Is Your Local Bookstore an Amazon Showroom?

Today’s uproar de jour in book publishing is the news story that is giving a $5.00 discount on items that a customer scans using the Amazon “Price Check for iPhone App” in a brick and mortar store . The promotion is only good for 1 day and it doesn’t include books.  But people in publishing , particularly booksellers, are understandably upset about this promotion and  this app.   I knew the app was in existence but I hadn’t checked it out. I tried it earlier today. I’ll give you a demonstration.

So here’s a picture of the app icon as it appears on my new and cool iPad.  You can get it for free at the Apple App Store and download it in about 15 seconds.





I touch the app and this screen pops up. Note the announcement about the promotion on December 10 for selected categories. Also note that you are uploading information to Amazon including the geographical coordinates of your price check. You are, in effect, an Amazon secret shopper (although they aren’t paying you the  customary sub-minimum wage for the marketing service you are providing).

As you can see there are 3 ways to identify the product:  scanning, talking, and photographing. On my iPad (and on iPhones), you can do all or any of these quite easily.




Here is the book I’m testing. The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving.  It is a title by my client, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. It’s a wonderful book on the 40,000 year romance between humans and dogs. It’s a good Christmas present for your dog loving friends. And – Jeff gets a royalty on every book you buy (with some exceptions we’ll discuss below) and I get a commission on all of Jeff’s royalties for this book. So you should buy it and everyone will be happy.

Getting back to the app, first I tried the “say it” button. A microphone logo appeared and I – well – said it. Sophisticated voice recognition software translated and digitized my words and sent it on to Amazon.  Within seconds, an Amazon page for The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving popped up. I did the same with the “snap it” button. My iPad and all iPhones have cameras. Same page popped up.




Here is a photograph of me using the scanning function. I just centered the iPad on the bar code and without hitting any button, the Amazon page for the title came up again.




The Amazon title page  looks like this. Voila! Hit a button and you have bought the book. You can even do this in the independent book shop where you are  browsing, even right in front of the cash wrap where the owner is standing and glaring at you with fire in her eyes. I don’t recommend that. You should probably take the book into that dark corner over there.  Try to ignore the fact that people are looking at you funny like you are some kind of a pervert and that  the owner is still staring  hawklike at you because she thinks you are stuffing the book into your knickers.

This apps’ pretty cool, huh? And internet savvy consumers are really going to town on this.

There is something creepy about it though and troubling for me. This is the point where I have to make my obligatory statement that I am not a Luddite. And truthfully raging against technology is a fool’s errand. And Amazon is not the only company making price check scanning apps either.

Book publishers are pretty upset about the horrible troubles of  brick and mortar stores. Internet geeks say that this is just the price for progress. But it is really a little more complicated than this. We have spoken before in this blog  about the concept of “discoverability”. That is the arrangement of products that allows the consumer to find something unexpected. is not a good place for impulse buys.  There was a recent survey that indicated that 20% of books purchased online were on impulse while 40% at brick and mortar stores were. For some categories, children’s books come to mind, as much as 80% of all purchases are impulse.

A bookstore is a little like a showroom. Publishers know that and value that. Amazon seems to know it too and are exploiting that. Paradoxically the scanning apps which drive lots of business to Amazon are doing their part to insure that these showrooms will not survive. And there goes your “discoverability”.

Most of the people who read this blog are writers or book lovers. And many of you writers might simply think that this doesn’t matter. If customers want to buy online, hey, it’s still a sale. But wait. Go back up and take a look at Jeff’s Amazon book page. The page that pops up tells the customer that he can buy it used for as little as a penny. The  other featured books  are used copies as well. Who the hell wouldn’t rather have a book for a penny?

We  have spoken frequently  about the value of intellectual work in an internet culture that believes “information wants to be free”. Maybe I’m naïve or just venal, but it seems to me that writers deserve to get paid for their work. And price checking apps that drive consumers to buy books for a penny undermine that principle.

And mark this well.  It is also undermining the very stores who create those showrooms that give book lovers that ineffable experience of discovering an unexpected miracle.

As I said, there is something a little creepy about this.


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12 Responses to “Is Your Local Bookstore an Amazon Showroom?”

  1. Mike Roloff Says:

    Thank for the story. Put a link to it on f.b.

  2. Andrew Says:

    I have often wondered why Amazon allows third-party sellers to undercut its own heavily discounted sales. Maybe they saw that people (hobbyists, college kids, and independent sellers) were going to sell books online for a very low price no matter how popular Amazon became, so why not earn a portion of those profits on the side?

    By creating a well-shopped marketplace that is competitive with other third-party sites like eBay and, Amazon is snagging online sellers and creating income on sales they would have completely lost out on. If an Internet shopper is going to buy a $3 book on eBay anyway, why not at least make .50 cents on that transaction? Amazon Marketplace seller fees are just low enough to entice people away from other sites, and, for $39.99 per month, you can even become a ‘professional’ Amazon merchant. You get the fancy title, and still have to pay all the regular sellers fees, albeit at a slightly discounted rate.

    With the creation of the Amazon Marketplace, Amazon figured out another way to keep book sales online and money flowing into their pockets.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Andrew, I’m also puzzled a little by the penny books posted on Amazon. There are so many of them that I know it can’t be a teaser. I assume that the 3rd party sellers are making a little money on the handling fees (usually 3.95). Amazon has always been willing to sacrifice profits to drive buyers to the site. They usually can squeeze another sale out of the consumer. And this definitely plays into that strategy. In a lot of ways, Amazon is really selling real estate. They take a pretty hefty commission on these 3rd party sales without incurring incremental costs. — Although a 15% commission on a penny book is still not much.

      • Andrew Says:

        Oh yes, they are always hoping that after the customer buys a penny book, they might continue to browse the site and buy a $30 hand mixer.

        Mr. Ross, thank you so much for your insightful commentary on the lit business. Your blog has been an amazing resource for me. As a longtime patron of independent music and book stores, I greatly appreciate your point of view.

        Paperback Dreams was one of the most profound documentaries I have ever seen.

        Thank you for sharing some of your Cody’s experiences on this blog. As a history buff, I love reading about the ‘old days’ of independent bookselling. Many thanks!

      • andyrossagency Says:

        Andrew, thank you for your kind words (although you make me blush). Andy

  3. Bill McClung Says:


    Somehow we must master this digital/online phenomenon. Last night we had a great UPB Conversation with Paul Rabinow whose latest book THE ACCOMPANIMENT: ASSEMBLING THE CONTEMPORARY published by the University of Chicago Press. The paperback sells for about $25, but Chicago offers a 30-day e-edition for $7. We sold a lot of books. The social space of being in our bookstore, hearing the author speak, having the physical book present and available all made that possible. Me, I just bought two 1-cent-plus-$3.99-postage books through Amazon this week: books I wanted and we didn’t have.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Thanks Bill. I can’t really see a silver lining on this price comparison app. The real strength of local booksellers is to provide the services that Amazon can’t. This simply is a way for the buyer to take advantage of those services but still buy the book elsewhere.

  4. J. Ortiz Says:

    As a former Borders employee, I often saw “customers” using their smartphones checking Amazon. These are the same people crying because they no longer have a bookstore to browse.

    I started selling books on Amazon a couple of years ago. It’s mainly a hobby. The .01 books, we call Penny Books. They are huge sellers and make money off the shipping. Please look at their feedbacks. They often misgrade their used books. The smaller sellers, like myself, gripe about the Penny Book Sellers ruining the market.

    We all have our battles. I wish the independent brick and mortars the best of luck. I love real books, with actual pages.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Interesting point. I remember when the internet first became a venue for used books. Everyone in the used book business thought it would be a windfall because it created a world market for their books. It seems to me like it has been a mixed bag. The internet is a “perfect market”. And as such, there is always someone who will come in and sell a book for a few cents less. My used book friends tell me that this has caused a huge decline in profit margin for used books. And as you point out, its hard to undercut a penny book.

  5. DealingLocal Says:

    Visited my mom over holidays in small town CT. Had to do last minute shopping at Walmart since that was only place open (and still in business). I noticed a customer scanning codes with his iPhone and he said he was checking prices (not sure if it was amazon app). I recall when Walmart opened my mom and most of the town were furious what it would do to local merchants and character of her town. It played out as expected with about half of the town center shops now shuttered. Now these online merchants are competing the big box retailers out of business. There are obvious economies of scale, so logical conclusion will be big fish keep eating smaller until we are left with one fish in the cloud. I wonder what towns will be in the not too distant future without local shops.

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