The fact that indie booksellers in the U.S. can now sell Kindles under a new Amazon program, Amazon Source, doesn’t necessarily mean they want to. “At first glance, this looks like a Faustian bargain,” says Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., whose e-book sales through Kobo over the past year have yet to make a dent in the store’s bottom line. Certainly it’s not a “partnership” in the true sense of the word, as he points out, since booksellers hadn’t heard of Source until Wednesday morning, with the exception of two Seattle-area bookstores that participated in the pilot: the University of Puget Sound Campus Bookstore in Tacoma, Wash., and JJ Books in Bothell, Wash.
Nor did U.S. booksellers have input into the terms, which were decided by Amazon and are based on type of retailer—bookstore or general retailer. The Source Web site further breaks down the eligibility for the two programs by state, with bookstores in “ineligible” states like Vermont or Arkansas unable to be part of the bookstore program in which qualifying stores receive a 10% commission on e-books purchased on Kindle devices for two years; general retailers get no commission but receive a higher discount on devices, 9% rather than 6%. Both qualify for a 35% discount on Kindle accessories. The demarcation for eligibility seems to be whether Amazon collects sales tax in that state; Amazon did not respond to requests for clarification.
“If Amazon thinks indie bookstores will become agents for the Kindle, they are sorely mistaken,” says Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and president of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. “There is no way I will promote Amazon products in my stores after the havoc they have wreaked on our industry as a whole. Sorry, Jeff. I’m not buying it.” Neither is ABA president Steve Bercu: "Every bookseller has to make their own decision. But at BookPeople we're going to pass. It's not even a good deal. At the end of two years, they've captured your customer. Is a two-year commission worth the price of a customer/" While Matt Norcross, co-owner of McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Mich., says simply, “No thanks.”
Like Bercu, ABA CEO Oren Teicher emphasizes that it's up to each store to make its own decision and that the board and staff take their responsibility to make sure that indies have the tools and options they need to succeed very seriously. That said, he notes, "it appears that Amazon.com has again fashioned a program that benefits the retailer it cares about most—that is, Amazon. Based on available information, independent bookstores in more than half the country, 26 states, are ineligible to receive commission for e-book sales. Given Amazon's aggressive corporate tactics and their long-standing strategy to avoid the collection of sales tax, we don't see this new program as being at all credible."
Independent booksellers who want to sell e-books have been able to sell Kobo devices and e-books for the past year. "We haven't become online Amazon affiliates, because we sell books ourselves," says Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz. "We won't become in-store Kindle affiliates for the same reason—we also sell e-readers and e-books. Plus, we've long been outspoken supporters of e-fairness initiatives, which, despite recently public posturing, Amazon has rigorously opposed."
While hundreds of booksellers have signed on to participate, some like Square Books in Oxford, Miss., this year's PW Bookstore of the Year, have chosen not to, in part because of the “insignificant” revenue. While Amazon is offering more money, or “chump change,” as Square Books owner Richard Howorth refers to it, he regards the idea of a two-year deal to give Amazon his customers “offensive.” “Marie Antoinette might like to go into the guillotine business,” he adds. Howorth, like Roxanne Coady, owner of RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, Ct., believes that Amazon should be paying indies, but not for the number of Kindles they sell. “Amazon should be paying fees to independent bookstores for the extraordinary marketing of reading and books that benefits them, rather than devising absurd schemes they claim make us ‘partners’ but actually drive us out of business.”
The National Association of College Stores declined to comment.