When shelf space abounded at bricks-and-mortar locations, it was not uncommon for booksellers to stock political books that matched their own ideological leanings. Now, in a market where shelf space is greatly diminished and there is more competition than ever before, booksellers no longer have the luxury to choose either Blue or Red books.
Sara Hinckley, v-p of book purchasing and promotion for Hudson Group, told PW, “We have made it clear to everyone—left, right, and in between—that politics does not enter into our decision to stock a book. It is all about quality and our determination of whether or not a [something] will sell. We are not in the business of censorship, but of making money selling books.”
That’s not to say that booksellers are obligated to stock books of any particular political stripe. As Christopher Finan, president of American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, pointed out, “Booksellers are under no legal obligation to sell any title. They have a First Amendment right to sell what they want. If they didn’t, we would have the government telling them what to sell. That would be the end of free speech.” But, he added, “ABFFE encourages bookstores to carry books providing the widest possible range of views on the issues of the day.”
“We bend over backwards to be fair,” said Jean Hardy-Pittman, owner of Front Street Books in the West Texas town of Alpine. “That’s necessary and desirable. I don’t want to represent just one point of view. I feel we have a mission to be an intellectual and cultural center here for people who love books,” Hardy-Pittman said. She often displays books from different sides of the political spectrum side by side, like Michael Moore next to Ann Coulter. And she has no problem carrying a book on creationism, which she personally finds “hogwash,” as long as it’s hot. “If it’s news and it’s a hot topic, I’ll carry it,” said Hardy-Pittman. “We’re dealing with freedom of speech issues in our books.”
Lois Proctor, manager of the Bookseller in Ardmore, Okla., adopts a similar approach. “My personal viewpoint is to show both sides. I’m not that crazy about Bill O’Reilly, but I sell tons of Bill O’Reilly. I’m running a business here. Not a library.” Page & Palette in Fairhope, Ala., also does better with conservative books, which president Karin Wilson estimated outsell liberal titles 10 to one. Although she carries Elizabeth Warren’s just released memoir, A Fighting Chance, she hasn’t sold a copy yet. “I’m buying for the customer, not for my personal beliefs,” said Wilson, who bases her purchases on Edelweiss comps.
Stores in blue states continue to fight against the perception that they don’t stock enough titles from the other side of the aisle. At Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., spokesperson Michal Drannen said that the store features more liberal books because of customer interest, but that Powell’s doesn’t favor one political view over another when it comes to inventory decisions. Quoting founder Michael Powell’s father, Walter Powell, Drannen said, ‘Never let your ego get between the author’s voice and the reader’s ear.’
Three years ago, when Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine bought Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., some complained that the store’s inventory skewed left. Plus it was no secret that Muscatine had been a speech writer for Hillary Clinton. “We have purposely tried to bring in other voices and have events for some conservative books,” said Graham. “It hasn’t been easy. I could never get Don Rumsfeld to come, even though I’m his biographer. I was told he was worried about the reaction he would get.”
Graham’s disappointment at Rumsfeld’s decision hasn’t stopped him from expanding the store’s conservative programming, while continuing to book authors like Warren. Because of tour schedules last November, Politics and Prose held three right-leaning events in a single week: Charles Krauthammer for Things That Matter (Crown), Joe Scarborough for The Right Path (Random House), and Newt Gingrich and Callista Gingrich for Breakout (Regnery) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (Regnery Kids), respectively. Graham’s criteria for books on the left and right are the same: “We won’t carry books that are just written as polemics and don’t add much to the public debate.” Lately though he’s found that the books that cause the most controversy in-store have less to do with domestic issues than global events, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Most publishers concur that subject matter that might have seemed controversial a decade ago is now stocked by a range of retailers. “The market has become much more responsive. [Retailers] want to provide their customers with the books that people are talking about,” said Regnery president and publisher Marji Ross, who is bringing out Ed Klein’s Blood Feud, on the relationship between the Clintons and the Obamas, next month. She noted that Klein’s last book, the bestseller The Amateur, which was critical of President Obama, had good placement in most stores. And Ross doesn’t expect any problems getting stores to stock Klein’s forthcoming title. Instead, her bigger concern is celebrity authors vs. unknown writers. “It’s getting harder to find shelf space for new authors who could become stars,” she said.
Ellen Adler, publisher of the New Press, is impressed by the diversity of books carried by most retailers. “I can’t think of an account where we were shut out,” she said. Nor does she expect booksellers to carry a deep inventory of books that they know their customers don’t want. The company’s biggest book in recent years, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2012), sold well across the country, including stores in the Deep South.