Are Barnes & Noble, Books a Million, and Indigo making a wise move by not carrying the books from Amazon’s publishing arm, or are they cutting off their noses to spite their faces? This is the question that Mike Shatzkin addresses in his latest column. He notes that a reporter contacted him, undoubtedly expecting the same sort of attacks on the move posted by some major media outlets, and was rather surprised when Shatzkin said that, from a self-interested point of view, the decision made perfect sense.
Shatzkin recapitulates the recent history between Amazon, the Big Six publishers, and the bookstore chains. Amazon is in the process of inspiring much fear and loathing in the publishing industry by luring away the big celebrity writers whose megahits subsidize less popular works. Meanwhile, it continues to be able to undercut physical bookstores like Barnes & Noble on price, gradually stealing away their business.
B&N’s decision seems to me like the right move for them. Most very regular bookstore customers aren’t really surprised if any particular store doesn’t have any particular book. Indeed, the impossibility of stocking everything anybody might ask for in a store is part of the reason that online bookselling is such a useful service. In this day and age, most people who want a particular book don’t go to a bookstore to buy it; they just order it online. They go to bookstores to browse and shop and choose from what is within the store. So, yes, there may be some disappointed customers if B&N doesn’t have a high-profile Amazon title, but I don’t think that disappointment will be widespread.
On the other hand, authors and agents who might have considered an Amazon publishing deal will have to think twice if they know very few bookstores will carry it. Amazon can do some remarkable things to sell books to their mammoth online customer base and that won’t change. But there is both a practical and a vanity aspect to getting store display that will still be seen as indispensible by many authors and agents who otherwise might have taken the leap to sign with the newest big checkbook in town.
He draws a parallel to Random House’s original decision not to join the agency pricing cartel—puzzling industry observers at the time. Shatzkin said then, as now, that Random House was essentially taking advantage of Amazon’s largesse to turn a short-term profit, while its competitors raised their prices and cut their royalties.
Whether the move was sensible or not, I expect Amazon will probably not be hurt too badly in the long term—especially if it decides to open a chain of boutique stores where it can hand-sell the books itself. Will more authors think twice about signing with Amazon, or will they figure that the giant e-tailer’s marketing clout will make up for the lack of physical store placement? We’ll just have to wait and see.