Bookstores vs. Amazon – A Publisher’s View

August 9, 2012

In talking to our distributor’s buyer for BN, I learned that more books are sold through Amazon than from BN. It may seem like a no-brainer, but I found that interesting because most of our sales still come from bookstores. I’m not surprised at this revelation – only that we haven’t experienced it. Yet. I’m sure that day is coming very soon, and here’s why…

Barnes and Noble is a national account, meaning that all book buying is done at the corporate level by genre buyers. So let’s say the health buyer is having a bad hair day and, for whatever reason, decides she doesn’t love your book, even though the author’s promotion plan includes a national tour, big name celebrities who have blurbed the book, blah, blah, blah. They can say “No thanks,” and don’t even need to give a reason. There is no logic involved, and no amount of pleading or arguing will change their minds.

So a book that a publisher has spent tens of thousands could be shut out of the largest book chain in the US, all based on the opinion of one person. All the stars could be in alignment and a perfect author platform, and nothing – for no reason at all. I watched this happen very recently to an author whose first book sold hundreds of thousands, yet his second book was shut out. The distributor’s sales rep literally fought and begged for the BN buyer to change her mind. Nada. Zip.

To put it more succinctly, ONE PERSON holds the magic keys to the Shelf Kingdom at BN. And some corporate genre buyers are real jackwagons – to the point where I would think twice before accepting a book in a particular category. And it’s not just that genre buyer, but others as well.

The frustrating thing is that bookstores are excellent advertising opportunities, and it takes the jam out of my jelly doughnut to know that the investment in developing a book may struggle on the whims of a pouty genre buyer. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the saying goes…and I believe it.

Ironically enough, this is the very corporation that’s crying big croc tears for consumers to please support them and save them from the big bad Amazon. From where I sit, I have to ask the age old question that all publishers are currently asking, “What have you, Mr. B&N, done for us, lately?”

With inefficiency like this, is it any wonder BN is in trouble?

Indie Bookstores

I love them. They are far more likely to host events because they want to draw in business, and they want to support solid new books. They tend to be more efficient because they don’t have a giant corporate head peering down their blouses, and their staff tends to be far more experienced and knowledgeable. With all the events I’ve planned over the years, I experience far fewer problems with indie bookstores.

But they’re a dying breed, which I lament every day. And because they’re indies, there isn’t a cohesive uniformity about what books they carry. The flip side is that they are more likely to write purchase orders based on personal contact, be it from regional sales teams or the publishers.

Amazon, the Behemoth and, the distant cousin

Their attraction is availability, discounting, and fast shipping. I can get an ebook within seconds…while I’m sitting on the beach or rotting at the airport. As a consumer, I can read Stacia Kane’s Unholy series, or I can choose from the other 35 e-books sitting on my phone and tablet with a nip of my pinkie finger. Readers can get their physical books in a couple days…for less. As a publisher, this is music to my ears.

As much as Amazon can drive me nuts, I never have to worry about our books being stocked – and discounted. The downside is that there are millions of books on those sites, so it’s hard to make like cream and rise to the top. In a bookstore, the reader can peruse the shelves, kick the tires, and read a few pages. Sure, you can do that, somewhat, on Amazon, but the experience is different. On the other hand, you can buy a book (or three) in the comfort of your computer – on your own time – rather than getting in the car and driving to a bookstore.

No one knows where retail book buying is headed, but publishers have to pay close attention to the aspects that stand in our way of selling books – and none of the choices are optimal.

  • Amazon/ = great pricing, availability, instant gratification
  • BN stores = arbitrary, decisions made by one person, the genre buyer
  • Indie bookstores = great, knowledgeable, but not enough of them to keep publishers afloat

In spite of the frustrations and uncertainty, I can’t imagine a world without books, and it behooves all of us publishers to figure out a way to keep our product in front of readers’ eyes.

Consequences of Amazon inheriting the Earth – how does this affect their authors?

February 3, 2012

For those who are living under a rock, Amazon has partnered with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to print and distribute their books. This is in addition to Amazon buying publishers – and their authors. Many are singing from the mountain tops. “Finally, we’ll have store placement AND online distribution. Amazon is wise. Amazon is good.”

But is it? Bookstores are fighting back. Barnes and Noble told Amazon not to count on them to shelve their books. Likewise, Books-A-Million has told Amazon to go forth and multiply with a diseased yak. Those are two huge marketplaces that are shutting Amazon out.

This is an interesting blow to Amazon…and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And to the authors, who are caught in between.

A large part of me isn’t crying croc tears. Amazon has managed to usurp much of the book-buying business, which has prompted the closing of many bookstores – which adversely affects us publishers. Now they’re doing the same thing with publishing by signing some very big deals with established authors and buying up other publishing companies in a bid to become the premier go-to publisher.

However, this bid to inherit the Earth will be for naught if they can’t get shelf placement with the remaining chain bookstores.

I’m a capitalistic pig, so I’m a proponent of letting the marketplace take care of itself. And sure, I felt my intestines rumble when Amazon decided they wanted to play publisher. They have the money to hire the talent, and are signing only big-whup authors in order to put out a quality product. They have the $$ to undercut any market, and to pay the big advances.

The one thing they lacked was store distribution – which they took care of with the print/distribution deal with HMH. Amazon is good. Amazon is wise.

I saw the HMH agreement as a bit cannibalistic because Amazon is threatening publishers, yet a publisher signed a deal with them. Silly world. What would have been delicious is if no publisher was willing to sign any deal with Amazon that afforded them printing and distribution. But everyone is looking for money, so the deal was struck, which put the monkey on B&N’s back as to whether they’d shelve those books – which they have passed on.

Since it appears as at least one publisher sold out and is willing to sleep with the devil to maintain financial viability, Amazon has overcome it’s last big hurdle – printing and distribution. The only one that appears willing to stand up to Amazon is the book chains. Now Amazon has hit a wall.

We all cheer. Or do we? Let’s not forget those who stand to lose the most – authors.

The Flip Side

At the heart of all this is, of course, the authors. Many were taken along for the ride when Amazon swallowed up their publishing companies. All they could do is hope for the best. With B&N and BAM shutting them out, those authors – many of them solid-selling authors with a faithful readership – are now in flux. Where they used to have shelf placement, they’re orphans.

This means those authors are now going to be e-book authors only, which has a huge impact on promotion because many of these authors do events where their books are sold. And let’s not forget print and TV media, who like to review the physical book before they interview an author. Now what? Those new Amazon-by-proxy authors have to completely reorganize their entire promo strategy that excludes a bound book. Because really, why would HMH print a book if it has nowhere to go?

It doesn’t stop at promotion. What about genre? Not every genre sells well in the e-book format because their readership doesn’t buy Kindles, or they’d rather have the physical book. Bound books in nonfiction still outsells e-books. E-book sales lag behind in YA because that readership owns fewer Kindles.

So what are these authors supposed to do now that no big bookstore will shelve their books? More importantly, how will this affect authors’ sales? Where they once sold 100k units, will that dilute down to a few thousand? And how will those lower sales impact their future with their publisher?

You can see how this is a domino effect. One domino can’t fall without impacting all the other dominoes down the line. This is where it’s vital to pull away from our desks and try to peer into the future and appreciate how intertwined we are in the publishing industry. If you give any one company absolute power of inheriting the Earth, then how does that influence everything else?

The authors who are crowing over their fat deals with Amazon may find themselves not laughing quite so hard. If I’ve learned one thing is this psychotic business is that we all depend on each other to maintain a balance.

My heart breaks for those caught in between. And that’s the way it always works. When Mom and Dad fight, it’s the authors who are most adversely affected. Publishers will find a way to make money, but the individual author may be sacrificed to service the many. It sucks.

Where Do They Go From Here?

This is anyone’s guess. Knowing Amazon, they won’t take the shutout lying down. There are rumors they may open their own satellite stores – something they deny. But they have added new warehouses in strategic locations, so who knows? The explanation is the warehouses will allow them to get product to the customer more quickly. What…two days isn’t fast enough?

What I fear is that a backroom deal will be made between Amazon, B&N and BAM, voila, Amazon’s HMH-pubbed books will magically appear from sea to shining sea. It will be lovely for the authors caught in No-Man’s Land, but it will portend something very different for publishers.

The Amazon Question: Blind Faith vs. Reality

October 25, 2011

Like everyone else in the publishing industry, I’ve been following the many blog posts and articles about Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer publishing imprint, and how those who have signed are ga-ga over the money, the promotion, the control, and did I mention money?

Leading the charge are well-known authors who have abandoned their mainstream publishers in favor of Amazon’s riches. I applaud them because they’re looking out for #1 – themselves. They’re getting more money and selling lots of books. Who can argue with that? Their testimonials have writers rushing toward the floodgates to be a part of the Next Great Thing.

But let’s look at this logically. The authors who are promoting Amazon already have a large readership…that they got from where? Their mainstream publishers. It strikes me as disingenuous and ungrateful when people bash the very entity that made them what they are today. In praising Amazon’s abilities, their focus is on all the things mainstream publishers do wrong and fail to mention what they do right, which resulted in making them a recognizable name and gaining them a healthy readership.

I agree that mainstream publishing has its foibles and we all need to be aware of the evolutionary process in order to remain viable. Competition is good for the soul. But just because Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer is appropriate for those known authors, does anyone really believe this is your typical publisher? And this is where blind faith comes in, and Amazon exploits this very well.

They sign big name authors and offer them the moon. They can do this because, well, they’re Amazon. So Amazon now has a cadre of happy happy authors who are making pretty good money and lots of sales. And best of all, those books are coming out far faster than mainstream publishing. I have no quibble with this at all.

But what has me casting a wary eye is where and how this will eventually shake out. Right now, everyone is rushing toward the new kid on the block who’s offering attractive promises, thus ensuring Amazon’s bid to monopolize the publishing industry. And once it’s done this, then what? Once you have total control, or a huge part of it, you can call the shots and decide who and what gets published.

The marketplace has traditionally been the litmus of what publishers produce. Oh, you want more vampire romance? Okay? Ah, more DaVinci Code? Sure thing. But when you control the majority, marketplace desire becomes secondary because they’re going to buy whatever you’re offering because it’s the only game in town. Now it becomes a matter of, “You’ll buy what we give you not what you want.”

Ok, I realize I sound very 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, but it pays to look past the blind faith and look at the potential realities because authors’ literary careers will be affected. This is a company that disses mainstream publishing (if anyone calls us legacy, I will instruct the beagle to bite their toes off), yet is employing many of its tenets to their own business plan.

I have no problem with anyone taking the best qualities of publishing and combining them with their own ideas, but I wonder if Amazon will use this to become the Costco of publishing. I love Costco for the ability to buy my 50-pack of toilet paper and 75-gallon drum of olive oil. But they appeal to the largest common denominator, which means I can’t buy that fantastic tomato basil soup that only Trader Joe’s makes, or the fabulous garlic French bread the local bakery cranks out every Thursday. For those reasons, I don’t want Costco to be the monopoly on groceries. There are many things they simply can’t do well because of their vast size.

Which brings me to the realities of Amazon. You can’t create a major takeover and not create a serious fallout for the industry. In the rush to be published, I see many writers jumping on the Amazon bandwagon. I believe there’s room for all, but if Amazon edges us publishers out and we become the way of the dinosaur, then what? Many of you may say “good riddance,” but it’s a good idea to consider the repercussions a monopoly may engender downstream.

And it’s this very reason that I cast an edgy eye at Amazon’s signing these big name authors and promising the moon. Their effusive praise is the doorway Amazon needs in order to attract authors down the path of blind faith.

Costco is about one thing, selling lots of things in bulk. Trader Joe’s and my local baker are about a love and appreciation of excellence and quality. I’m not convinced the reality of Amazon is about quality and love of literature than they are about selling piles of books. It’s my hope the two goals aren’t mutually exclusive, but I can’t help but wonder where this road will take us and those who are flipping us the bird now won’t eventually come to decry our demise.

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

June 23, 2011

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.

Amazon blowout; it only takes one, baby

April 14, 2009

I so feel for that French worker who incorrectly filled out a field and caused some 57,000 titles to be de-ranked. With the stroke of one mighty fingie, whap! – thousands of titles went missing from Amazon’s main product search. I’m fairly sure Monsieur Frenchie is currently filing for unemployment.

My sympathies to all who suffered at the hands of an innocent mistake. My sympathies also go to Monsieur Frenchie. It reminds me of the time I blew out our website a number of years ago. I know enough html to be dangerous. Obviously. I went into the website [even though our webmistress has told me time and time again to let her do these things] to post a Library Journal review for one of our books. I heard her warning ringing in my ears as I clicked and tweaked, but I didn’t want to distrub her on such a trivial matter. Besides, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl with the review.

I. Hit. One. Button.

Everything went screwy, and I saw my life passing before my eyes. It was apres Beagle, so I couldn’t even blame her. Making that call to our webmistress was like walking the plank with a rusty fork protruding from my eye. It’s not that she’s a horrible woman by any means. She’s fabulous. And did I mention patient? She has never yelled at me or threatened to walk out on us. This, despite the crap pay and lousy hours.

“Um, Cats, I, ah, blew out the website. No, no, I have no idea what I did. I was adding a review and the site started behaving like it’s possessed. I considered calling a priest, but he warned me never to call him again.”

It took her three days to find the problem and fix it. To this day, I don’t know what I did. No one does. It’s one of those great thrillers that probably involve rogue gremlins and cyber-wenches. I should call Ben Leroy at Bleak House Books and ask whether it would make for a compelling story. More than likely he’d tell me to go lie down until the feeling passes.

And I’m pretty sure that is exactly what Monsieur Frenchie is doing. I just hope he has a pouty bottle of fine wine.

Amazon Kindle Conversion Perversion

October 9, 2008

Anyone considering sending your files into Amazon for their free Kindle conversion, please give this serious thought. This gives way to the adage, ya’s gets whatcha pay for.

I’d contacted Amazon’s Kindle department and worked with a great guy. Very helpful and prompt. He suggested that I send in all our files because Amazon is currently converting the files for free, but they don’t expect that offer to last. Um, yeah. Well, I’ll give you one file because I’ve heard there are numerous problems with the conversions coming out of Amazon.

After four weeks, I received the converted file and uploaded it to my Kindle. With fingies a-twitter, I fired up my electronic love.


They managed to combine the Acknowledgments page with the prologue, and all the paragraphgs are separated by an extra carriage return instead of staying single spaced. They also omitted the linkable Table Of Contents that I included in the original file.

My contact handed my complaints over to the QA team, who doesn’t think the extra carriage returns are “destructive” to the readability of the file. Okaaaaay…maybe not in your world, dude. They felt that the problem lay with the pdf I sent in. Well, duh. That’s why the conversion houses are expensive. The person doing the converting has to go line by line to make sure it compares against the book and converted properly. I told him to kill the file and not take it live.

So for any of my five readers who are thinking of sending anything to Amazon to have them convert it to a Kindle file, go outside and stand in front of a truck and let it run over you. It will feel better than seeing a great book converted into something that looks like it popped out of a vanity press.

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