Discover more from Kevin McKenzie
The Amazon-Killer Chronicles
Patrick Rothfuss, the author of the extremely popular fantasy series The Kingkiller Chronicles, went on an expletive-laced Twitter rant the other day after he found out that one of his favorite airport bookstores had closed. Now I won’t criticize anybody who’s upset that a bookstore has closed, but I draw the line at bad economics and referring to anybody who shops at Amazon for physical books, a group that includes myself, in a derogatory manner.
Rothfuss is contending that Amazon is putting physical retail bookstores out of business by undercutting them on price and that anybody who shops at Amazon for the lower price is thus helping to put these stores out of business by not paying more for the same product. There are many factors Rothfuss is leaving out of his rant that he is likely aware of, perhaps the most important factor being that it is the publishers who set the price of the books, and retailers are obligated to sell the books for that price in their agreements with the publishers. This is why the price of a book in a physical store is often greater than it is on their website, and why the retail store is unable to match the price of products on their own website. In other words, retailers are unable to compete with Amazon, or their own websites, because they're simply not allowed to do so by the publishers of the books. This isn't the whole story, of course, but it is a large part of it.
The problems with publishing and selling books aren't really the issue, however, because Rothfuss's real complaint seems to be with market competition itself.
In Rothfuss's opinion, people's priorities should be to preserve physical bookstores even if it costs them more to purchase books. Consumers largely disagree, however, because it is in the interest of the consumer to spend as little as possible on the products that they want or need so that they can purchase more products that they want or need. If after buying gas, groceries, and other necessities for the week I don't have enough money left to run down to my local bookstore and purchase one of Rothfuss's books, the hardcover editions of which retail at around $30 each, but I do have enough to purchase them from Amazon, who sells the hardcover editions for less than half of the retail price, what good does it do for anybody for me to stand on some misguided principle and end up not getting the book at all? Amazon loses, the local bookstore loses, the author loses, the publisher loses, and I lose the joy of reading a great book.
Amazon makes it possible for people to have the things that they need, and then have enough left over to purchase one of Rothfuss's books. In short, Amazon is raising everybody's standard of living by selling books and other products for a lower price than their competition. Rothfuss, in contrast, is advocating that everyone should accept a lower standard of living so as to protect the institutions that he deems more important than the rational choices of his readers.
He goes on to say that, "Every time a bookstore or a library closes, it's like a star going out. Imagine the slow, creeping horror of an increasingly coal-black sky." Now it's true that it's a very sad situation whenever any business fails and is forced to close. People are out of work and can suffer greatly as a result, and nobody wants to minimize this fact. It can be terrible for the former employees of the business and the people who actually did find value in that business's goods or services. I know that I'm still heartbroken over a local burger restaurant that went out of business several years ago. However, this is a healthy function of a market economy.
In a world of scarce resources, which, alas, we all live in, not every venture can succeed, and better for everyone that those businesses which cannot stand on their own should fail. The sooner the resources of that failed business, land, labor, capital goods, etc, are freed up the sooner they can be put to a productive use that society values more than the use they were previously being put to. If Rothfuss can convince consumers of books that spending more to preserve physical bookstores is a positive end in and of itself then so much the better for him, but insulting and attacking those consumers for the choices that they're actually making in the real world is backward and destructive.