How to Survive in the Age of Amazon

If indie bookstores can’t beat the online giant’s prices, what can they do?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably at least tangentially aware of what happens among readers, writers, publishers, and booksellers when someone says the word “Amazon.” People get emotional. Of course, Amazon’s Kindle has revolutionized the booming e-book market over the past few years, and you can obsessively check your sales against that crappy no-good Billy Collins any time you want, but now there’s also this new mobile app that allows would-be patrons to scan a book on the shelf of their local retailer to check its price against Amazon’s offering. Not only that, but Amazon initially gave customers who used this “service” a $5 discount off their next purchase for carrying out this free-market espionage in their competitors’ physical stores. Amazon’s announcement was followed almost immediately by anger, articulated most prominently in a strongly worded piece by Richard Russo in the New York Times. Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo fired back the next day in an almost comically inflammatory article, positing that “buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.”                                                        


Both articles generated passionate debate about whether Amazon’s move amounted to corporate bullying that undermined local commerce, or whether it empowered readers in a struggling economy to support as many authors as possible through rock-bottom prices. Tangentially, the debate also revolved around whether readers should altruistically support independent bookstores by agreeing to pay higher prices, or act as any other savvy consumer would and hold out for the best bargains. As an author, a publisher, a consumer, and a former indie bookstore employee myself, I found both articles provocative, to say the least. However, my critique was directed not at Amazon, but rather at the independent bookstores that I treasure so fiercely.


Because in order to survive, bookstores must stop trying to compete with Amazon.

I should pause here to clarify that when I use the word “bookstore,” I mean “independent bookstore.” Considering that barely any bookstore chains are left standing, this should be fairly apparent—but just in case any of you might think I’m talking about the few remaining Barnes & Noble or Borders megastores that still rise like brick-and-mortar colossi over the exurbs, I’m not.

It’s perhaps telling about the divide over this issue that Slate’s pro-Amazon article appeared in its Technology section and was penned by a technology columnist (and nonfiction author), while the New York Times’s anti-Amazon piece was an op-ed written by a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist (who consulted with several other novelist friends before writing it). The simple fact is that even if all the bookstores in the country formed some sort of improbable coalition designed to undermine Amazon’s hold on the market, an IndieBound on steroids, they would fail. Amazon has a dynamic infrastructure with relatively low overhead that not only capitalizes on the latest technological developments but has begun driving them as well. Some market analysts speculate that Amazon sales will account for 50 percent of all book sales in the US by the end of 2012, which is stunning since book-selling has actually become the minority revenue stream for Amazon now that the company has branched out into a market for everything from video games to sex toys. Amazon has become a primary competitor not just to Barnes & Noble but also to Walmart, eBay, Apple’s iTunes, and even Netflix.

Amazon’s influence has allowed it to position itself not only as the largest bookseller in the country but also as a distributor. This means that it has effectively cut the middleman out of publishing, allowing it to offer books to the reader at the lowest price while paying the publisher a larger percentage of the sales. For me as a publisher, this means that not only can you get the latest title from my press, Black Ocean, for less from Amazon, but my little indie press will also probably make more off that purchase than if you had bought it at your local bookseller.

(QUICK PRIMER: Amazon pays 45 percent of cover price to publishers through its Advantage program. Bookstores typically pay 60 percent of cover price, but then many distributors (who broker the sales between publishers and bookstores) take anywhere from 20 to 50 percent off what’s left from that. Consequently, our profit on a book sold to Amazon will be roughly $2 per book, while it’s closer to $1 when sold through the older publisher-distributor-bookstore model. Meanwhile, our profit is closer to $7 if you buy books directly from our website—so if your primary concern is supporting the people who produce the books you love, you should consider buying directly from the publisher as an alternative.)

So if Amazon offers books for less to the consumer, and the publisher turns a higher profit for each book sold, why even have bookstores at all? Because in the 21st century, the service a bookstore provides isn’t just book-selling; it’s being the cultural center that book lovers need in their communities. Unless bookstores can not only acknowledge their role as beacons of culture, but really embrace that role and market themselves as such—as long as they try in vain to compete with one of the world’s largest retailers at its own game—they will slowly lose ground as they steadily morph into increasingly bizarre hybrids of book-music stores, bookstore-cafes, and bookstore–tapas restaurants, until they simply become businesses that sell the latest quirky breakout novel on the side to customers who’d rather pay $15 for a sandwich and a cup of coffee than for a book.

Every publisher and editor I know bitterly jokes about how she “didn’t get into this business for the money.” I know most booksellers feel the same way, though when what little money you were making starts to disappear it’s hard to remember that. But it’s the very act of remembering that will help guide bookstores toward staying relevant and successful in the age of Amazon and e-books. If all you want to do is sell something for a profit, then the book business is one of the last places you should be working. But if what you want to do is promote a love for reading and the books you love to read, then you can begin transforming your store into a valuable resource for other people who share your passion.

Here in the Boston area, two bookstores have managed to not only survive but thrive: the Harvard Bookstore (not affiliated with Harvard University) in Cambridge and Brookline Booksmith in Brookline. These two stores have a few elements in common that have undoubtedly contributed to their lasting success:

  • In addition to new books, they also sell a great selection of used titles at lower prices.
  • They have robust websites that offer options to buy online with quick local delivery (the Harvard Bookstore even offers next-day delivery by bicycle to select areas) as well as blog posts and features.
  • They have interesting and revelatory staff selections.
  • They each host over 100 readings a year (Brookline Booksmith hosts around 150, and Harvard Bookstore is closer to 300).
  • Both stores have been enthusiastic with their response when approached by Black Ocean to sell our titles.

It’s the last three points that I’d like to elaborate on.

In his Slate article, Manjoo states somewhat obtusely, “Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?” Of course, anyone who actually shops at bookstores knows this argument holds no water. When I enter a bookstore, the staff selections are usually the first or second section I go to (after I browse the sale items, of course…). A well-read staff that can anticipate their customers’ interests are one of the greatest assets any bookstore can have.

To illustrate this point, I’ll use an example from my own life. I was reading online the other week when I came across a new book out from a new indie press called Siglio in Los Angeles: an art book of religious paintings from Rajasthan, selected and compiled by the French poet Franck André Jamme, called Tantra Song. It was late at night and I knew I had to have it right away, so of course I immediately navigated to Amazon to check out the book’s price and availability. Much to my chagrin, it was out of stock and available only from a third-party seller for the astronomical price of $300. I promptly navigated to the website of the publisher, which also admitted that the book was out of stock, but generously provided a list of bookstores that might still carry it. Scanning the list for stores in Massachusetts, I saw that one of my favorite new resources for wonderful art books, Guy Pettit’s Flying Object out near UMass Amherst, was on the list. I went directly to Flying Objects’ website, saw that it had one copy left, and picked it up for $40 plus $2 shipping and handling. Since then Amazon has promised to have it in stock by mid-January, and is of course selling it for $14 less than what I paid for it—but in my hour of need, it was Guy Pettit’s visionary selection that came through and earned my business. I have no regrets about paying the full cover price and, to debunk another of Manjoo’s specious arguments, spending those 14 “extra” dollars isn’t going to prohibit me from buying more books I want in the future.

An expertly managed selection of books may be great, but it’s still useless unless you can actually get customers to look at what you’ve got in the first place. This is where the almighty in-store event comes into play, and it’s really at the heart of what distinguishes a bookstore from an online retailer, what makes a bookstore a center for culture in its community, unlike a Walgreens.

Lorem Ipsum Books in Cambridge provides an interesting case study. It was started by book lover and tech prodigy Matt Mankins. As Mankins tells it, he basically started the bookstore as a sandbox for software programs he was building to make his small store competitive in a global arena online while still selling through a brick-and-mortar store locally. He designed a program that, with a few clicks, scans in a title and automatically sets a competitive price based on what other used-book retailers are selling it for online. Another click, and the store’s copy goes up for sale alongside the competitor’s copies on numerous sites (such as Alibris, AbeBooks, and, yes, Amazon) at the programmed price. This system carried Lorem Ipsum along for seven years, while Mankins’s eclectic collection earned the store adoration from its local clientele. But the store isn’t located along one of Boston’s subway lines, so it doesn’t enjoy the same citywide patronage that other more prominently located bookstores do. At the same time, Lorem Ipsum has close to 3,000 square feet of floor space, with handmade bookshelves and a jaw-droppingly high antique tin ceiling—in other words, it’s a very cool place to have a reading. So when an art gallery in Harvard Square that had become the go-to event space for Black Ocean closed its doors for good a little over a year ago, I approached Lorem Ipsum about doing an event there. Mankins had moved to New York at this point, but left a young and energetic staff in place that was eager to get a series going in the store. We booked our best-selling author, Zachary Schomburg, for his Boston appearance there, and close to 40 people showed up. Perhaps only 10 or 15 of those 40 people actually bought books that night, but since then more and more poetry readings have been booked there, along with album release parties for local indie bands and art openings for local visual artists. Over the past year, through some dynamic programming, Lorem Ipsum has started to become a real presence in the larger community, and Mankins says that since the push to have more events, their overall sales have improved too.

Is a store like this going to be run out of business by Amazon’s new app? Not likely.

A number of stores across the country fit similar profiles: RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, hosts around 150 readings annually, and their staff selections are celebrated by readers all the way down in Boston; Prairie Lights in Iowa City is also known for its readings, which it even streams online; Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis has close to 150 readings a year and boasts a small but exciting rare and antiquarian collection alongside its new and used titles. All these bookstores have one more thing in common: they have sold (and currently stock) one or more of Black Ocean’s titles.

Now, clearly the handful of Black Ocean books these stores sell each year doesn’t make a hair’s difference for their bottom line, but their presence on the shelves speaks to the store’s interest in, and support of, independent publishers—more specifically, poetry—and the customers who read those books. People who read poetry are the unsung customer base for independent bookstores: they are avid readers, they love books as physical objects, they will religiously attend author readings, they read books on a variety of subjects, and they buy more books annually than anyone else I know. By catering to the type of person who reads poetry, these successful bookstores have perhaps unwittingly remained focused on what devoted patrons of bookstores really value: variety over homogeneity, literature over media, humanity over technology, and community over price. By being the type of bookstore that poetry readers will go out of their way to visit, and by being a third place in our social lives that fosters community and human interaction, these stores have become—through the nuanced fact of their physical being—something that Amazon, by its very business model, is the antithesis of: a space where we experience history, and thus also time.

At first glance, the idea of “catering to poetry” may seem like a hard sell. After all, “no one reads poetry anymore,” and the truth is no one ever really did. Poetry books will remain a paltry portion of the market for a long time, but the people who read poetry will continue to spend hours browsing the aisles of their local bookstore—smartphones tucked quietly away in their coat pockets. If bookstores can learn to embrace these odd readers as secret representatives of the type of person who’s at the core of their customer base, rather than get sucked into a doomed downward spiral of price slashing on the latest best-selling hardcover, they will remain relevant and attractive to the customers they need in order to survive. Poetry, the least profitable and most esoteric of all the genres, can save the bookstore.

Originally Published: January 11th, 2012

Janaka Stucky is the Publisher of Black Ocean, and its literary journal Handsome. He is the author of Your Name Is the Only Freedom (Brave Men Press 2009) and The World Will Deny It For You (Ahsahta Press 2012), and his poems have appeared in publications such as Denver Quarterly,...

  1. January 12, 2012
     Beth Spencer

    Thanks for writing this, Janaka. Yes, Amazon is unstoppable at this point, but
    your survival tips are good ones. I would only add that if readers in far-flung
    locales or cities whose stores have gone belly-up must order online, and if
    they can't order directly from a press or are ordering multiple books from
    different presses , and Small Press Distribution (
    are excellent alternatives.

  2. January 12, 2012
     Tig Stone

    He's totally right. A massive chunk of product transportation has moved to the online delivery model, and that model is especially suited to nonperishable items, such as books. This, I believe, is exactly why Amazon targeted books in the first place.

    While their start was as a book store, and this is still what people think of first, their business plan was never anything other than online warehouse to direct delivery of merchandise. Their system is basically what any other online merchant is copying; indeed Amazon tried, I believe unsuccessfully, to patent the idea of immediate checkout ("one click purchasing"). That has everything to do with online sales and very little to do with books.

    But there is still a need for showrooms for tangible goods. Some people simply like to touch and see their merchandise (myself). This is more true for unique or personalized items, say furniture or clothes, but also true if the condition is questionable, such as used books. And people still need places to go. To meet like minded people. To exchange common ideas. And not every place should be required to be a restaurant, bar, or coffee shop.

    The world now is one where retail of commodity items of non-questionable condition is acceptable through online delivery. Storefronts selling these types of items absolutely need to have another reason for people to come. Events! Attractions! Come hang out in my store! But they all must keep in mind that the internet has now forced the book store to compete not with Amazon, but with local restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

  3. January 12, 2012
     Peter LaVenia

    It's interesting to compare European practice with American: in places like Germany it is illegal to discount books below the publisher's suggested retail price, and thus giants like Amazon have never made the inroads there that they have here. Small and independent bookstores flourish because Amazon cannot undercut the market. Two articles for the interested reader: and

    This is a larger question for the United States. Do we prefer cheap to quality? We have been trained for a very long time to prefer cheapness - which has been coupled with a policy of low and stagnating wages for most, thus inducing them to choose cheap (, Wal Mart). A similar law in the United States based around bookstores would meet fierce opposition from (and possibly B&N) but might force a discussion of the central role that books and literature should play in our communities.

    Until that time, your suggestion of making independent bookstores cultural hubs is probably the only way they will survive in the United States. They have to provide different experiences than simply book purchasing (this is likely true for newspapers as well), and a new model that allows them to expand into that of salon or neighborhood intellectual space is one that cannot be provided by Amazon.

  4. January 12, 2012
     jacobo bergareche

    read it. Very interesting... in Spain it is not survival of indie bookstores, but survival of readers what is at stake.


  5. January 12, 2012

    "in places like Germany it is illegal to discount books below the publisher's suggested retail price, and thus giants like Amazon have never made the inroads there that they have here"

    And how big is the German book market vs the US book market when you factor the population and gdp ratio?
    From what I keep hearing the US book market dwarfs any market outside Japan (and maybe China these days) and maybe these anti-competitive rules in Germany have something to do with it.

    Raise the price of books (which this law does) and a ton less will be sold; sure you may have a bunch more indie bookstores but also a lot less authors and books.

    Amazon has been the best that happened for authors and readers and the indie bookstore was being mostly killed by the mega store without Amazon anyway

  6. January 14, 2012

    No mention of the "library" in these discussions...

  7. January 15, 2012
     Chris Roberts

    Independent Bookstores: Wave Goodbye: Indie, indie, indie! What's so special about a bearded hump behind the counter talking about Ginsberg or Sartre and throwing down a hippie story about how he tripped on peyote buttons with, dead dumb Kerouac (or thought he did) in the Mojave freaking desert?

    The prerequisite for an independent owner is that he's Santa Claus fat in a bad way, has a big, coffee junkie splotch on his Grateful Dead tee shirt and breath sour, stale and pungent enough to peel three layers of paint off the wall. Amazon is down with the incognito, anonymous, forever-leaving-me-alone kick and I roll with them. City Lights Bookstore is dead. Indie is Deceased. Stop crying babies. Hand me a shovel.

    Chris Roberts

  8. January 15, 2012

    Yes. Poetry can save the bookstore. And not only poetry. Forget the hard-cover plot-driven page-turners. Don't even carry them. Create your brand, your niche-market. Case-in-point: There's a nifty little bookshop across the way from where the Borders shut-down a few months ago in Hollywood. It only carries architecture and art books. Many of these books are over-sized; their design is what appeals to people. ("Cultural Showrooms" offering a "personalized" experience.) Let's take this into consideration when we imagine the future of books and bookshops.

  9. January 15, 2012

    saw this piece via huffpost. loved it. great thinking and writing. poets are among the best in these ways! thanks, stucky!

  10. January 15, 2012

    I was impressed with the article, reading it on Huffington Post. The
    scope of it is such that it is relative not only to business owners as I
    was until retirement recently, but also to the political debate titled
    "What's Happened to American Economy?" I will offer here a quite
    tiny but highly personal point in praise for the success of Amazon's
    much beloved Kindle: I have been a book lover all of my life, yet
    was forced to begin giving up that pleasure some years ago with
    severe arthritis making it increasingly impossible to even hold some
    books, much less read them. Audio books soothed some of the
    grief I felt over the loss, but then my dear husband handed me my
    first Kindle. I still love him, of course, but my "Windel" is a close
    second! I now own three, after having years before sworn never to
    forego the senual pleasures of bookstores. Thank goodness for

  11. January 15, 2012
     Therese Flanagan

    I love the illustration by Jason Novak!

    As more bookstores close, readers are driven to online
    book purchases, or libraries, just as libraries are
    being forced to cut back services. The economics of
    distribution -- lowest price, for value -- will, in most
    cases, prevail. There are tipping points; book lovers
    and communities may be willing to pay a premium for
    aesthetics -- spaces and places matter.

    I see a few rays of hope, as some communities are
    creating and funding their own bookstores, both as a
    cultural center and as a means of creating increased
    home values, sensing that a bookstore adds value to the
    neighborhood. I think that they are right.

    What has been so surprising to me is the speed of the
    change. I can imagine what it must feel like to all of
    the agents; editors; publishers; and bookstore owners
    trying to create a new business model as the old one
    gives way. I'm a writer; I find it dizzying. Yet, there
    are models and opportunities to explore in this
    disruptive market.

    I always count on the poets to lead the way!

  12. January 16, 2012

    A lot of interesting points have been made. There is little doubt that indie bookstores can only succeed by offering a different service than Amazon. Cultural centre seems as likely as the next. Staff recommendations -- once you know the people involved -- are far superior to "Amazon recommends" a rather mindless algorithm that has yet to suggest a book that I finally bought (despite my rather large consumption of books.

    As to the impact of price on quantity purchased, there can be no doubt there is some effect. However, few products are truely price elastic (i.e. double the price - half the sales). Some -- such as those where there is a ready substitute (corn vs rice) are very price sensitive. Others -- cigarettes, luxury cars and, I suspect, books -- require large increases in price to create a small decline in demand.

    Interestingly, on a personal note with repsect to e-books, I have a price range that limits my purchasing. Too low and it is obviously crap and not worth my time even to look at. Too high makes me consider buying a paper copy or decide I don't want it afterall. I'm far more likely to but books I don't know in a physical bookstore than on-line -- so the more you get me to the bookstore the more I'll buy. It may be related to our primate desire to touch before taking.

  13. January 16, 2012
     Michael Walsh

    "A massive chunk of product transportation has moved to the online delivery model, and that model is especially suited to nonperishable items, such as books. This, I believe, is exactly why Amazon targeted books in the first place."

    My understanding as to why Bezos started with books is because of the ease of inventory control: pretty much every book has a bar code and isbn. Books were the testing platform for developing the Amazon software. system.

  14. January 16, 2012
     Larry Bierman

    I buy lots of books through Amazon from "third party"
    vendors. If one lives in the hinterlands, i.e. Oklahoma,
    access to "really great" bookstores has always been
    limited. With the associates program provided by Amazon
    some person running a small bookstore in an out of the
    way community can still have access to Amazon's customer
    If a small bookseller wants to survive then they must
    help create and sustain a community of readers and
    writers, as well as make their inventory available for
    online purchase.

  15. January 18, 2012
     Matthew Stadler

    This is a wonderful, timely piece. Amazon is not the issue. They are
    doing a superb job rescuing shopping; some of their money will end
    up in the pockets of writers.

    The more pressing work right now is to make a viable economy within
    a culture of reading. I love reading. I am sick and tired of shopping. So
    why not spend my money and my time and attention in the
    relationships I love — idiosyncratic, nuanced, patient, personal,
    incomplete — rather than spending as a "smart shopper?" Shopping is
    the opposite of reading; the two cultures position us in entirely
    different ways. I develop this distinction in more detail in a talk I gave
    at Yale

    The change afoot right now, which Black Ocean is seeing and which
    has helped Publication Studio grow quickly and profitably, is the
    creation of a real economy around reading, built from the kinds of
    relationships reading entails. We don't compete for shoppers, we
    speak to readers. Money moves here too, from readers to writers. The
    question we face is not, as many crisis-stricken big publishers believe,
    how to rescue shopping. The question is how to build a viable
    economy in a culture of reading.

  16. January 21, 2012
     Marv Lurie

    Even if you want to read e-books and still support local
    independents, you can do that with the Android ap IB,

  17. January 21, 2012

    I really enjoyed this piece. I am now saving to open my
    own bookshop.

  18. January 21, 2012
     rehmat jamal

    i know that sooner or later i will succumb to kindle , but till then i would like to go to a bookstore,preferably one that knows my reading habits ( poetry looms large ) and who will recommend new writers/books they know ill like . i like to touch books,inhale the new , to me, book smell and then leap into it .but i live in vegas now . so i guess kindle will be sooner rather than later .and i know for a fact that i will miss conversing with other book lovers and my reading will be more solitary than ever .

  19. January 21, 2012
     Lydia Hunter

    I am proud to add to the few listed "indie" booksellers, ours here in Colorado named "The Tattered Cover Bookstore. It boasts not one but two locations and is a magnet for every sort of reader and many events your article suggests. I recall as a young high school student many hours in wonderful abandon at the local library. it might have been there that I refined my interest in reading. Later, that abandon transferred to wonderfully antiquarian bookstores such as another here that went out of business. I do order many books and music from Amazon and find it convenient, easy on the environment and so forth. However if it were my only option, that abandon beneath those "lofty ceilings and planked floors"would cost my soul as a writer and poet, more than I would be willing to "spend"! Thanks for your article and its showcasing the state of bookstores and on-line dealers such as Amazon.

  20. January 22, 2012
     Norbert Hirschhorn

    When ordering via Amazon I almost always buy from any number of 'used' book dealers (indies, I would expect) who often sell copies 'new' (perhaps reviewer copies) or 'like new', or 'very good', and so on. Amazon prices plus postage aren't special.

    And I do buy from my local bookshops when I want a book that has just come out. In London, Daunt and Foyles are thriving independents with branches! A Borders across from Foyles went bust, and another chain, Waterstone's, is suffering.

  21. January 26, 2012

    This article perfectly articulated the opinions I personally hold about this topic but could never express as eloquently. I think Janaka is right in his assessment that events and readings are crucial to cultivating a literary community, as well as revitalizing indie booksellers. Here in Portland, we have Powell's (my home away from home), and the events held there are usually interesting and fun. Who could say no to an entire city block of books? Attending events at Powell's has prompted me to read new, thought-provoking books, and explore literary avenues I may have never previously considered. Also, I was pleasantly surprised by Janaka's statement that poetry is essential to fostering and maintaining an environment in which indie bookstores can thrive. This sentiment is so refreshing to hear, and has inspired me to read more poetry! Thanks for a great article.

  22. May 6, 2012

    Good evening?!I'm sorry I have a presumptuous please.
    I'm a college student from China, I'm writing a thesis
    about "the development of independent bookstore in
    China",and I want to cite this article as my foreign
    language documents,certainly I will mark the source of
    this article.May I? Your article is really helpful and
    important for me~
    P.s:Was this article published in any publication? My
    teacher told us that the foreign language document
    should be published :D

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  24. November 1, 2013

    I just want to weigh in by saying that no bookstore
    selling new books can compete with Amazon unless...they
    A) produce the books and sell them themselves (remember
    'business people' are selling something and so always
    somewhat vulgar, unless they also create what they sell;
    it doesn't matter if they are big like Amazon or small
    like your local fat bearded guy. B) in which I
    completely agree with the commentator who says the
    solution lies in finding niche markets: art & poetry,
    fantasy & sf, all non-fiction (that is a sure winner),
    architecture, design & sculpture, etc.
    Not every city has the population of San Francisco to
    support niche ventures but that is of course where the
    internet comes in.
    Personally, I make a habit of almost exclusively buying
    only USED books in brick and mortar stores because A:
    price B: out of print & vintage books with far superior
    design/art than most modern new books C: "the thrill of
    hunt" in never knowing what you'll come across. Buying
    on-line isn't as fun but its pluses are that I can find
    the very book new or used extremely fast and reasonably
    priced---not everyone has the luxury of worrying about
    the impact of every single fractional move they make
    which is the new neurosis/"whiteman's burden" of the
    right now, in my opinion--live your life: everyone one
    is infringing on something or someone else who could be
    occupying right where you're sitting now.