Unless you’ve been living under a rock or, I don’t know, focusing on the election or something, you probably know that Oprah is just crazy about Amazon’s ebook reader the Kindle. It is, in fact, her “new favorite thing in the world.” This is bad news for bookstores, as Amazon uses a special ebook format on the Kindle, one that only they can sell. In the past, Oprah’s book endorsements, in the form of her Oprah’s Book Club picks, have been a boon to bookstores everywhere, raising the profile of the titles and making bestsellers of authors like Dr. Oz and Wally Lamb. Most recently, her endorsement of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle helped boost sales during an otherwise slow month. That could all change with her endorsement of the Kindle. What happens to bookstores if all of Oprah’s fans start buying their books on the Kindle?
This might explain why the reaction amongst the bookselling community has been one of disappointment and, dare I say, betrayal. The reaction I’ve heard from several people has been “I thought she was on our side.” My reaction has been a little bit different. I never thought Oprah was anything more than she is — a corporate shill. Her famous “My Favorite Things” episodes, in which she bestows upon her audience a cornucopia of hot new products (the Kindle might just be one of them this year), are consumerist orgies dressed up as feel good stories, with the audience glowing with the same dazzled blood lust common to fascist rallies and Dashboard Confessional concerts. Some of the products are obscure – a special kind of soap, for instance – but often they’re cashmere sweaters, gadgets, and other products you can buy at the mall. I’m sure for the local sweetshop that makes artisinal chocolates, her endorsement is a huge blessing, but more often, that blessing goes to Apple or Sony or OfficeMax. It’s big business, and it has the hint of legal payola.
Look, Oprah has done more good than bad for the book business, but let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that she’s “on our side.” Is it a shock that she doesn’t seem to value bookstores? When do you think she last visited one?
Our store president, Allison Hill, had some thoughts on the issue, as well, and phrased them as a plea rather than a harangue (What can I say, she takes the high road):
“Oprah, if you’re reading this, forget about cashmere pashimas, spa-like shampoo, and new technology this holiday season, remind your fans what’s really important:
A sense of community. Time honored traditions. Human contact. A neighborhood gathering place. Keeping money in the community. Passionate, personal book recommendations. Putting the right book in the right person’s hands to help change their life. The smell and feel of books. A destination where ideas and information and people’s stories are valued and honored.
Your endorsement of a “gadget” has a ripple effect far greater than you may realize. Book lovers buying Kindles and digital content exclusively through Amazon means the further erosion of our sales, and a precarious future for many independent bookstores.
Independent bookstores are protectors of freedom of speech, financial support for local charities, generators of tax dollars for communities, resources for entertainment and education, and insurance against the chainification of Main Street America. These contributions should not be taken for granted, and certainly not put in jeopardy.
When you endorse this new “gadget”, what are you really endorsing? and is it worth it?”