Amazon is to open a bookstore selling physical books on the International Space Station (ISS).
NASA announced the historic agreement in Houston this morning. The shop, which is expected to open in time for the busy summer season on the ISS – when international crews come and go every 50 days – will stock around 2,000 titles in hardback and paperback, curated by Amazon’s buyers working in conjunction with ISS Mission Control in Houston. Its aim is to make the downtime for the crews on the spacecraft more pleasant and provide welcome distraction in one of the ‘world’s’ most isolated of work environments.
The historic deal is the culmination of a long-held dream of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He has been fascinated by space travel for many years and in 2000 established Blue Origin, a “human space flight start-up company”, with the aim of developing “space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for two million or three million people orbiting the Earth”. The bookshop on the ISS is the first stage of that dream.
It will be the first time that the company has opened a physical bookstore. It already has collection lockers in a number of cities and some see the move as a natural, if unexpected extension of that– a locker in the sky, some have dubbed it.
Bezos himself is now in training to make the three-day journey to the ISS where he will perform a space walk for one of the book industry’s most extraordinary ribbon cutting ceremonies. He once said: “I am awed by the prospect. If you’ll forgive me, this will be one small step for a bookseller; one giant leap for bookselling.”
But, inevitably, there are detractors. One agent warned: “Is space an open market? How do we know publishers have the rights for the territories the International Space Station will be above?” In France publishers were up in arms about pricing. “I want to know that when the Space Station is over France, there will be no discounting,” said one.
But Amazon has acted to allay these fears. The bookshop will use a special sensor to detect which territory is below, and a bank of computers will indicate whether a particular publisher has rights or not. Similarly, when the ISS is above France, or any other territory that has fixed prices, all the stock will revert back to full RRP. This will happen every 91 minutes – the time it takes the ISS to orbit the globe.
Bezos plans to host trips to the ISS for editors and there is talk of author tours, with freeze-dried white wine and vacuum-sealed canapés the order of the day. Interestingly, there will be adjustments to the standard categories in the store. Thus titles set on earth and normally filed under Fiction will now be Science Fiction, and vice versa. Astronomy will become ‘Local Interest’.
Amazon is opting for physical books because Kindle’s Whispersynch technology is believed to interfere with the ISS’s navigation equipment. “Besides,” Bezos observes, “in space, even a book the size of Ulysses doesn’t weigh anything”.
As high streets go, this will definitely be one of the highest. The ISS orbits the earth at height of around 250 miles and travels at 17,200 mph – these will be the most well-travelled books in history.
But a spokesperson for the US Indiebound movement of independent booksellers is not impressed. “Not content with taking over earth, Amazon now wants to take over space as well.” In the UK Waterstones was believed to be readying a response for 2024.
However, there is one piece of good news for those battling the online behemoth – at least in space, no one will be able to hear Bezos laugh.