers, it will soon offer a way for Goodreads users to export their data to it.

    Powered by Odyl, one of Facebook’s “preferred marketing developers,” Riffle has a Pinterest-style interface and is geared to the mobile experience with “single-serving” content that can then be shared back into a big network. Its first single-serving format is a list of books, but Odyl founder and CEO Neil Baptista promised additional formats soon. “Our approach is informed by looking at the fastest-growing sites and apps on the Internet, like Buzzfeed, Flipboard, and We spend a lot of time deconstructing the way that these sites have generated massive traffic,” he said.

    Zola Books, which will be in beta through the summer, is taking a different approach. Headed by former agent Joe Regal, this Amazon alternative is trying to become a social site that incorporates book news and features with digital book sales and eventually audio. From the start, Zola has courted indies, and it ramped up that process at the end of March when it went live with the Zola Pledge to enable readers to buy e-books on the site while supporting their local independent booksellers. To date, 137 booksellers have signed on.

    But that’s not the only way that Zola is encouraging booksellers to participate in its community. Booksellers, authors, publishers, magazines, and bloggers can create their own Zola storefronts. As Regal sees it, Zola is about connection and community. “We’re kind of Amazon meets Goodreads and more,” he said. How much more isn’t clear, since much of the site is still a work in progress. “I wish it were faster,” said Regal, who compares building Zola to writing a novel. “Even if you know where it’s going, you still have to write the chapters.” He expects to introduce more facets of the Zola community by the time BEA occurs.

    Bookish—the book discovery platform founded by Penguin, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster, which went live in February—is also welcoming Goodreads users. “What we’re trying to do,” said CEO Ardy Khazaei, “is give people the insight of publishers large and small around their books.” Bookish also has a patent-pending algorithm that it uses to recommend books, although it creates some lists manually, like the ones for “essential” books. Khazaei stressed that Bookish is “in the early stages” in terms of point of view, participants, and functions. The site offers buyers the option to purchase books online through Indiebound, but he’d like to do a better job of integrating independents. “We’re trying to get more integrated with Indiebound,” he noted. “The publishers all want independents to survive, and by extension, so do I.”

    While most reading and book-discovery initiatives have originated in the U.S., BookLikes, a Tumblr-esque platform for readers that went live last week, is based in Poland. Cofounder and CEO Dawid Piaskowski considers the U.S. market his #1 priority, followed by Germany, and he’s planning to set up a U.S. headquarters. He considers BookLikes more personal than Goodreads. Users create a virtual bookshelf, reading timeline, and blog. They can also get 100% of the commission from sales made via the bookstore of their choice. In a few weeks, users will also be able to sync BookLikes with Goodreads and Facebook. New updates will include more personalization and allow for synchronization with reading apps. BookLikes is already in 12 countries and plans to add more coverage.

    Whether any of these companies will be the right fit for indies isn’t clear yet. But booksellers will be testing them as they continue to look for ways to connect with readers online.

  3. Hello, I read you post/update about amazon (20 July), and I agree. It is disgusting how multinationals such as amazon and apple avoid paying tax, pushing the tax burden onto people and small business. I was also very disappointed to read about goodreads selling out to amazon. When I learnt of this I lost all interest in goodreads. My hope is that an open source alternative will emerge.

    • Ian, I think lots of people would like a version of goodreads that doesn’t sell out. However, it is hard to see in practice how this will happen.

  4. Oh no, I didn’t realise that Book Depository was owned by amazon as well and I only discovered last week that they now own Good Reads (the irony). I guess I’ll be buying books at the local shops or will borrow them from libraries.

  5. I know you from Goodreads. I didn’t realize that Book Depository was owned by Amazon either. I live in the USA and always had the best impression of Book Depository. I feel sad.

    We have the Sherman anti-trust act, but it only seems to apply within one industry. Amazon has market power across multiple industries, AND within book sales and maybe publishing, yet the Sherman Act is never mentioned. I don’t understand why this is so.

    I wrote a post about J Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post last year, and about Amazon in general. I hope you won’t mind if I leave the URL

  6. I live in the UK, and have started to get back into reading novels after a much too long gap. I was shocked when I started looking for second hand and independent book shops local to me. There were none! My choices were Waterstones, charity shops and Amazon. I have tried to start a bit of a book revolution locally by creating a website where people local to me can browse the site to look at the books I have in stock and then reserve them for pick up. Only been going for a few weeks but so many positive responses. I think if more people were aware of the advantages charity shops receive at the expense of the smaller independent shops I think they would be shocked. Support the small guy who cares about what they sell!

    • Couldn’t agree more! I was reading an online site for Adelaide (Australia) a couple of days ago that was doing a plug for the city’s Oxfam bookshop calling it the best bookshop in Adelaide. I did write to complain given that there are some lovely proper bookshops that have been in the city centre for many years, but yet to hear back. Good luck with your local fightback!

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