I’m a fairly heavy customer of Amazon.com (among other booksellers), and I even provide links on this site for people who want to buy my books there (or elsewhere). So I have nothing against Amazon per se.

Last night an old half-forgotten book popped into my head, and I wanted to check its availability, so I fired up the Amazon app on my device, and this is what I saw:



A few thoughts flashed through my head, roughly in this order:

  • I could save myself ten or fifteen keystrokes by scanning the barcode.
  • I don’t have the barcode. If I had the barcode, I’d already have the book.
  • Q. Where would I be, if I were shopping for a book and found the barcode handy?
  • A. In a bookstore.

I am aware, because booksellers have told me, that people sometimes go into bookstores, browse, chat with the expert staff, handle the merchandise, and scan a barcode to buy the book online before they’ve even departed the premises.

This is not good. I don’t mean it’s immoral (I’ll leave that discussion for others). I mean it’s unsustainable. That ecosystem cannot survive—and authors like me are a part of that ecosystem.

Bookstores (brick-and-mortar; meatspace) have qualities that their online counterparts have so far come nowhere near to replicating. Their shelves and tables carry ever-changing reflections of the personal tastes, judgment, and expertise of the booksellers. They form relationships with their local customers and with authors who may pass through. They are “lonely forts,” as John Updike said not long before he died, “spilling light onto the sidewalk.”

(I know, by the way, that mobile scanning of barcodes has many other uses and possibilities; more and more, barcodes are turning up in printed ads and on signs and posters. For that matter, the pretty little graphic at the upper left of this page happens to be a working barcode.)

Bookstores need to survive. We need bookstores to survive. Personally I try never to buy a book from Amazon that I can get locally. But I’m not trying to admonish book lovers to lead more saintly lives; people are going to do what they’re going to do. This is a problem that needs to be solved by the industry. To wit:

  • Bookstores need ways for their customers to make instantaneous purchases through their local wi-fi networks.
  • Bookstores need to sell their books in electronic versions as well as hardcover and softcover.
  • Fairly priced hybrid versions should be available, too (that is, the physical book bundled with the e-book, for just a dollar or two more than either one alone).

A typical independent bookstore won’t be able to accomplish the above on its own; publishers need to make it happen. They need to work out systems and policies and get them into the booksellers’ hands. Pronto. For the sake of their own survival and the survival of authors.


Find me in the open social web (fediverse; Mastodon): @JamesGleick@zirk.us

Literary agent:
Michael Carlisle
at Inkwell Management,
521 Fifth Ave.,
New York 10175.

Or send a private message.