Earlier this year when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced a licensing agreement with Amazon to publish and distribute all adult titles from Amazon Publishing’s New York office under the newly created New Harvest imprint, independent bricks-and-mortar booksellers as well as the nation’s two largest chains, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, said that they would not carry them in their stores. Among other reasons for the ban, they cited the fact that Amazon would retain exclusive rights to the e-book edition. With the first two books about to ship—Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine’s Outside In (shipping Aug. 1) and Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids?(Aug. 8)—PW got back in touch with booksellers to see if they have changed their minds about stocking their competitor’s titles and found little has changed. In fact over the past five months booksellers have become more entrenched about their decision.
One contributing factor is the growing awareness of the lack of transparency in the way Houghton sold previous one-off titles licensed from Amazon. This helped to account for strong bricks-and-mortar sales for novels like Oliver Potzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter, which had been originally published by Amazon as an e-book before being sold by Houghton in print. For book two in the series, Dark Monk, a full-page ad in the New York Times Book Review in June made no mention of either Houghton or Amazon, another irritant to booksellers. The fact that indies said that Houghton sales reps have been up front that New Harvest titles—that are in the fall HMH catalogue-- have been licensed from Amazon hasn’t made them anymore likely to carry the books.
In addition, the book world has changed dramatically since the winter with the April filing of the Department of Justice lawsuit against Apple and five publishers over agency pricing of e-books. Many independents cite Ken Auletta’s recent New Yorker article and blame Amazon for the suit. Without the agency model they feel that they have no possibility for significant entree into the e-book market.
Choosing not to carry a book because of who publishes it does not come easy for booksellers opposed to censorship. “My inclination is not. Over 37 years I’ve only ever refused to carry very few things,” says Vivien Jennings, co-owner of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans., naming only two, Madonna’s Sex and O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It. Although Jennings hasn’t bought the Houghton fall list yet, she no longer sells CreateSpace self-published titles from Amazon, even though she likes to support local authors. “Even if I’m super busy,” says Jennings, “I explain to [CreateSpace authors] about the sales tax thing and the DoJ. I just wish people had taken a stand sooner. That’s the way bad things roll; good people do nothing.”
“We can’t buy them,” says Becky Anderson, president of the American Booksellers Association, but speaking solely in her capacity as co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville, Ill. “We have to stand our ground. I do feel bad for the authors. They’re going to miss a lot of places where books are discovered.” Paul Yamazaki, head buyer at City Lights in San Francisco, echoes her thoughts. “We have no plans to buy them. Amazon has been so predatory in their practices. We feel at City Lights that they are so destructive of reading communities in general and booksellers in particular—and resistant to paying taxes.”
“No, we’re not ordering them,” says Lyn Roberts, general manager of Square Books in Oxford, Miss. “It’s very unfortunate, because there are some books we’d probably carry.” Store owner, Richard Howorth, is much more outspoken on the subject. In mid-June he blogged about Amazon’s New York Times Book Review ad under the headline, It Would Be a Sin to Buy It.
“One must suppose that Amazon is keeping its name out of the ad and off the cover of the books it is publishing for one of two reasons. Either part of the deal with Houghton Mifflin was that it would not allow Amazon to put its name on the book, or Amazon is just being stealthily quiet about this particular aspect of the heist it is pulling on American culture and commerce,” he wrote. As for New Harvest specifically, Howorth told PW, “This seems to me yet another move toward exclusivity and monopoly on Amazon’s part. We’re not stocking these books.”
Some, like Michael Tucker, CEO of San Francisco’s Books Inc., say they will special order the books if customers ask for them. “As long as Amazon’s not making part of the printing available,” says Tucker, referring to the e-books, “there’s no reason to feed the bulldog. If you’re not going to play nice, that’s just the way we’re going to roll. They’re playing a game.”
All New Harvest titles are listed in the databases for IndieCommerce stores, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million. As to whether this means that B&N has had a change of heart, spokesperson Mary Ellen Keating said, “We have not changed our position,” and re-sent chief merchandising officer Jaime Carey’s statement from January. “Barnes & Noble has made a decision not to stock Amazon published titles in our showrooms. Our decision is based on Amazon’s continued push for exclusivity with publishers, agents, and the authors they represent. These exclusive have prohibited us from offering certain eBooks to our customers. . . . We don’t get many requests for Amazon titles, but if customers wish to buy Amazon titles from us, we will make them available only online at bn.com,” said Carey.
As for Houghton’s take on the matter, when asked about the lack of enthusiasm that booksellers seem to have for the new imprint, spokesperson Lori Glazer responded, “Reaction has been in line with expectations.” The answer begs the question. Could the majority of Houghton’s print sales of New Harvest come from the very place where it licensed the books, Amazon?