They look harmless—just underlined words—but links in online text matter. Consider, for instance, what happens when a magazine or website asks indie bookstores for reading recommendations. Last month, an entertainment site reached out to Michael Fusco-Straub, who owns Books Are Magic in Brooklyn with novelist Emma Straub, and invited him to contribute to an article titled “Bookstore Employees Share the Fall Books They’re Most Excited For.” He wrote up a few favorite books. So did I, representing Parnassus Books in Nashville, when I was contacted recently by a lifestyle magazine seeking the best new reads recommended by “the experts at independent bookstores.” The finished pieces were published with all the book titles linked to Amazon. Ouch.
Michael and I contacted the respective publications. Surely they could see the disconnect in sourcing a book list from local bookshops and then pushing readers to buy those books from an online discount megastore? Both removed the Amazon links. But why did we have to ask?
It seems to be a trend. Even as people seek out the expertise of indie booksellers, they treat Amazon as the default for book links. Bloggers write about shopping local while linking to Amazon. Authors appeal to bookstores for book tours and sales but announce their books on Facebook with Amazon links (yes, even for a book titled How to Find Love in a Bookshop).
Outlets and individuals who publish compelling content exert some control over the cultural conversation. With their choice of links, they drive consumer behavior as well. It’s one thing to publish a book review; it’s another to publish a book review in which each book title is linked to a website that sells books. One is a piece of criticism; the other is criticism and a sales tool. When people click those links, a habit forms. Book-loving social media users, bloggers, and editors have the power to shape those habits.
What if book titles in online media linked to each book’s page on its publisher’s site instead, where the “buy” button offers multiple options? Or what if titles linked to IndieBound.org, the online shopping site managed by the American Booksellers Association, which connects users to the independent shops nearest them as well as indies that ship nationwide?
This isn’t about shaming anyone for the occasional Amazon purchase. As Parnassus co-owner and novelist Ann Patchett has said, “In the end, I don’t care how people read as much as that they read.” As an author myself, I’m deeply grateful to anyone who buys my book anywhere. But let’s say it’s Thursday afternoon and your sixth grader just remembered she’s supposed to choose a book and write a paper on it for tomorrow. You drive to the bookstore, except where your bookstore used to be, there’s a shuttered storefront. No more story times, no more author signings, no more gathering place to browse books that haven’t been served to you by an algorithm. No more revenue going back into your neighborhood, either. If you buy all your books from Amazon, understand that your decision plays a role in whether or not your community continues to have a bookstore.
Likewise, if an outlet publishes online content that links solely to Amazon, it should understand what that does: it directs people away from neighborhood stores. Readers can resist the click-here prompts, sure, but there’s no denying those links are coded to encourage staying put and clicking through.
At the very least, media outlets shouldn’t link to Amazon in articles about indie bookstores. We understand that Amazon’s affiliate program, which pays websites to use its links, is an offer some sites feel they can’t refuse, in an impossible era when ads aren’t enough to keep the lights on and everyone wants free online content. But how can a bookstore be expected to point readers toward the entity whose business model—in which books are treated as loss leaders and unloaded at steep discounts—is designed to destroy local commerce? Should we be so relieved that books are being covered at all that we overlook those call-to-action buttons?
When a site connects a reader to IndieBound.org or a bookstore, a link becomes more than a link. It supports the cultural ecosystem. Readers not only find books—they find out what’s going on in their communities. They might even go visit a store and discover something new. Now that’s a way to find love in a bookshop.
Mary Laura Philpott is the author of Penguins with People Problems; the editor of Musing, the online magazine of Parnassus Books; and an Emmy-winning cohost of A Word on Words for Nashville Public Television.