‘New’ releases from Amazon see into the future

A recent e-mail offer from Amazon reminded me (again) just what a savvy competitor the Seattle-based Internet retailer is.

Based on my purchases and the purchases of other “customers who purchased literary fiction,” Amazon says I “may enjoy these new releases.” The recommended list that follows includes novels by Chuck Palahniuk, Elizabeth Gilbert and William Boyd — all of which I am, in fact, interested in. (Way to go, algorithms!)

When I clicked through to “learn more,” though, I learned that most of these novels are “new” in the extreme: They won’t be published until October. But just because I can’t read these high-profile novels for months, doesn’t mean I can’t “pre-order” them now from Amazon, which, of course, is exactly the point.

Amazon pre-sells big-name books long before brick-and-mortar bookstores get copies to sell. (Screen grab, Ron Charles/The Washington Post)

By pre-selling these big-name novels, Amazon removes even the possibility that you might see and buy a copy in your local bookstore in October. Let local merchants sponsor readings by Elizabeth Gilbert this fall; by that time, her most ardent fans will already have her book in hand. The competition for buyers is over even before it begins.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores could offer the same advance sales, of course. But how many of them do? They’re busy trying to sell their current stock — probably at prices higher than Amazon’s. There’s nothing “new” about that.

Unless indie bookstores respond aggressively, it doesn’t take a financial genius to see the end-point of this contest. Borders, anyone?


Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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Emily Yahr · July 24, 2013