Friday, August 6, 2010

How should I spend my next $100 book dollars?

I do most of my book buying on Amazon. There. I said it. I try to throw some business at my excellent local bookstore, BookCourt, but I probably only buy one out of every ten books there.

The reasons for this are as familiar as they are compelling: cost, convenience, and selection. Amazon has everything I want at the best price, and my order gets to me in two days. It is simply impossibly inexpensive and easy. And therein lies the problem.

Because I also know that Amazon doesn’t play nice. To say they lean on publishers for lower prices is a bit like saying Michael Corleone “played hardball” with the five families. These concessions trickle down to lower the pay of editors, agents, and writers (I would like to know more about this, so if anyone knows of an article or essay that gives some insight, I’d LOVE to see it).

For Amazon, books are a commodity and a piece to their business puzzle. They are not romantic objects. They are not vessels for knowledge and beauty. They are consumer goods, packaged, priced, and bought as such. And part of me is alright with that (more on this in a minute). But there’s part of me that isn’t.

I’ve rationalized my Amazon buying to this point like this: if I buy from Amazon, I can buy more books with the same amount of money. So while each individual purchase doesn’t provide that author and house with the same return on a full-retail sale, there are more people getting something, albeit in smaller amounts.
Now, however, I’ve read and heard to many Amazon stories to keep my head in the sand, and I need to at least reconsider how I deploy my literary dollars. So I’ve done a little comparison shopping and crunched some numbers—now I ask you, dear readers, to help me think this through.

How should I spend my next $100 book dollars? 

First I need data and a control group. I decided on $100 since it makes on the spot comparison easier and can be multiplied out to figure out what my purchasing choices mean over longer periods of time, say, a year. I then picked a selection of titles I very well may buy over the next month or so (I don’t keep a TBR pile. At most, I have two books waiting to be read at any given time. This, from what I can tell, makes me a little unusual in the book blogging world, but I enjoy picking out what to read next too much to subject myself to starting down a stack of waiting titles). I may not read a few of these, but they are all books I might read, so they’ll do for our purposes.

Here are the titles:

  • Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch
  • American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell
  • The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • American Rust by Philipp Meyer
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody
  • Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey

Four of them are hardbacks (Kings of the Earth, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Four Fingers of Death, and Perfect Reader), and all but one are by living authors (Fitzgerald, of course, being the one exception. As he often is).

I then priced them out by retailer: Amazon, Barnes and Noble online, my local BookCourt, New York indie giant The Strand, and Powell’s.

Here are the results:

Full Cover Price: $145.84

                                     Amazon: $99.35
Barnes and Noble: $102
BookCourt: $130.29
The Strand: $126.23
Powell’s: $130.26

(If you’re interested in the full breakdown, here’s my spreadsheet)

As you can see, the divide is as predictable as it is impressive. The big boys are about 30% cheaper than the upstarts (Does anyone know the relative evil of B&N compared to Amazon? Amazon is today’s whipping boy, but there was a time when all the heat was headed toward the brick and mortar chains).

At first glance, thirty bucks doesn’t seem like that much to pay for goodness, truth, and beauty (ahem), but I could use that thirty bucks to buy about three new paperbacks from Amazon. That’s another sale for three more authors, for three more publishers. And if I apply the difference to my full year of book-buying, which includes not only my personal reading, but also my academic purchases and gift-giving, buying only from independent bookstores will probably cost me about around $1000 over twelve months.

(And I could go a step further. I looked at the lowest cost of buying these seven titles, including used, remaindered, or review copies. The total there: $82.03, of which only $27.09 would ever find its way back to authors or publishers. By this measure, I am already paying about 15% more than I, as a rationale consumer, should. So there.)

So now we come down to it…should I allocate my dollars differently? I cannot really, from a strictly budgetary perspective, just fork over $1000 extra dollars a year. But how much am I hurting this industry I love by buying mainly out of my self-interest? I really don’t know.

If I go to a hybrid model, in which I moderate the largest differences in price between my local and Amazon, I can buy the seven for 112.97 with about half that going to my local bookstore. Over the course of a year, this would run me an extra $400 or so. This is better, but still kind of hard to swallow*.

What exactly is a hand-wringing book buyer to do?

(Regular readers will notice that I've stopped linking to book pages on Amazon; this has all caused me to rethink my affiliate relationship with Amazon. If anyone out there has any ideas for me on this front, I'm all ears.)

*I guess it could be worse. I could check them out from the library.  


  1. I'd skip American Rust, if I were wearing your Keds. Meyer's clearly a talented writer, but the novel reads like a first draft of a debut novel, complete with totally incredible, unbelievable plot twists in what is supposed to be a "salt-of-the-earth-type" book.

    Egan's new book is scary - but oh so intriguing. Love to hear the Ape's take on that one...

    Incidentally, I also did a (much simpler) online retailer comparison - just between Amazon and BN. Amazon came in at $62, BN at $72 (plus tax) for the same five books. So, hello, Amazon. Thanks for providing the justification to ease my mind, too.

  2. I understand your consternation about using Amazon. I've been struggling with that recently too. I want to support my local indie bookstore, but their prices (plus sales tax) aren't attractive. I went last friday to Books A Million and got 3 books for $15. I went to the indie bookstore and got one trade paperback for $15. Yikes!

  3. I would also skip American Rust, personally. In addition to that, I'd say go the hybrid model, at least, and think about getting the occasional book about which you are less sure from the library, to defray the difference in costs. After all, the circulation of a library helps determine the budget, and your local library needs support too.

  4. I'm against Amazon, so I'd point out that you could spend $3 more and go to Barnes & Noble. Also, while you justify your spending your money at Amazon by saying that you can spend more money on more authors' books, my justification for buying local is that more money goes to local business owners, my community, and stays out of the hands of a business I think is amoral. So I guess it's all how you look at it. :)

  5. have you ever bought anything from i don't know much about it besides that they offer free shipping.

  6. I don't think the library is all bad. In addition to providing valuable services to the community, libraries buy a LOT of books, and what books they buy are based largely on circulation numbers. Granted, it would be better to the writer if everyone who checked out a book bought a copy, but that's not really realistic and if no libraries were buying books, sales would really be in trouble.

    I'm lucky enough that my local bookstore tends to discount at least 20 percent on every title, so I do shop there when I can, but I also use a lot of Borders 30%+ off coupons, which are mailed to me weekly. Amazon I mostly use for used books that are either OOP or I can't get a good deal on new (good deal = $10 range for a paperback).

  7. Greg-
    Well, I might well skip American Rust then. I think I will read Egan's book, mostly because it completes a triumvirate of pretty accomplished writers doing dystopian fiction stuff this summer (along with Moody and Shteyngart).

    Had a very similar experience recently that prompted this post. I hadn't bought a full price paperback in so long I couldn't believe it was more than $17.

    That's two votes against Rust. Not looking good here. I think I will make more of an effort at a hybrid model, though it requires quite a bit more comparison shopping on my part.

    But do we know if B&N is really any better? Or do they profit from Amazon's strong arming without taking the heat? I just don't know the story. Fundamentally, I care about supporting literature. I'm not sure that supporting my local business and community does that really, especially if it means money that could go to writers goes to the upkeep of bookstores, which, to be honest, don't perform much of a service for me--I don't need them to discover new titles, etc.

    I know nothing about them, but I have seen some folks use them. Have to check them out.

    No, of course the library isn't bad, but on the scale of supporting literature it's pretty low on the list, at least in terms of my own personal contribution to the literary economy. My local only discounts some on their top 20 bestsellers by category, so it works sometimes, but a lot of time I'm paying full freight. I should talk them into some sort of rewards program or something.

  8. It's complicated until you remember your initial assertion: you are buying product. If this were laundry detergent, you probably wouldn't even think twice, even if the manufacturer may have moral flaws (they just aren't publized like Amazon's).
    Personally, I do a mixture of all of the above, but Amazon is my main source for new titles, simply because I like unusual books.
    In my locale, there are no chain bookstores except a Borders 40 minutes away. Sadly, when I go there, they never have a title I want, ever. It's hard to say they are promoting literacy in the neighborhood when they are only selling mass market stuff.
    Most used bookstores near me also lack unusual titles and their prices (half off cover) are comparable to Amazon's sales. Then there's the "green aspect": Driving all over searching for a unique title that my mailman can deliver on his regular rounds doesn't make sense.

    The thing that frustrates me is that Amazon is an innovator. It's hard for me to hate them when they've given me consistenly good access to books that twenty years ago would have required special ordering and a lengthy wait. When I post reviews, Amazon is the most user friendly. I can recommend an unusual author and anyone in the world can access it easily. Many of the ones who take a moral stand against Amazon may find themselves hard pressed to find a better solution. Your example showed that it doesn't make financial sense (and doesn't really make a moral statement either) to pay more.

    One thing I do, however, is to buy from small presses at times, just to support them, and I make donations to three of my favorites, just flat out donations, to support their efforts. They need it too. If you have Amazon guilt just mail Archipelago or Copper Canyon a check!

  9. Don't disrespect your library... I don't buy books. Having moved numerous times (including an international move), I donated thousands of dollars worth of books.

    When you get right down to it... what is the carbon footprint of each book you buy? Paper, glue, transport and possibly air conditioned brick and mortar?

    I prefer to keep my local band kid... err... librarian employed. My tax dollars already go to it, no reason I should pay for the square footage in my own home to house something already housed by the community.

    And look, you can link directly to it:

    My recommendation: use your library, sponsor a child or two and put the balance into your investment portfolio.

    I know, i know... but at least I get to consume the wine :-)

  10. LGH-
    Conscientious is the right word, neither ignorant nor righteous. I have a limited budget for books too, so how best to disperse it matters to me. If I knew that spending all my money at my local indie on 6 titles and reading the rest from the library was the best thing for what I care about (making sure that writers write serious, compelling books) then I would do that. But I don't know if that's true.

    I often think like you do, but I don't think books are a commodity like laundry detergent, for a couple of reasons. First, what I consider "quality" doesn't tend to win in the book marketplace. In the consumer marketplace, the product that offers the best value proposition generally wins, but not in the book world. If writers aren't supported at least nominally, they don't write books (we'd have more books by Melville and Poe, among others, if more people would have bought their books during their lifetimes).

    Whatever else we might say about the cost, indies do things to support literature that Amazon doesn't. They champion midlist writers and put books they care about front and center. Amazon puts the books they think will sell front and center. But I don't know exactly what the service the indies supply is worth. If small bookstores didn't exist, I think there would be a loss. But how much am I willing to pay for that loss?

    Nothing wrong with the library, of course, but I wanted to make a certain point. Many of the people who get hot and bothered about Amazon also get on a soap-box about libraries. My point is that it's better, from a supporting the creation of literary art point of view, to buy a paperback from Amazon then to check out 10 books from the library. I'm thrilled they exist and they perform a service, but on the list of things that put money in writers' checkbooks, they are way down the list. And your non-fiduciary points are good ones, but book-fetishists such as I are impervious to their logical wiles...

  11. another claim for the hybrid model. use the savings you make by buying through amazon to justify buying one book a month full price t your local indie. if it's anything like mine, it's the people buying books once a month over the course of time that keep them afloat.

  12. My take on this is similar to my WalMart argument-I refuse to shop at WalMart, because I have the means to shop elsewhere and other elsewheres to shop. However, I don't judge people who shop at WalMart because that's all they can afford or that's all that is available to them. Same with books-Amazon may not be perfect, for many of the same reason that WalMart is the devil (strongarming manufacturers, etc...), but sometimes when you need something (book or otherwise) for the lowest price and fastest delivery, Amazon is what you've got. So for me, I shop indie when I can, and Amazon when I have to (though I've gotten most of my books lately from GoodReads Bookswap-which I suppose has similar issues to the library?).

  13. An interesting post; Amazon seems to be the topic of conversation in the blogosphere the last few days and your price comparison is something I haven't seen anywhere else in this discussion (though the fact that Amazon is the least expensive is not a surprise).

    I haven't purchased anything from Amazon in over a year, but not because of anything specific. I suppose if there was a book I couldn't find anywhere else I would look to Amazon, but in most cases I can find books locally or ask the closest indie to order them for me.

  14. get yourself to or .com immediately - you won't be disappointed and i bet you can get twice the number of books for your $100, and free shipping. it's a booklovers paradise, my world has never been better since i found it - my TBR shelf grows by the week however!

  15. Ben- You're right, that's probably a good compromise. Hate compromises though.

    Heather- Amazon is a boon to some communities. In small towns without a bookstore, Amazon is amazing. Bookswaps and used bookstores are a whole other kettle of fish. Libraries at least get their funding in part from circulation numbers, so by patronizing your library, they can in theory buy more books.

    I hadn't seen a real price comparison either. So when, like you, I was reading all this anti-Amazon, pro-Indie chatter, I was frustrated that no one showed how much it costs to choose most indies over Amazon. Glad you found it interesting.

    It's a bit more expensive than Amazon actually, at least in the US. And I'm not sure that their practices are that much better than Amazon's: at the least, they benefit from the structure the long arm of Amazon has shaped.

  16. I haven't shopped at Amazon, but I have a similar conundrum with printed music. Normally, I let my local dealer have first crack and only order from when the local dealer doesn't stock it. I have not, and will never, set foot in a Walmart. It is extremely important to support local bricks and mortar businesses (especially so when they are independents).

  17. I used to buy from Amazon, but the cost gets out of hand after a while. I've also used BookMooch a bunch, but even that has issues.

    Every time we move those books take up so much space and are heavy. Plus moving from one tiny apartment to another, often the books simply don't fit in our living space.

    Our local library, though, is awesome. They have 99% of the fiction books I want to read and I save so much money. Plus I don't have the guilt of having books sit around, rather than being read and enjoyed by many people. (Books deserve to be read.)

  18. This is interesting. I'm surprised there isn't a bigger gap between BookCourt and The Strand. I love BookCourt (I always have their book marks in whatever I'm currently reading) but it gets expensive. Why did I think The Strand was so much cheaper? According to your breakdown, it really isn't.

  19. Steve- Sounds like you are doing the same dance I am, but with music. I guess it's not an all or nothing situation, so your strategy sounds good.

    The only problem with lending/swapping is that the writers don't get support. The initial purchase, sure, but books don't come out of thin air. So I want to acknowledge the fact that books don't exist without writers---and writers don't write (as much or as well) without financial support through book purchases.

    Probably because the Strand has so many USED books. My comparison was primarily for new books and, while the Strand does discount some titles, they don't discount everything.

  20. At the risk of bringing the wrath of the book gods down upon me, dare I ask whether you looked into the purchase of ebooks? I'd really like to know how iBooks, for example, stacks up. Despite my initial skepticism and the resolution problems, the iPad is winning me over as an ebook reader through sheer convenience. I might also suggest that more of your book dollars go toward writing, editing, and publishing when you buy an ebook.

  21. Patrick-
    I haven't looked at those prices, since I don't buy e-books, but I did think about including them. I think the real price advantage for e-books is versus a hardback equivalent. Looks like a new release e-book runs about 14-15 on Amazon, wherease the equivalent hardback is 16-18. I really need to find something that breaks down the royalty schemes on these things though.

  22. If you feel bad about Amazon, you could (perhaps?) ease your conscience by clicking on an Amazon link at a books-oriented site (like mine, The Second Pass). Then, wherever you navigate on Amazon, a percentage of whatever you buy goes to the web site (me or someone else) and maybe helps to continue the culture of book reviewing online while it continues to fall away in newspapers, etc...

    Just a thought. In general, though, I wouldn't feel too guilty. If you're not wealthy, every little bit you can save counts. And local stores can be great, but they don't have everything (or even all that much, in some cases). BookCourt is terrific, but I know other local stores that I would say are overrated and over-romanticized.

  23. Ape, I couldn't resist doing a bit of additional research just to satisfy my curious mind. I looked for your list at Apple's iBook Store and also at Sony's eReader Store. Only Last Tycoon and Four Fingers of Death were available at the iBook Store, making a comparison impossible. Apple's selection is definitely a problem. However, all but American Salvage were available from Sony's eReader Store for a total of $72.49. Frankly, I'm a little surprised that the savings wasn't greater, but perhaps the prices will come down further as eBooks continue to make serious inroads.

  24. Thought provoking post. My problem is that I feel torn in conflicting directions. Part of me wants to be as eco-friendly as possible (hello library, Chop Suey Used Book Store, and BookMooch). Part of me wants to support my local economy by shopping at locally owned brick and mortars (Chop Suey and Fountain Bookstore, for instance). And of course, part of me is looking out for my own (budgetary) interest (Amazon and BookMooch). And having been raised Catholic, I manage to feel guilty no matter what I choose. And now, thanks to you, I can add worrying about how much I'm supporting the authors and publishers. Honestly, I never even thought about that aspect (and now I feel guilty about THAT too.;-)). It's hard to figure out how to be a good person these days...

  25. OK - I have to disagree with others about American Rust. Yes, it has some flaws, but if you're looking for a book that marries characters to setting and rings true for both, this is a great example. In fact, your later post about The Quickening put me in mind of American Rust. Don't discount it out of hand.

    On the other hand, I'm marginally into A Visit from the Goon Squad and, so far, underwhelmed. Will be interested to hear what you think.

  26. John-
    I definitely am going to funnel whatever Amazon buying I do through blogs I support for the reasons you mention. I am going to balance the needs of my budget and shop strategically at indies. And I know what you mean by over-romanticizing some indies. The Strand, for example, is technically independent, but I have my doubts about how much shopping there v. Amazon is terribly different.

    Just saw this comment here and your related blog post. I'm going to write a longer comment over there, but this is an excellent point.

    Right there with ya. When you have values in conflict (finances v. local economy v. supporting authors, etc), you get conflict. This quandary is precisely what motivated the experiments.

    Now you are making things difficult for me. We'll see what happens with American Rust. Just today started Goon Squad so I should have a review up this weekend.

  27. I never buy from Amazon unless as a last resort if I can't find the book at a reasonable price elsewhere. I am on a fixed income so I really do watch where I spend what, but I dislike Amazon's policies and the uncanny way it always seems to know what I'm up to even if I haven't bought anything from them in awhile. (Yes I know, this can't be avoided once you've made a purchase from them.) I like Better World Books brcause they don't charge shipping for anything even a two dollar used book. I HATE paying shipping. I also like The Book Depository for the same reason. Plus they have titles I sometimes can't find on Amazon. Of course, for new, hardcover books, I usually go to Barnes and Noble. Over 25 bucks they don't charge shipping and the books get to me much quicker than Amazon. One last thing: I hate Amazon's web design. Ugly. Yes, that counts with me.