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Twenty Years of Amazon

by Stan Jantz

It’s been 20 years since Amazon launched a website that changed the world. Okay, that may be overstating things a bit, but it most definitely changed my world. I was the happy owner of a large chain Christian retail stores, doing business the way booksellers had been doing business for centuries: stock a bunch of books, provide a nice environment in a good location with a friendly, knowledgeable staff, and you were pretty much guaranteed to be successful.

When Amazon.com was launched, I was curious, so I registered just to see how it worked. Remember, in 1995 there were no search engines, no Google, no ecommerce of any kind. Smart phones wouldn’t appear for another 12 years. There was just the Internet and email, and both were more novelties than necessities. So the notion of buying my favorite commodity through a computer fascinated me.

Over the first few months I became a regular customer, and Amazon rewarded my loyalty by sending free stuff, mostly bookmarks, which oddly enough appealed to a literary sensibility that I suppose all book buyers have. I liked getting these little freebees. As a bookseller myself I could see what Amazon was doing: building loyalty. And it worked.

Never once in 1995 or even 1996 did I think that Amazon would someday make brick and mortar stores like ours obsolete. I followed the company from a business perspective, and the stories of the company hemorrhaging money were everywhere. None of my fellow book retailers were worried. We all thought it was a nice alternative that would simply raise the level of book reading, which would be good for all of us.

That we sold our stores the following year had nothing to do with my suddenly realizing this little website would forever change the way people bought books. It was more about our own family dynamic and my desire to get out of retail after being in it for 20 years.

Of course, we all know now what Amazon has done. It really has changed the way people buy things, and it’s not just about books anymore. Indeed, books account for less than 10 percent of the company’s sales. But books remain at the heart of the Amazon, even by its own admission. Their early tag line, “Earth’s biggest bookstore,” more wishful thinking than reality in the early days, is absolutely true today.

Amazon sells more books than anybody—by far. Sales figures are hard to come by since Amazon is very secretive regarding its specific product categories, but industry estimates put Amazon’s book sales at around 40 percent of the total sold in the U.S. When it comes to ebooks, the domination is even higher: 65 percent of all ebooks sold are Kindle titles. For Amazon, Kindle ebook sales exceed sales of print books.

Amazon has forever disrupted bookselling and book publishing industries. Even the casual observer can see that the number of bookstores has declined dramatically over the last decade, when Amazon’s dominance became starkly evident. Try and find a Christian bookstore in your city. If there’s an independent secular store near you, it’s an anomaly. Most of the big bookstore chains are gone except for Barnes & Noble, and it’s in the process of closing more stores than it’s opening.

For book readers, of course, it’s a golden age. Twenty years ago you had a selection of a few thousand titles in your local bookstore. Today, you can choose from 10 million on Amazon. And if you want, you can have your book delivered in two days, the next day, and in some cities, the same day. That’s not just Amazon. That’s amazing.

Amazon may be tight-lipped about its sales, but it loves to share its rankings. In 1998 the company introduced hourly sales rankings of its bestselling titles. You can check to see what the bestselling books were for every year from 1995 to the present. And just last week Amazon released the list of its all-time bestselling books.

The list is at once interesting and disconcerting. The number one book all-time is Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, all three Fifty Shades books are in the Amazon Top Ten. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy occupies positions 2, 3, and 4 in the Top Ten, and all three of Stieg Larsson’s Girl books are in the Top 20, as is Gone Girl (#7).

According to Publishers Weekly, who provided an analysis of the list, there’s only one non-fiction book on the list: StrengthsFinder 2.0. That gave me a chuckle, because there would appear to be another non-fiction book on the list, Heaven Is for Real, by that kid who went to heaven and came back. You would think with the word “real” in the title, Publishers Weekly wouldn’t call it fiction, but what are you going to do.

What’s coming next for book publishers, booksellers, and book readers? Probably more of the same. More books will be published and more books will be sold, and ebooks will continue to be an important component in the way books are read.

Books will still be talked about, and books will still influence the way people think and live their lives and relate to one another. In my field of Christian publishing, the disruption brought about by Amazon, digital, shifting faith and culture dynamics, and changing demographics (more Millennials buy books than any other age category) all pose significant challenges. But inherent in all of these changes are enormous opportunities for Christian publishers when it comes to fulfilling their collective mission of reaching the world for Christ.

Twenty years ago the only way to buy a book or a Bible was to go to a bookstore. Today, you can have one delivered to your door within a day. More importantly, the contents of any book, including the Bible, can be transmitted within seconds to virtually any part of the world. This means the message of the gospel, that has the power to change any life, anywhere, anytime, can now be distributed without the barriers of time or space.

That’s not just Amazon. It’s amazing.

Stan Jantz is a writer, publisher, former Christian retailer, and the interim executive director of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA

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