What a difference a decade makes. Or does it?
Barnes & Noble has just announced that it won’t be carrying Amazon-published titles, which of course are multiplying like Gremlins in a swimming pool as more authors disillusioned with the Big Six, and eager to get the weight of the Amazon sales machine behind them, sign with the e-retailer-cum-publishing-house-cum-nemesis-of-the-physical-bookstore (-and-state-revenue-collectors). Reporting for PW after the holidays, I asked a number of independent booksellers in my beat (the South) whether they’d be stocking Amazon-published books. Answers ranged from “No” to “Hell, no.”
But this isn’t the first time a bookselling giant muscled its way into publishing, to the consternation of many. You might remember Barnes & Noble itself, the original indie-slaying bogeyman, acquiring a little publishing company called Sterling in 2003. Circumstances weren’t exactly the same—Sterling has been around since 1949 and already had a reputation as a quality publisher of nonfiction titles, especially in how-tos, self-helps, and reference topics. But, as reported by our own Jim Milliot, B&N had plans from acquisition to “dramatically expand the scope” of its offerings.
Of course, shortly after that announcement, both Borders and Costco made announcements of their own: that they would no longer be carrying Sterling titles. Independents like Asheville, N.C.’s Malaprop’s Bookstore followed suit, excommunicating Sterling from the shelves, with the notable exception of Sterling imprint Lark Publishing, which is based in Asheville. Malaprop’s co-owner Linda Barrett said over e-mail that “we love Lark and want to support our local writers and designers.” They have now decided not to carry Amazon-published titles (though they will special-order them for customers).
Then again, with the release of the collaborative novel Naked Came the Leaf Peeper, Malaprop’s itself has just stepped into the publishing game—and not for the first time. Released to celebrate the store’s 30th anniversary, it also marks the revival of Malaprop’s long-dormant publishing arm, Burning Bush Press. It’s easy to forget, in the age of monolithic publishing houses and ubiquitous big-box retailers, that the bookstore-as-publisher tradition goes way back—as pointed out in a recent Salon article, Shakespeare & Company published Ulysses, and City Lights published Howl. Spartanburg, S.C.’s Hub City Press even managed to flip the script, opening up a bookstore of their own after their most trustworthy retail outlet, Pic-a-Book, went under. Last March, Hub City executive director Betsy Teter explained that “We have a Barnes & Noble in town, but it isn't terribly friendly to regional and local book producers.” In its first year, Hub City Bookshop sales exceeded projections by 77 percent.
Closer to (my) home, the owner of Atlanta’s A Capella Books started a publishing arm in 2004 called everthemore books, “committed to resurrecting titles that have become difficult to find.” They’ve also published a few originals, including the 2010 title Ball Crazy, Atlanta author Hal Jacob’s winning chronicle of his time coaching youth baseball. And it just so happens that I got my copy of Ball Crazy off of a decent-sized stack sitting next to the register at a different bookstore altogether: Eagle Eye Books in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur.
Now, at this precarious moment in book retail, a less confident B&N is planning to unload Sterling and return to its bookselling roots, even discussing the possibility of spinning off the highly successful Nook department into its own business. Independents, for the first time, are finding themselves on the same side of the battle lines as B&N, trying to hold back the encroaching Amazonian horde—though you still won’t find a Leaf Peeper or a Ball Crazy on the shelves at your local Barnes & Noble.