Message to Amazon from bookstores: “Go blow yourself…”

What am I talking about? Amazon’s foray into mainstream publishing. The excited authors are now ready to go forth and promote. Where do they want to promote? Why at a bookstore, of course. Yes. A physical, brick and mortar bookstore. And this is where Seattle Mystery Bookshop owner JB Dickey levies some very good points with an Amazon author seeking a book signing event at his shop. Go read the exchange. It’s quite enlightening.

Not surprisingly, the authors requesting signings are being turned down because bookstores see Amazon as the enemy. And with good reason. Amazon is the Costco of the book-selling industry, selling one kind of vinegar in 50 gallon drums, while indie bookstores are the specialty shops that sell those unique little escargot forks and truffle olive oil. And now Amazon would like to call upon those same bookstores to sell tons of their books and make all sorts of money.

The stores are saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

I feel JB Dickey has a valid point. Amazon has undercut the marketplace by discounting books…just like Costco. As a result, the bookstores are suffering lost sales and are being forced out of business. And now Amazon expects those very bookstores they’ve decimated to play ball and host signings for their authors?

Hmm. Even though I’m an ardent free-market advocate, I’m tempted to suggest Amazon go blow thyself. As a publisher, I can attest how we all have been devastated at the plight that has befallen the bookstore industry. They are our bread and butter, and we hate the thought of a monopoly taking hold that will put them in the position of telling us publishers how the game will be played. We’ve already seen their overreaching power when Amazon removed all of St. Martin’s books from their site during negotiations.

I don’t like Amazon’s heavy hand, and I really don’t like Amazon’s authors expecting a helping hand from the very bookstores whose livelihoods are being threatened. Does that mean I hate Amazon in totality? No. I have a Kindle and love it. We are all on budgets, and I don’t apologize for looking for the best deal. That’s what free market allows. On the flip side, I think Amazon has a pair of brass ones to suggest bookstores shouldn’t be anything but grateful for the crumbs Amazon passes along.

I look at Amazon’s foray into publishing the way I look at an ingrown toenail. If you don’t pay attention to it, it can infect your toe. If you really ignore it, you might lose your entire foot. They have the money and power to ingratiate themselves into the hearts of many authors. But how long can that Costco mindset thrive when you grow so huge? At some point quality will suffer, and that will be in the manner of lousy editing. But hey, if you’re the only game in town, who’s gonna complain?

Scary, no? I’d be really interested in hearing bookstore owners’ thoughts on this issue.

11 Responses to Message to Amazon from bookstores: “Go blow yourself…”

  1. AstonWest says:

    So, rather than take 40% of the cover price of an author’s book, they’d rather have 40% of nothing because of spite…this is why bookstores will eventually die. Sad to say…

    But it’s not really a new phenomenon…the chains have been shutting down POD titles for years in the same way, even though they could also make 40% of the cover price (just by vetting the title themselves for appropriateness) without any upfront cost or loss of shelf space (in-store events where authors supply their own books).

    Oh well, at least they’ll have their pride…

  2. danholloway says:

    I find it heartening in a way. The best bookstores get that “best” label by choosing the stock and the staff that give their particular customers the most compelling reason to keep pitching up and stumping up. They make choices about which publishers to stock all the time. Every book they say no to is about conveying an image to potential customers as much as every book they say yes to (the best zine store in the world is unlikely to tempt many people in if they first have to wade past the pile of Rosamund Pilchers in the front window, yet you don’t have to have a very wide selection of graphic novels to become the must-go-to venue for graphic novels *if* your staff are graphic novel nerds and that’s all you do and your store feel reflects it). I don’t really see how this is different.

    It’s interesting to see how people have responded to this story – as a publisher we took a stand and refused to put ISBNs on our books specifically so Amazon and chains couldn’t undercut the independent stores we chose to deal with, and we were told by most people that putting principle over profit in matters of publishing and all-things-Amazon was bonkers. Commercially bonkers, almost certainly. But neither we nor our authors are in the publishing “business” and I think people who are still can’t get their heads around that.

  3. Todd, I fear you’re right that bookstores will struggle to remain viable – as much as that bothers me. With respect to POD books, stores have locked them out for a very simple, basic reason. Print runs and quality.

    As for POD publishing – it’s an untenable model because they lack money. This means they can’t hire the best editors and cover designers. They can’t afford to do print runs, so they do runs in lots of 25-100. This isn’t a big enough run to feed into the stores.

    Additionally, there’s the return factor, and PODs would go under fairly fast if they sold to stores because, on average, POD books generally lack the literary quality of their commercial brethren. This means that the chances of POD books being returned are much higher, which would kill their business in a matter of months.

    When POD first hit the marketplace, bookstores did allow those books to be shelved, but they learned all too quickly about the lack of quality stories and editing. PODs learned all too quickly that those returns would kill them, so they began making their books non-returnable. That killed all chances for store placement.

    When they learned they were being shut out, they re-instituted a return policy, but didn’t really push selling to the stores because it could put them out of business. They make far more money by selling to their authors – which is the mainstay of PODs to this day.

    I’ve always maintained that if no author ever bought any of their own books, PODs would cease to exist. Mind you, I’m speaking in generalities. I don’t hate POD at all – many are terrific with OP titles or obscure genres, but an author needs to know exactly what they’re getting into when they sign with a POD press. The business model makes in improbable that bookstores would order their books. After all, shelf space is tight enough, right?

    As for the bookstores cutting off their noses to spite their face…I think they can handle it because Amazon’s mystery line still can’t compete with the likes of really great mystery publishers, who have established reputations. I think shutting out a few Amazon books won’t kill them.

  4. Dan, that’s a dicey business choice not to put ISBNs on your books, but maybe things are different in the UK.

    Here in the US, I see it as my duty to sell our authors’ books in as many venues as possible because that’s the point of being a publisher. That means our books are available on Amazon. And yes, we’ve enjoyed huge sales through their website, both here and in the UK and Canada. I don’t apologize for this because that’s what my authors expect of me. That’s how we build our reputation and keep the beagle in designer doggeh chewies.

    Amazon doesn’t have to worry about shelf space, so they can accept as many titles as they want. And they discount, which appeals to readers’ tight wallets. Additionally, people’s lives are incredibly busy and they enjoy the ease of ordering a book online – or getting it instantly via Kindle or Nook. I’d be a fool to lose tens of thousands of dollars worth of sales based on a principle. Besides, my authors would kill me. And rightly so.

    But that doesn’t mean I love bookstores any the less. It’s where readers can come in and physically touch the book and kick its tires. They can talk to savvy booksellers who recommend excellent books. But the sad truth is that their shelf space is limited, and books that aren’t selling quickly are packed up and returned. Some never get ordered at all. I bless our sales reps and our distributor who are working to sell our books in as many places as possible.

    I feel this pack-and-return phenomenon is the impetus of the big publishers’ hunt for the big blockbusters, and why the midlist author is suffering. They need big authors, big stories, big platforms in order to compete for shelf space.

    It’s karma, in a way. You can’t mess with one chink and not expect the entire chain to be affected. The only way to remain viable is to be able to think quickly on your feet and look for trends in the ever-shifting sands of the marketplace, and understand how you can still maintain sales.

  5. Mike McNeff says:

    The main point I think being ingnored is everyone involved in the writing/agent/publishing/bookstore business needs to work together to encourage reading. The competition is TV, streaming video, ipods, smartphones, computers, computer games, etc. Indie writers and bookstores can and should work together, especially when they are in the same geographical community. People like to read local authors.

    We all have to put aside our prejudices about this issue. Indie writers are valuable and the facts show if they know how to market their books and the books are well written, they will sell. Bookstores need to understand this. If an indie writer presents them with a well written work and a decent marketing plan, it doesn’t make sense in today’s world for the bookstore to turn them down.

    We all have to realize that in the total scheme of things, we are all on the same side with the same goals.

  6. AstonWest says:

    Yes, bookstores ordering stock from a POD press is an unrealistic goal based on the financials (lack of returns, etc.)…but one would think bookstores would jump all over the idea of holding local author events with consignment arrangements (again, vetting the material before allowing it). It offers minimal risk, no financial outlay to the store (other than maybe advertising if they choose to), and good will to local authors who are normally avid readers (and thus, purchasers of books).

    Indeed, authors need to know what they’re getting into (and if they’ve been reading this blog long enough, they should have a good idea. ;-D )…

  7. Many bookstores have told me they hate hosting events because it’s a great deal of hassle just to have three people show up. Even if they do an event on a consignment basis, where the authors bring their own books, the store still has to move bookshelves around and set up the chairs.

    An increasing number of bookstores have ceased hosting book events. Others charge to host an event. The logical answer is that it’s a lot of bang for very little money.

  8. AstonWest says:

    Indeed, one independent store here has gone to charging authors for signings…and the result is that many authors have ceased visiting this store to buy books.

    So, even if it may inconvenience store management, I still think they should ponder things a bit more carefully before alienating their own customer base.

    But then, that’s just my opinion…

  9. tbrosz says:

    My local indie bookstore (Books Inc.) still has author signings now and then, and does it enthusiastically. Not a lot of big names, but not nobodies either.

    I try to make a point of buying new books there when I can. Popular titles aren’t hard to find. My first choice for old or obscure stuff is the used bookstore (right next to Books Inc., oddly). Besides, I have a lot of store credit there from books I’ve sold them.

    After that, I go online.

  10. Ken Byers says:

    A new meaning for publish (and sell) or perish —

    The truest of all comments is the one about the enemy being all the alternatives to reading a book, no matter the format or where it was sold. The status of the book world now is carving up a smaller and smaller market with less money regardless if you sell books or write them. As long as the industry (all of the above) stands divided there is little hope. Look for common ground, find ideas where none of them are attractive unless compared to losing all that a lifetime of work and dreams has so far produced, and take action.

    What I don’t see is sellers and writers working together for a model that works — even minimally — for both. They are out there and become visible when the mindset opens the door.

  11. Ken said:
    What I don’t see is sellers and writers working together for a model that works — even minimally — for both.

    Thanks for your comments, Ken. I have to ask why a seller would work with writers for a model that works, when they already have a model that works. What kind of model are you suggesting? If I understand you correctly, you’re basically suggesting that stores vet the authors on an individual basis. At least that’s what they would have to do in order to determine whether the book is marketable.

    This is exactly what already goes on when a DIY or POD pubbed author does when asking a store to host an event, or shelve their book. Stores don’t have that kind of time. That’s why they buy books based on catalogues that are pitched either from the publishers own sales teams, or the publishers’ distributors’ sales reps. It’s still chaotic at times, but there is a definite order to things.

    What’s somewhat frustrating is the idea that everyone feels they deserve shelf space and author events simply because they are published. It’s important to look at this from the booksellers’ perspective – they’re in this game to make money, and they’ve learned that DIY and POD books are generally inferior in quality, so they avoid them.

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