SEATTLE — In this city famous for its independent bookstores and pungent coffee shops — brick-and-mortar institutions that value touch, taste and long, rainy afternoons — a high-profile conflict about the business of selling e-books has left many readers feeling conflicted.
Their dilemma: balancing an addiction to the convenient and wallet-friendly services of the local Internet giant with their devotion to the local literary culture.
“I’ve spent more on Amazon just to support them just because everyone was boycotting them,” said Peg Manning, an Orcas Island, Wash., resident and self-described Amazon junkie who also loves wandering into her local bookstore with her granddaughter.
The boycotts Manning referred to have grown out of a three-month contract dispute between Amazon and multinational publisher Hachette. The companies are fighting over the pricing of e-books, with Hachette accusing Amazon of demanding unreasonably low prices and an increased percentage of sales.
Amazon has applied pressure on Hachette by delaying shipping and disabling preorders of the publisher’s titles, including J.K. Rowling’s latest book, “The Silkworm,” under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Because of its status as the largest distributor of books, Amazon’s tactics in the Hachette dispute have grabbed headlines and polarized consumers and authors. One national survey indicates some consumers are voting with their wallets — against Amazon — and an informal poll in Seattle shows the issue playing out at cash registers here, too.
In June, comedian Stephen Colbert, whose books are published by Hachette, shoved his middle finger through an Amazon shipping box during his late-night Comedy Central show. He and his guest that night, author Sherman Alexie, eviscerated Amazon. And Colbert encouraged viewers to use Portland-based Powell’s Books for online orders of Edan Lepucki’s “California,” a book Alexie was recommending. (Online sales at Powell’s shot through the roof, and there are 326 holds on “California” at the Seattle Public Library, two months later.)
Along with many well-known Northwest authors, including Maria Semple, Erik Larson, Garth Stein, Cheryl Strayed and Carol Cassella, Alexie’s names appeared in an anti-Amazon full-page advertisement in the Aug. 10 Sunday edition of The New York Times.
CONVENIENCE VERSUS CONSCIENCE
In bookish and techie Seattle, you don’t have to look far to find readers who have been impacted by the conflict.
Retiree Jon Sims of the Laurelhurst neighborhood has a Kindle and has bought about 10 e-books on Amazon over the past few months. But after years of buying only online, he’s bought about 15 books in print and avoids shopping on Amazon as much as he can.
“I’ve tried much harder to go to brick-and-mortar stores,” he said. “It’s a slow accumulation of what you learn about Amazon’s business practices over the years, but the Hachette dispute was probably the tipping point.”
Small contradictions — the Amazon lover who also supports the local bookstore, and the Amazon skeptic who still buys e-books for his Kindle — point to internal conflicts for readers who are becoming more and more aware of their purchasing power.
It’s a classic case of convenience versus conscience.
At a recent gathering of Seattle’s Meetup Book Club, for readers in their twenties and thirties, 11 members were split between those who prioritize convenience and those who view Amazon’s business practices as monopolistic and strong-arm.
But even during a civil discussion among the reasonable book-clubbers, it became clear this is a touchy subject in the land of Amazon.