Today’s Washington Post has a fascinating little story, tucked into the Style section, about some bookstores refusing to shelve books produced by Amazon. The boycotters include Washington’s own indie stalwart, Politics & Prose.
If I go to P&P, I won’t find a copy of what sounds like a charming new novel, Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles. The Post article says,
They don’t want to promote what they see as a predatory publisher. “Care of Wooden Floors” was issued this month by New Harvest, a new collaboration between Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the arch-nemesis of brick-and-mortar bookstores: Amazon.
According to the article, Amazon and HMH signed a deal earlier this year to create New Harvest, an imprint (if that’s the right word) that publishes books acquired, edited, and marketed by the big A and distributed by Houghton’s sales force. “The partnership was an effort to woo bookstores into stocking Amazon-published books,” reporter Nora Krug writes. “But many booksellers are balking.”
Politics & Prose’s chief buyer is frank about why: “We don’t want to do anything that will support their publishing venture,” he told Krug. “They pretty much want nothing more than our demise.”
Some of the indie bookstores in the Post article, including P&P, say they will special-order Amazon books for customers. Some say they won’t.
As someone who loves bookstores but doesn’t hate Amazon, I don’t quite know how to feel about this situation. I’m sympathetic to booksellers who feel that they’re being squeezed out by an e-tailer with enormous reach and influence. I’ve also found Amazon very handy at times.
As a writer, I’m also sympathetic to an author who wants to publish his or her book and get it out there. (I hope to be in that position before too long, if I’m lucky and work hard.) As a reader, I hate the idea of having any bookseller make it harder for me to find a book I want to read. Do I have to pick sides here?
In the Post article, the head of the American Booksellers Association says she’d “think twice” before signing with Amazon if she were an author. That’s a bit chilling. I don’t know what other publishing options Will Wiles had, if any, for Care of Wooden Floors. Maybe he had lots; maybe he had none; maybe Amazon’s New Harvest just made him a great offer. Whatever the circumstances, he’s a working writer who presumably needs to make a living and wants to find an audience. It doesn’t seem fair to make him choose between bookstores and a publisher.
The standoff between bookstores and Amazon leaves me worried and wondering about the fallout for writers and readers and ultimately for the bookstores too. Will a bookstore that refuses to sell Amazon’s books be willing to host a writer who publishes with Amazon? Will readers be sympathetic to bookstores’ position or irritated that they can’t get the book(s) they want? As Amazon publishes more and more books, which it’s bound to do, will not shelving those books come back to haunt bookstores?
Mark Athitakis and I had an exchange about this on Twitter earlier today, in which Mark suggested that bookstores “make a mistake in assuming people care a lot about their bookstore-ness,” and that the acid test of the no-shelving policy will come if/when Amazon produces a gotta-read blockbuster. We’ll see who says boo then–bookstores, authors, or readers.