Bookstores that won’t carry books

Bookstores that won’t carry books

What is the raison d’etre for bookstores?

It’s to sell books, right?

If a bookstore refuses to sell books, that seems self-destructive.

One of my regular readers and commenters, Harold Delk, directed me to this:

Publishers Weekly article

The Judith Rosen piece quotes several owners, managers, and other executives of brick-and-mortar bookstores explaining why they won’t carry books published by New Harvest.

Those are paperbooks published by Amazon imprints, and distributed by venerable (founded in 1880) publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I have to say, there is some of the most upside down and backwards reasoning I’ve seen…at least, that’s the way it appears to me.

Let me address first the basic principle of not selling books. Absolutely, bookstores have the right to choose their merchandise (I’m a former bookstore manager). You don’t want to carry a book because it won’t sell? Perfectly reasonable. You don’t want to carry a book because you think it will offend your customers? Makes sense.

You don’t want to carry a book because you want to hurt the publisher? That’s just bizarre.

Who does it help and hurt?

The Customers

In the short run, this clearly hurts the customer. They can’t buy a book from you that they want. In the longer run, you might think you are helping them, by changing somebody’s else’s business practice…but the customer is likely to just buy the book somewhere else (like Amazon). If the customer doesn’t hear of the book, yes, that could hurt the publisher’s sales, which could encourage that company to change some practice, I guess.

The Store

Again, clearly a short term negative impact. The store loses sales. Perhaps more importantly, they could lose customers. You shop in a local store because you like their service (and maybe selection, although the internet beats that). It’s not good service to not have the book the customer wants. One thing that makes you return to a bookstore: you got a book there you loved. Fewer books, fewer chances for that to happen. Think you can explain it to the customer? “Yes, I know it has great reviews, but Amazon has business practices that we don’t like, so we aren’t going to carry it.” Customer’s response: “Who does carry it?” or “What practices?” Store: “They are selling books for lower prices than we can match.” Customer: “Um, okay…” Harold says that he won’t shop at any store that refuses to carry books like that…I would guess he won’t be the only one. Of course, many customers will have no idea about what is happening.

The Authors

They get hurt. Fewer sales, fewer royalties. Less discovery, fewer future sales. That even gets mentioned in the article.

The Publisher

They probably lose some sales, but this also weakens the power of the brick-and-mortar stores to influence the market in the future.

Other Publishers

They potentially win, but if this leads to fewer people shopping in brick and mortars, it means the tradpubs (traditional publishers) have to compete online…with Amazon.

Seriously, this is a lose/lose/lose/lose/lose. Of course, there are times it makes sense to hurt yourself. You see a little kid in the street, about to get hit by a car. You run out there and throw the kid to safety, getting hit and breaking your leg. That’s worth it. I can applaud the bookstore magnates for taking a moral stand. I just honestly think it’s hard to justify from a business standpoint.

Take this short quote excerpt from Vivien Jennings of Fairway Books in Kansas:

“Even if I’m super busy,” says Jennings, “I explain to [CreateSpace authors] about the sales tax thing and the DoJ.”

Let’s go through those two, and how I would explain them.

Amazon favors having a national sales tax policy. They want all internet retailers to be compelled to collect sales tax. Amazon’s Paul Misener has testified before Congress in favor of equal collection legislation.

What they don’t want is states making up their own (and very different) rules about who has to collect sales tax.

Amazon’s stand (and efforts to make it become reality) would likely benefit brick-and-mortar bookstores, because all (well, at least one that met a sales minimum, most likely) internet and mail order places would collect sales tax the same way those neighborhood stores do.

Is that what Jennings explains?

As to the DoJ (Department of Justice) thing…

There has been a real effort to spin this into an anti-Amazon case, when it is the opposite.

Does Jennings say, “Amazon was discounting e-books to customers, even though they were paying the same amount to publishers, and authors were therefore getting the same amount. Apple colluded, according to the Department of Justice, with five of the six largest US publishers to raise the prices that customers were paying…and to eliminate price competition, by making the e-books the same price regardless of what outlet was selling them.”

That’s what is happening.

I’m not saying that the DoJ couldn’t go after Amazon for anything…the e-tailer does have a “most favored nation” requirement in their contracts with independent publishers using their Kindle Direct Publishing , saying that the publisher can’t sell the e-book cheaper somewhere else. That one concerns me.

However, the current DoJ action says that Apple and the publishers were the bad guys and hurt consumers. Some of the publishers, without admitting wrongdoing, have already agreed to settle.

Maybe Jennings is explaining that, I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like it, though.

Here’s the hard part for me in this.

I think running a bookstore is a noble pursuit. Many bookstore owners/managers really want to help people find great things to read. I’ve spent many a wonderful time in bookstores.

These complaints, though, mostly sound like they are about money.

Clearly, if the goal was to help connect readers with books, you wouldn’t do it by keeping books out of the hands of readers.

Are bookstore owners/managers/CEOs upset because Amazon is doing that  better?

Sure, that makes sense. You want to make a profit, you want to stay in business.

It just doesn’t sound like the goal here is the enrichment of the reading community.

After you’ve read the article, I’d love to hear what you think. I’d be more than happy to discuss these points with any of those bookstore folks. Book people, as I’ve mentioned before, tend to be empathetic. While there are certainly passionate discussions around books (nowadays, you can find those online, in the “bookstream” inside a book on a Kindle Fire, and so on…and yes, probably in some bookstores), I think readers tend to be able to look at things logically and from many viewpoints.

What do you think?

If you have more to say to me and my readers, feel free to make a comment on this post.

Thanks again to Harold for the heads-up on this!

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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10 Responses to “Bookstores that won’t carry books”

  1. Barbara Says:

    I think the booksellers are being short sighted. However, I also disagree with amazons”s practice of retaining exclusive rights to the ebook version of their imprints if the article was correct on that point. I think it hurts everyone in the long run

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Barbara!

      The exclusivity issue is an interesting one. Every publisher, of course, has exclusivity. If Random House licenses a novel for the USA, no other publisher can publish it.

      The difference with Amazon is that it’s who can sell it to the consumer. There are lots of stores that can sell you that Random House book.

      However, it’s hard to argue against exclusivity and in favor of the Agency Model…since the Agency Model makes the price the same regardless of who sells it. That’s a monopoly of price, if not of outlets.

      Amazon’s exclusivity hurts other hardware sellers (Sony, Barnes & Noble’s NOOK), but doesn’t keep the book out of any more hands outside of that. You can read Kindle books without an EBR (E-Book Reader)…on a PC, a Mac, a SmartPhone, an Android tablet, an iPad…and so on.

      No question, it gives Amazon control over the price for a specific title. The prices of other titles put price pressure on the books, though…Amazon couldn’t effectively set Slaughterhouse Five (for example) at $100, if other similar books were $5.

      I will absolutely say that part of my comfort is that Amazon has always been about keeping the prices low. Someone else might worry more…but I don’t really have a problem with exclusive deals. Anybody can do them. It’s easier for Amazon because they have a lot of money (which they’ve earned), but I don’t think they did anything unfair to get the rights to the James Bond novels.

  2. Louise Behiel Says:

    In Canada, cigarettes are slowly being legislated and taxed out of existence.. bookstores are in the same process although for different reasons. in the first, the government has said ‘enough. they kill people so we’lre going to control how they look and who can see them.’ bookstores are being affected and put out of business by e-books. it is the roll of time.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Louise!

      The USA banned cigarette advertising on TV in the early 1970s…I think Canada did so in the late 1980s? However, I think we’re both complicated in this by being tobacco growing countries.

      The idea of second hand smoke has led a lot more regulation here, although it is often driven at the city or state level, rather than federally. My adult kid has asthma: choosing a place to visit or live, we do take the smoking laws into account.

      It’s important to note that it isn’t just e-books affecting many bookstores: it’s internet purchasing of paperbooks.

      It’s pretty simple, and I’ve gone through it before: Amazon’s tenets are price, selection, and service. A local store can’t beat Amazon on selection or price.

      People will shop with a local store, knowing they are going to pay more money, if they like the “shopkeeper”. They want to support the person. Similarly, I’m sure some people pay to subscribe to blogs (including this one) to support the writer.

      To stay in business in a brick-and-mortar store, you need people to like the experience and to want to reward you for it.

      That’s what stores need to consider.

  3. Susan Says:

    Why not let people make their own decision? Put the information out there tack a notice on the shelf, put a flyer in the window or in customers bag, make sure people are aware of the situation then let them decide for themselves. It feels a bit like censorship otherwise.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Susan!

      Well, I think that’s because this isn’t about the customer/Amazon relationship, it’s the store/Amazon relationship. The people who choose to not buy the books from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are trying to hurt Amazon.

      They could make a sign saying, “We think Amazon’s business practices hurt author and customers in the long run, and for that reason, we do not recommend that you buy the following titles…” At that point, would you feel better or worse that the books were in the store?

  4. Tom Semple Says:

    This seems like fiddling while Rome burns. It isn’t going to save any bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      I’d say it’s more like being on the Titanic and turning down a lifeboat because it came from a competitor’s ocean liner. The lifeboat isn’t going to stop the ship from sinking, but it helps. Having more books helps brick-and-mortar stores, it doesn’t hurt them.

  5. Morgan Says:

    i read the article you linked as well as the New Yorker article cited within that text. i have a different perception of this- i dont think they are trying to hurt the publisher. it reads, to me, that they are not carrying the books for the same reason that i wouldnt buy books with blocked text-to-speech- b/c they disagree with action. i think you even wrote about this awhile back in the context of authors and how ppl feel about buying a book written by an author of questionable morale (would u buy a book written by a killer kind-of thing). Also, yes ur summary of the DOJ ruling is correct but it leaves out the subjective piece- if u believe the origin of the agency model was b/c Amazon was being a bully then that might explain why they settled, even though they claimed that they never colluded. Finally, they seem to think they are helping enrich the community by taking a stand against Amazon’s predatory practices… I’m not saying which “side” i am on, but i do think there is another angle to look at this from…

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Morgan!

      Yours is an exceptionally well-written comment, and I really appreciate that! My favorite thing is when someone disagrees with me respectfully, which you have done.

      I always try and look at things from different angles…and then invent new angles if I can. ;)

      It’s that these seem so similar, and seem to be coming from one angle, I suppose, that puts me off.

      I don’t think Amazon was being a bully or predatory, and I’d love to have someone explain that. Amazon did have the money to take a loss…but it’s also key that they weren’t giving anybody else a loss. The publisher was still getting the same amount of money. That doesn’t seem like being a bully.

      Let’s say the publisher set the digital list price at $25. Amazon paid them $12.50…regardless of the selling price the set. That’s how it’s always been, even in paper.

      I’m curious about the predatory part as well…who was the prey? Was it other stores who couldn’t discount as much? That’s how every store which has competition works, right? You try to do something better than your competitors. Amazon hadn’t gotten the money unfairly…they earned it. Their willingness to take a loss to “buy marketshare”, as Jeff Bezos once put it, is long-term thinking…others could do it, too.

      Again, I really appreciate your comment! I did feel a twinge about my piece, that it was too one-sided…but having a blog like this does let articulate people like you state the other side. :)

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