'Independent Booksellers Have Never Faced Anything Like Amazon'

For all the talk about 'monetization' -- the actual business of media often gets shorted on the industry conference circuit.
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For all the talk about 'monetization' -- the actual business of media often gets shorted on the industry conference circuit.

So when the organizers at PaidContent decided to put an actual living, breathing content maker on the stage at this years PaidContent 2012, folks in the audience didn't know quite what to expect.

How would a best-selling author engage an audience of digital disrupters?

Well, anyone who thought that Richard Russo was going to go gently into the ebook night was in for a shock.

Russo is the Pulitzer-prize winning author best known for Empire Falls. You can buy his books on Amazon, but he'd rather if you didn't.

"I don't want to give the impression that I'm anti-Amazon" said Russo. "I just want them to stop their predatory practices."

Yikes. This wasn't going to be your ordinary industry stage chat.

Now, to be fair -- Russo isn't an ordinary author. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls, which was made into an HBO film that he wrote the screenplay for. His Daughter Emily is a in independent bookseller at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn.

So, as he puts it, he'd do 'just fine' on the Amazon model. But he says his daughter and all independent booksellers are under siege from Amazon.

"Emily is impacted by what Amazon is doing. Amazon would like to treat her store, her expertise, the rent, the cost of her college education, they would like people to come into her store, and have her introduce her to new books -- and then go back home and buy it on Amazon because it's a couple of dollars cheaper." says Russo.

If this seems a bit paranoid, it's worth examining the facts. Amazon recently released a shopping app targeted at Best Buy and other big box stores -- inviting consumers to scan barcodes and order via their mobile phone. The industry calls the practice "showrooming" -- and Amazon hasn't been shy about taking on big retail. So when Russo says Amazon wants readers to browse books at a local bookseller, and buy them online, you can see that he's not entirely off base.

Russo's warnings aren't for the meek of heart: "Independent booksellers have never faced anything like Amazon. It puts young writers in peril."

"One of the difficulties of book selling in the digital age is that books are not commodities, like flatscreen TV's. I'm not just writing books, I'm creating something lasting that might be art... time will tell."

Says Russo: "I would do just fine on the Amazon model. Scott Turow will do just fine. Stephen King will do just fine. We are brands. "

So, if you take Russo's point that Amazon already has 70 percent of the digital and physical book selling business, it's it up to the government to come in and level the playing field? "Right now, the government seems to have Amazon's back" says Russo. "They seem to want to referee the match, but only call fouls on one side."

"The solution with Amazon is just to put the pressure on. Amazon has been doing things that are incredibly predatory for a long time. When enough people call them on it, they tend to back off. They don't want to pay sales tax, but the independent book stores do."

To be fair, digital isn't going to go away, or even slow down. But Russo rejects the idea that digital is such a strong force that it is best described as a "mighty wind." Then, most certainly for effect, Russo solemnly intone's the words from the song "Mighty Wind."

"There's a mighty wind a blowin', it's blowin' wild and free... it's blowin' peace and freedom, it's blowin' you and me." The crowd laughs.

"The solution with Amazon is the solution with any bully, they don't like to fight, they like to intimidate. Authors are uniquely positioned to stand up right now, in some respects more than publishers and editors and literary agents."

So, what then does Russo and his friends in the literary and agent world want to see happen. There he's crystal clear.

"I'm not anti-Amazon, I'm not trying to make them disappear at all -- what I am in favor of is Amazon playing nice in the marketplace. I'm in favor of independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble, what you want in any ecosystem is variety."

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