800px-White_Flag

Amazon and independent bookstores have had a tumultuous relationship. The company started by making many books that might not be sold through local stores readily available through its website. Then it released the Kindle, which turned everywhere with an Internet connection into a bookstore that sells more titles at a lower cost than any independent store can even hope to match. While this might have benefited readers, it certainly didn’t help the small bookstores that now had to compete with a company that doesn’t particularly care about things like revenues or profits.

Amazon Source, a new project that will allow independent bookstores to purchase Kindle devices at a discount and receive one-tenth of the cash spent on books purchased through those devices, might seem like a white flag. Making a few dollars on a device sale and then getting paid for doing absolutely nothing certainly beats the alternative, which is to allow Amazon to keep all of that money for itself as customers purchase more and more digital books. In theory, this could be a win-win for Amazon and independent bookstores.

But this is hardly a long-term solution. Amazon isn’t sharing a portion of the sales generated from these devices forever — it’s giving independent booksellers two years to share in the potential riches before it starts keeping everything for itself. The company isn’t offering a white flag so much as it’s handing independent bookstores a linen-wrapped time bomb.

Amazon is effectively allowing the competition to sell its products, make a little money for a few years, and then hope that customers continue to purchase new Kindle devices from them instead of from Amazon. Independent bookstores that participate in the program will transition from being Amazon’s itty-bitty competitors and instead become pop-up shops that espouse the benefits of a company threatening their business with extinction. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Despite all of its triumphs, Amazon has yet to make finding new books on the Kindle Store as easy as finding them in a physical bookstore. There’s no one to ask for recommendations because, as with all other things digital, algorithms have gotten good enough at displaying things shoppers might like. There’s no easy way to spot a book, take it from the shelf, and start flipping through its pages to determine whether or not it’s worth buying. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for the Kindle Store displays popular books, half-baked recommendations, and little else.

Independent bookstores don’t suffer from those problems. They’re often staffed by well-read people who care deeply about the books they sell. They’re damned near filled with shelves, and the good ones won’t mind if someone leafs through a paperback while they search for the right book to purchase. They’re the slow, personal counterpoint to Amazon’s relentlessly fast and impersonal attempts to get people to purchase more and more books. (Or movies, or video games, or clothes, or whatever.) Finding a way to leverage these strengths and blend them with the good things about digital books — they’re light, cheap, and hard to ruin — would be far more interesting than Amazon finding a way to sneak its products into independent bookstores.

Perhaps these indie shops could become the physical, book-focused equivalent to the Wirecutter, a gadget reviews site that makes much of its money through Amazon’s affiliate program. The program works like this: Someone finds a product on Amazon that they like or find interesting. They share that product with other people. If those people purchase the product, the original person gets a chunk of the revenue from Amazon. It’s basically the Amazon Source program, except affiliates don’t have to sell Kindles and forever receive a chunk of the revenue they helped generate.

That would have been a white flag and might have really allowed Amazon to make nice with independent bookstores. For now, the Amazon Source program seems to be the best way for indie shops to share in Amazon’s success until the cash runs out and they’ve successfully sold all of their former customers on the Kindle’s greatness. This flag burns red.

[Image Credit: WikiMedia]