Sometimes the ironies of the book business are almost laughable.
Consider, for example, what happened last week when we wrote about independent bookseller Carol Besse's “call to arms” at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show. Besse, GLIBA's outgoing board president and co-owner of Carmichael's Books in Louisville, made the admittedly “radical proposal” that independent booksellers “get out there in front” of store patrons and “explicitly explain why consumers” shouldn't buy books from Amazon. In addition—and perhaps most radical—was her suggestion that authors themselves should be asked to disable links to Amazon.com on their Web sites.
It is pretty much a truism in BookLand that all thinking, caring book people these days must hate all big bookstores in general and Amazon, the Internet behemoth, in particular. (It seems a truism almost as true as the statistic, turned up in a recent study of publishing folk by Publishing Trends, that 85% of book people support Obama over McCain.) And given that, you'd expect most readers to cheer Ms. Besse's initiatives. Yet, while there were several comments along the lines of this one—“It'd be nice to see indie booksellers work more closely with indie publishers and indie authors to create an alliance”—the majority of reactions roamed from a measured “I sympathize with all sides” to strong dissent: “As an independent author my greatest frustration has been from the condescending attitude of many . . . independent booksellers.” Or this: “I do understand Ms. Besse's complaint,” one reader wrote, “but I echo the concerns of others who have commented: 'what have the independent bookstores done for us lately?'” Some others: “Let's just face facts. Authors need a handy link to provide their readers. Asking them to 'boycott' Amazon is unrealistic.” Apparently, it's unrealistic for indie booksellers as well: one comment cites a Simba Information poll of independent booksellers, over 60% of whom say they occasionally use Amazon to fill a customer's order!
Obviously, it's true that Amazon poses a real danger, and not just to independent booksellers who are finding it harder and harder to make their numbers work in the face of Amazon's economies of scale. Publishers both large and small are often caught in its economic stranglehold—there are reports from abroad that Amazon threatened not to list certain new titles because publishers wouldn't meet their terms—and many fear, perhaps rightly, that it's just a matter of time until Amazon controls what gets published. But indie bookstores have contributed to the problem, too: by not stocking “small” titles, by “small” authors or publishers, by limiting readings and signings to “big names” and so on, according to many.
So is a “call to arms” against Amazon going to work? Not all by itself. As one reader put it, Amazon is not going away any time soon.
But if indies were to enact the less radical part of Besse's plan—to build alliances with other retailers, authors and customers—and, not incidentally, to clean their own houses of outdated business practices and prejudices—then independents might improve their chances.
Agree? Disagree? Tell us at www.publishersweekly.com/saranelson