I got really excited last weekend on reading Ann Patchett’s story of setting up her own bookshop in Nashville, Tennessee. Parnassus Books is bucking the trend world over of closing book stores, unable to make a profit in the world of ebooks, Amazon, and recession. They’re almost certainly being helped by the celebrity founder being able to take advantage of news coverage such as I stumbled on for promotion, but I still got suddenly enthusiastic at the thought of supporting independent bookshops. Some hours later, however, I felt somewhat conflicted.

I have fond memories of wandering around second hand bookshops that had taken over old premises and put shelving everywhere physically possible and books as diverse as cookbooks and the works of the Marquis De Sade jostled each other for floorspace and my attention. I loved visiting places like that. But since I left home and got a credit card in 2007, the convenience of using Amazon has far outweighed the array of irritating and dingy bookshops I have visited since. I have totally given up visiting any bookshop which stock sci-fi and fantasy because nearly everyone behind the counter seems to be resentful or busy or conversely, over-determined to sell me things. Amazon just sits there, waiting for my order, and instantly processes and posts it to my waiting, sweaty little hands.

And then there’s the price. Independent bookstores have to make money, I know, but there’s paying a quid extra for free-range eggs or fair trade orange juice, and there’s paying nearly double for a book from a physical bookstore what you’d pay online. And the availability! In 2012, I bought dozens of books from Amazon. Tell me which ones I would have found in a Waterstones, let alone a small independent bookstore:

(I should point out, by the way, before you consider me some sort religious fanatic with a slight obsession with epic fantasy, that the vast majority of my annual book-buying comes from browsing charity shops and book sales at random, so I only buy a small selection of books each year purposefully, and for the most part there are things that I know I won’t come across eventually or that I want to read immediately. These mostly being theology texts and newly released non-fiction.)

Title/Author Price on Amazon RRP Notes
One River, Many WellsMatthew Fox £7.16 £9.10
The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom TraditionsHuston Smith £3.13 £13.33
The Upanishads £4.42 £6.86 eBook
A Course in Miracles £3.95 £11.54 eBook
Bhagavad Gita £4.31 £6.86 eBook
The Psychopath TestJon Ronson £2.69 £8.05 eBook
MortalityChristopher Hitchens £6.26 £10.99 Sadface…
I’m Stalking Jake!Becky Heineke £13.73 £13.73 …yeah, this memoir about being a Jake Gyllenhaal fan around 2005-6 is a very niche topic only someone who’d been there would buy. My review coming soon. :P
Marketing in the Round: How to Develop an Integrated Marketing Campaign in the Digital EraGini Dietrich £11.89 £15.99
A Dance with DragonsGeorge R.R. Martin £11.99 £11.99 eBook – 4,197 pages later, it was basically such a stupid idea to take up watching Game of Thrones while writing my dissertation.
A Feast of CrowsGeorge R.R. Martin £6.99 £6.99 eBook
A Storm of SwordsGeorge R.R. Martin £9.99 £9.99 eBook
A Clash of KingsGeorge R.R. Martin £4.99  eBook
A Game of ThronesGeorge R.R. Martin £3.86 £8.99 A physical copy to get my flatmate into it – it worked. :P
Lenin: A BiographyRobert Service £0.99 £8.95 eBook
She-Wolves: The Women who Ruled England Before ElizabethHelen Castor £0.99 £8.58 eBook
On WritingStephen King £2.81 £9.99
Artemis Fowl and the Last GuardianEoin Colfer £5.86 £12.99
A Game of ThronesGeorge R.R. Martin £3.99 £3.99 eBook
Kosher SexShmuley Boteach £2.81 £7.99
Celebrating LifeJonathan Sacks £2.81 £11.99
The Jew in the LotusRodger Kamenetz £2.95 £10.99
The Persistence of FaithJonathan Sacks £2.81 £11.69
Beyond Reasonable DoubtLouis Jacobs £15.83 £16.95
For Those Who Can’t BelieveHarold M. Schulweis £2.28 £10.01
Faith Against Reason: Religious Reform and the British Chief RabbinateMeir Persoff £18.95 £19.95


To buy all of those books at the prices that an independent bookstore would have charged me would have cost me £110 more over the course of the year, not counting the fact that the Amazon prices above include shipping and the RRP doesn’t include the cost of me having to travel to town to buy the book in the first place. And that’s including my sudden and all-consuming obsession with full-price Westeros.

There’s no real conclusion to this post because I don’t have an answer. I like the idea of supporting independent bookshops and sticking it to The Man, but by most criteria compared to Amazon, they simply suck. Presumably most people agree with me, which is why they are all closing down. People condemn clone towns, but if we didn’t all choose Waterstones over that rubbish second hand bookshop-cum-cafe that is 500 yards away from it, then there wouldn’t be clone towns.

So, solutions, anyone? I am listening.

Subscribe to SarahMcCulloch.com via Email! (or via RSS!)

Related Posts:


I don’t have any images in this letter because I really wanted to post this cartoon, but it was insanely long. So you should just look at it there.

Hi Lloyd,

I read your article about the chap who tried to pirate your book with interest. As someone who downloads a lot of pirated stuff, I thought I would write to you and explain why.

Like other people have said, a lot of it is about trying out new products. I’m not willing to drop £8 on a film that I’ve never seen before, nor spend £9 or up on a book that I might not like. I find ebooks very ephemeral and I just won’t buy an ebook that costs above £3 – but I’ll happily download an electronic version (or a sample chapter from Amazon) and then make my decision about whether to buy the book from there. In the last twelve months I’ve bought about 15-20 physical books and pirated about 5-10. And is there also really a massive difference between the books I download from Project Gutenberg and a sixty year old book that went out of print but which is still just about generating cash?

When it comes to TV, I had a premium account on Megaupload before it went bust. But I watch primarily American TV shows that I would have to wait up to six to nine months to air on a television I don’t own. Torrents give me instant access to entire seasons I can watch over the course of a month. Buy the DVDs? I own enough crap, why would I buy more physical objects I have to physically unpack and select from when I can just open my downloads folder? I actually sold all my TV DVDs a few years back when I realised that they were gathering dust on my shelves because I was watching stuff that was already on my computer. I contribute virtually nothing financially to the television industry because they don’t give me any viable option to. I would happily pay within reason for a legal streaming service that gave me access to the same amount of television that Megaupload and its successors give me, but where is it? Hulu is US only. There’s a massive potential market right there of people who would pay the equivalent of a TV licence a year for instant and good access to TV shows that mean we don’t have to bounce around all the TV links databases hunting down streams that haven’t been taken down in between all the fake websites trying to load our computers with viruses.

I think that ultimately people pirate because that’s the terms on which they want to use content, or because they wouldn’t shell out for stuff anyway. I used to download a lot of music, then my computer exploded and I lost everything. Instead of redownloading it, I use Youtube and Grooveshark (used to use Spotify, but they had a poor selection) entirely legally. I don’t mind sitting through adverts (that aren’t rubbish). If I had to choose between buying an album, and not having access to most of the music I listen to, I just wouldn’t bother and listen to the radio instead. I think much of the angst of the music industry about “lost revenue” is guff, they’ve got millions of people like me who are ambivalent about music still discussing their artists with other people and promoting them on their behalf.

As my approach seems to be that of my friends, and we’re all in our 20s, I think a lot of piracy is going to drop off the radar as the entertainment industry finally gets a grip on the idea that maybe they should produce products that we want to buy instead of expecting us to fit their business model. I don’t know how much you know about blogging for money, but the entire blogging business model is largely based around providing lots of great quality content for free and then leveraging the fans you obtain from that work to buy optimum stuff. People like Darren Rowse make hundreds of thousands a year.

I think publishers and media companies should realise that a lot of piracy is like a lending library – people get out your work and check it out for free, and have no intention of paying for it. Maybe they don’t like your work, and put it back. Maybe they like it enough to get their own copy. And maybe they go, “meh”, hand it back, but then tell all their friends that they read it and what they thought of it. It means that a lot of bad stuff that used to make money anyway because people had to buy to see it won’t anymore. People have to up their game, and I think ultimately that is going to be a good thing. The original copyright laws only lasted five years, after all. Then you had to go make something else. Keeps creativity going.

Anyway, just thought I would let you have a more reasoned perspective than just “I want it, and I want it free, and I don’t care”.


Subscribe to SarahMcCulloch.com via Email! (or via RSS!)

Related Posts: