Following last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, a slim, hand-stitched chapbook slowly but surely began circulating among independent booksellers. Against Amazon, a critical essay written by Spanish author Jorge Carrión, has since become something of an indie shop staple—and booksellers have Biblioasis, a publisher based in Windsor, Ontario, to thank for that.
The story is one of a passion project gone right, explained Dan Wells, publisher of Biblioasis and a founder of both the press and a Windsor-based bookstore, also called Biblioasis. Well before the fair, Wells had bought the translation rights to Carrión’s Bookshops: A Reader’s History (translated by Peter Bush)—which was released last October and received a PW starred review—and was looking for ways to promote it when Carrión led Wells to his essay, which had been published in the Barcelona-based magazine Jotdown earlier in 2017. Wells saw a cross-promotional opportunity, and he made the essay into a chapbook, which was intended for private distribution. Before leaving Frankfurt, however, he decided to give away copies at the fair. By the time of the AWP conference, held in Tampa, Fla., in March, interest in it had really taken off.
“Booksellers started to almost demand that they be able to carry it—they really wanted to do so,” Wells said. And a few weeks before Christmas, the publisher finally gave in to those requests, printing up a “couple hundred copies” to distribute. But in the month before Christmas, Wells said, he got “six or seven hundred orders immediately.” He added, “Now we’ve been through 2,500. We’re basically producing it at cost. We still see it as a high-end promotional protest literature.”
Against Amazon: Seven Arguments, One Manifesto presents academic but accessible arguments that Amazon’s net impact has been negative for both the book world and the world at large. It is broken up into seven segments, including, “Because I Don’t Want to Be an Accomplice to Symbolic Expropriation” and “Because I Don’t Want Them to Spy on Me While I Am Reading.”
Biblioasis is no stranger to chapbooks. When Wells started the publishing side of the business in 2004—six years after opening the bookstore—hand-bound chapbooks were the publisher’s specialty. Since then, Biblioasis has become a bona fide trade publisher, releasing more than 250 titles on a schedule of 26–30 books per year. It has grown from three full-time employees to eight, with a handful of interns, and is soon moving to a new office away from the store. So when Against Amazon came around, it was like a return to the press’s roots.
“All [the Against Amazon chapbooks] are hand bound—some by staff here in the office after hours and some by my children around the kitchen table,” Wells noted. At first, on Fridays, staffers would gather above the bookstore and watch the British TV show Black Books together while holding book-binding parties. But “as things have picked up, interns and other staff members, whenever they have an extra half hour, go upstairs and sew 30–40 copies,” he said. “We stay just ahead of demand.”
The Carrión project, Wells made clear, is strictly a combination of promotion, public service, and a labor of love. And though Wells has been thrilled with its success, he’s firm about its small-but-important place among Biblioasis’s business.
“This is something we did on the side,” Wells said. “It’s been enjoyable to see how people responded to it. There’s so much hostility out there, toward Amazon and its practices, that even if this is preaching somewhat to the converted, it’s spreading the word pretty well. We thought about gathering a few more of these essays together, because there’s so much that can be said about Amazon and its various practices—both within the book industry and elsewhere. But we haven’t taken it any further than this chapbook at the moment.”
The book has yet to make it back to Carrión’s native Spain. But, Wells said, it is certainly inching out of the Canadian and U.S. markets toward the rest of the world. U.K. bookseller John Sandoe Books, for instance, wrote to Biblioasis explaining how important it was for it to get the chapbook into the hands of its customers. Wells was thrilled: “To see this move beyond Canada and the U.S. to very prominent international booksellers is rewarding.”
So far, Wells said, he hasn’t heard anything from Amazon. But he does believe Carrión’s writing has struck a nerve. “There’s something about the argument Carrión presents and the way he presents it that is very human and approachable,” he said. “He’s not a hypocrite. He acknowledges his own use of Amazon-related companies. But the fact that he can acknowledge that while pointing out why this is so damaging, not only to book culture but to many other things... I think people have responded to that argument.”