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Why Amazon's the best thing to happen to books

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JEFF Bezos could scarcely have known what a rumble in the rainforest he would cause when he founded Amazon 10 years ago. This week, the online bookseller that began life in a garage in Seattle reported a 27percent increase in sales to [dollars]1.8 bn. In any other firm, this would have occasioned backslaps all round. It is a measure of how successful Amazon has become, however, that the market was "disappointed" and sent the share price dropping.

The owners of small bookshops were probably heartened by the blip. Amazon is usually in the lineup beside Waterstone's whenever anyone decides to investigate the death of the independent bookseller. The case against is familiar:

savage discounting by the big boys is driving the little guys out of business; they are obsessed with blockbusters and are destroying literature; and they treat the art of book selling like the punting of frozen chickens.

Alan Bennett recently went so far as to urge a boycott of the big- name booksellers. Dismayed at the closure of his favourite bookshop in Camden, Bennett told a books festival audience that if they were minded to buy his newwork, Untold Stories, they should go to an independent. "I'm not trying to do Waterstone's down, " he said, "but all the big chains heavily discount the book, the worst being Amazon.

This will drive independent booksellers out of business."

Howmany of the audience did as Bennett urged when they got home is not known. Faced with a choice of paying the [GBP]20 RRP locally or [GBP]12 on Amazon, it would hardly be surprising if their good intentions faltered.

While one can understand an attack on Waterstone's for its dull, one-size-fits-all stores, Amazon is the most exciting bookshop in the world. It's Willy Wonka's Book Factory, Disneyland for bibliophiles. Those who want a return to the days of the small independents are the real fantasy merchants.

If these albeit well-meaning Luddites of the literary world are to be believed, Britain was once a green and pleasant land in which every High Street had its Marks and Co, the bookseller forever to be found at 84 Charing Cross Road. Some of us do not remember it quite like that. Some of us remember that the book buyer had to take what they were given, Soviet-style. Bookshops, far from being local, were a bus ride away.

Entering them could be intimidating and browsing, while not banned, was hardly encouraged.

Even buying a book could be an ordeal. Once, trying to purchase a copy of Portnoy's Complaint, I had to convince the bookshop owner that I was of sound mind and, yes, I had a fair idea that Roth's book was not about the travails of a consumer champion. And I cannot begin to count the number of dodgy recommendations I received from booksellers with old stock to clear.

Contrast this with buying books on-line. Enter "fiction" in Amazon's search box and almost half a million results appear. If nothing in the UK store appeals, there is always America or one of the other international outlets. Books that used to be a plane ride away are now a mouse click away. The suggestions for further reading are invariably spot on (Roth buyers, for example, are directed to Saul Bellow).

Accusing on-line booksellers of squeezing out serious literature and discouraging experimentation is wide of the bookmark. In one small bookshop in Glasgow last week, obtaining a copy of Ali Smith's The Accidental would have involved placing an order (despite being a Booker runner up it was not in stock), paying [GBP]14.99 and waiting 10 days. Going online, I could have had it in the post within days for [GBP]8.99. Which retailing experience is more likely to tempt a reader to try something different? Sales of John Banville's The Sea jumped 300percent on Amazon in a single day after its Booker victory.

On-line book selling, by broadening the customer base, makes it easier to sell serious literature. But true book lovers are not supposed to deal in such sordid matters as customer bases and sales. They want a personal relationship with their favourite authors, and having a small independent bookseller as a go-between is so much more intimate than dealing with that faceless creature called the internet.

It's a charming notion; pity it is as dated as ration books. All writers want to be read by as many people as possible. Dickens did not publish in serial form because he was a frequent victim of writer's block.

He did it to build a market for his work. He turned the technology of the age to his advantage. Smart publishers should be doing the same with Amazon.

Today, more people have access to books than ever before. Much of that is due to the vision of one guy in a garage. If truth be told, most independent booksellers have become merely cosy cafes with pretty poor, high-priced bookshops attached. No wonder so many readers prefer to venture up the Amazon instead.

(C) 2005 The Herald. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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