Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2003 Issue

There&#146;s a <i>Reason </i>It&#146;s a Big River — A Guide to Swimming in the Amazon

Amazon1

He's pushy, he's expensive...but dang, he's worth it.


Renée Magriel Roberts

Harwich Port, Cape Cod. Let’s face it: super-big, super-successful businesses are hard to love, even when we love the things they make or do. Case in point: I once had a passionate affair with my Selectric typewriter (does this date me?), but never could put my arms around IBM. And even though I buy enough books on Amazon to qualify as a high roller, what is there to love about the company itself? They make too much money, they dominate too much Web space, too many websites shamelessly point to them, they’re too young (and they seem to stay too young), and trying to get a human being from Amazon to identify themselves is like pulling teeth from a frozen mastodon.

I still haven’t changed my mind about IBM. But giant Amazon isn’t just my partner in une affaire de coeur: he’s more like a shareholder in my fledgling Internet book business. And, unlike many bloodsucking book databases, credit card merchant accounts, postage printers, and electronic pay services, all seeking the Holy Grail of e-business — a piece of every Internet transaction — Amazon has more than repaid my investment in the relationship. He’s pushy, he’s expensive, but ... dang, he’s worth it.

I know he’s over-muscled and gaudily dressed — a mass marketer, playing to the best-selling crowd. He doesn’t look anywhere near cultured enough for my precious antiquarian titles. He chokes on non-Anglo-Saxon diacriticals. His self-expression is limited by his standard 8th grade vocabulary. He allows the hoi polloi (i.e. just anybody who isn’t overtly offensive) to write his book reviews and post their own book lists. And (I admit this hurts) he communicates, if at all, in the form of form letters.

So why do I keep on listing with stud-like Amazon when there is a whole universe of livre-libro-biblio-buch-databases possessed of oodles of sophistication and savoir-faire through which I might ply my wares? And let’s not even mention my own (sadly-neglected) website. Let me put it to you like this: if you took all the other book databases and put them in one pile, and told me I could list on every single one of them OR Amazon, but not both — I’d go with the Big Dog.

Why? What’s so compelling about Amazon? Simply this: as Bloomingdale's and Macy's were to department stores, as Sears Roebuck was to catalogue sales, so is Amazon.com to retailing on the World Wide Web. They invented the concept. Nobody, but nobody, does it better.

I know there is nothing classy-looking about the Amazon site. As a matter of fact, with the recent addition of stores of all stripes, Amazon is actually looking kind of crowded and trashy. He’s basically now the cyber-equivalent of the Mall of the Americas, one of those bigger-than-life emporia which houses amusement rides, hotels, movie theatres, skateboard parks, and restaurants. I agree that my fine leather-bound volumes, recently resident in the manor house of a “person of quality” now fallen upon Dickensian hard times, would look better in a glass-fronted, carved walnut bookcase. But this is the Web, and on the Web Amazon is not merely the dominant book-selling site: it sells more than all the other book sites combined. By far.

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    <b>Forum Auctions, Jan. 28:</b> [Austen (Jane)]. <i>Emma: A Novel,</i> first edition, Printed for John Murray, 1816. £7,000 to £10,000.
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