Independent booksellers are expressing frustration and disappointment with Chronicle Books for its handling of comedian John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Presents a Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. Oliver announced the immediate availability of the book at the end of his Sunday, March 18 show, but to the surprise of independent booksellers, Oliver said that the book was only available at that time through Amazon.
The illustrated children’s book about a gay bunny parodies the newly released Marlon Bundo’s Day in the Life of the Vice President by Vice President Mike Pence’s wife Karen and daughter Charlotte, which is told through the eyes of the family’s pet rabbit.
“I didn’t even know there was a vice-presidential bunny,” said Laura Cummings, owner of White Birch Books in North Conway, N.H., and president of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. Cummings, who was caught unaware by the release of both books, received word from her Chronicle books rep morning after Oliver's program aired.
Last Friday, Chronicle president Tyrrell Mahoney sent an e-mail apology to regional indie bookseller association board members about the rollout. “We had to ensure that the book was a complete surprise for the Last Week Tonight with John Oliver audience,” wrote Mahoney.
“[A]fter much deliberation and exploration of other options, we ultimately agreed to make the book available for purchase at the time of the on-air surprise by allocating a percentage of the print run to Amazon and making the rest of the first print run available to all our other retailers as soon as possible.”
By that time, Mahoney said demand had risen from an initial print run of 40,000 copies to 400,000. To meet the surge in interest, Mahoney said Chronicle is working with multiple printers to print additional copies, while talking to its distributor, Hachette Book Group, about speeding delivery to all accounts. "Our #1 goal right now is to get this book into your store," Mahoney wrote. Her explanation, however, fell flat with empty-handed booksellers.
Michael Hermann, owner of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H. called Mahoney’s argument “very weak.” Hermann pointed to booksellers’, “years and years of experience respecting embargoes and on-sale dates,” adding that, “there are tried and true ways of ensuring secrecy until a book is launched.”
The entire affair is evidence of deeper problems, said Harvard Book Store head buyer Rachel Cass. “There's no excuse for how poor the initial communication was, nor for how slow the distribution has been in our channel,” said Cass. “I worry that this type of thing does long term damage to our industry as a whole. If there were customers who called their local indies to get the book this week, and found we couldn't supply it, they may be less likely to try us first next time.”
ABA CEO Oren Teicher noted that the association "has spoken at length with Chronicle over the past few days" about its failure to ensure that all channels had the book at the same time. "We hope it's a teachable moment for all in our business," Teicher said. "Indie bookstores are used to taking all necessary steps to protect the confidentiality of title information, including signing of afadavits, and would certainly have done that in this instance given the chance. ABA firmly believes that our industry is stronger when we can all compete on a level playing field, and, conversely, that providing one channel a competitive advantage is, in the end, bad for everyone."
Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association president Kate Schlademen, owner of the Learned Owl Bookshop in Hudson, Ohio, said Chronicle had breached a fundamental relationship with booksellers. “It is unfortunate that Chronicle does not see us as professionals capable of doing our jobs, or as trusted partners in the business, especially as so many of our stores have carried their product in good faith over the years,” said Schlademen.
The issues go far beyond supply and demand for James Conrad, owner of the Golden Notebook Bookstore in Woodstock, NY. Proceeds from the LGBT-themed book are going to the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention nonprofit for LGBTQ teens. In an open letter, Conrad blasted Chronicle, calling the Amazon-only release “a slap in the face.”
“I am a gay man who co-owns an independent bookstore,” Conrad wrote, “These stores, in the tradition of gay and lesbian bookstores that are now nearly extinct, tirelessly work to promote a range of issues from freedom of speech, women’s rights, immigration issues, diversity—I can go on. We donate money, public space and our heart to causes on a daily basis.”
Despite their feelings, booksellers grappled over the weekend with how to find a way forward. Hermann said he was looking to begin a dialogue. “We’ve been very pleased with the directness and helpful attitude exhibited by Chronicle’s sales force in the wake of the original mistake,” he said. “We don’t hold grudges. We want our industry partners to learn from their mistakes and continue to publish excellent books.”
Cummings agreed, and rejected calls from some in the bookselling community to boycott Chronicle. “What does that serve?” she said, “You’re going to boycott the gay bunny? I don’t think we can do that. But we can have a constructive conversation about how we can do this better the next time.”
She added, “John Oliver should have a bunch of independent booksellers on his show and talk about how awesome independent bookstores are.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated. Chronicle also supplied more details on how the rollout took place last week. According to the company,its distributor, Hachette, began shipping books last Thursday to accounts whose orders had been keyed in by Tuesday afternoon. Those accounts included independent bookstores, national wholesalers and national chains. Chronicle also had B&N and IndieBound buy buttons up on BetterBundobook.com (hosted by Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) by Tuesday in time for John Oliver’s appearances on Ellen and Late Night with Seth Meyers.
Chronicle also had the book’s listing go live on Edelweiss at the time of the show airing on Sun. March 18.