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.


  1. I think Mr Shatzkin has lost the plot. He talks about “from a self-interested point of view, the decision made perfect sense.” Yet his commentary speaks only of fear and loathing arising from the gall of Amazon to come into their market and compete.

    The public won’t take kindly to this. Before I turned to the digital side I would have been furious with any bookshop that made this kind of decision and it would be more than enough to push me over to Amazon.

    The public want all titles available from all outlets. The authors want their titles in all outlets. This move is comprehensively anti consumer and anti author. What a strategy !

    These publishers really are in a universe of their own. They have utterly failed to face up to the digitisation of their industry and seem completely incapable to dealing with competition.

    Is it any wonder people predict the end of the big publisher.

  2. Taking the headline literally: Yes, it *could* be a good idea to boycott Amazon.
    It could *also* be catastrophic.
    Anything is possible.
    Betting the business on “possibilities” rather than probabilities or certainties, however, is not particularly wise when you’re in a business under technological disruption.

    They’re acting on principle?
    Okay. Write it down.
    Because there is absolutely no chance this ends up poorly for them, right?
    Let’s see how far principle goes if/when Amazon gets one of their books in high demand and they find themselves turning buyers away.

    “No, we don’t carry the Franco book. It is published by Amazon and Amazon is evil and everybody who deals with Amazon is evil.”
    “I guess I’m evil then. Because I still want to buy the book. Goodbye.”

    Or, how about Franco goes on Letterman:
    “I hear you actually wrote a book?”
    “Yup. It’s coming out tomorrow. Pre-sold 100,000 copies at Amazon.”
    “Wow. I’ll have to pick up a copy from the bookstore on the way home.”
    “Oh, no. You can’t. All the bookstores are boycotting it because its published by Amazon. But you can order it from and get free next day delivery. Or get the ebook edition and get it instantly. It’s only $9.99.”

    They say there is no such thing as bad publicity.
    Well, Amazon books are now officially *controversial* and *banned* by the self-appointed gatekeepers of the publishing industry.
    To me, that sounds like more publicity than money can buy.

  3. Boycotts rarely work and this one will just drive more people to Amazon, if they aren’t there already.

    If I were an indie bookstore, I’d jump on the chance to have Amazon’s books in my store. Partnering with the most successful company in the industry would be great.

  4. I am confused by “Howard”‘s reply. This is the RETAILERS talking about boycotts, yet he is responding to the publishers!

    So many who talk about something being “anti consumer” are discussing a snapshot. Amazon is on track to controlling 50% of the ENTIRE book retail market in the U.S. by the end of 2012. ENTIRE! They already control 70% of the eBook retail market.

    It is extremely rare that consumers benefit when a company becomes a monopoly. Amazon is APPROACHING this (no, I am not arguing it is).

    When (if) Amazon controls BOTH the publishing and the distribution, then what? This is a reaction to that possibility. As Amazon publishes more and more and controls the RETAIL side, it can then flip the equation at will. It can say, “OK” now that we control the industry, I can charge the customer WHATEVER I WANT and I can tell the author, screw you, your cut is now half of what it was. Will it do so? Who knows, could it? YES. That is the issue. Sure publishers are scared that they will no longer exist. When they don’t then what option does the Author have? They all have to self-publish on Amazon? No more editing, unless the author pays for it? Their cut goes down? Prices go up for all consumers? The POWER to do so could soon be in Amazon’s hands. Just as I don’t think one should trust Google when its testimony to the U.S. Congress is “but we would never do that. We’re not evil, it is even in our company statement of purpose.” Yeah right. Amazon’s purpose is to make money. If it controls the entire PUBLISHING and RETAIL aspect then you really think that the Author and the Customer win?

    If you do, we took different graduate courses in economics.

  5. Stanislav, the Big 6 publishers have been doing exactly that: threatening and ripping off authors, massively increasing prices for consumers, reducing quality of books (lack of editing/proofing etc.) and holding up retailers (and libraries).

    Is there any wonder Amazon looks better right now?

  6. Stanislav – “I am confused by “Howard”‘s reply. This is the RETAILERS talking about boycotts, yet he is responding to the publishers!”

    Are you seriously saying that the Publishers don’t have a hand in this ? and are not playing a dark hand ? That the retailers would ever consider such a boycott without the say so of the big publishers ?

    You are right in pointing out the danger of an online monopoly arising. But who is to blame for this danger ? it is hardly the fault of Amazon !

    However to start the alarm bells of Amazon monopolising the publishing side is a bit silly, if I may so so 🙂 and ranting on about it makes no sense to me.

    Remember – Amazon cannot stop others entering the book selling market ! Where is the competition ? Why are the others competing ? Why are they not offering us an alternative ?

    These are all questions that need to be aimed at the other retailers and publishers, not at Amazon. Where are they ? why are they so passive and so clueless ?

  7. The “competition” is the small publisher and independent author, who can sell online independently of Amazon (and anyone else)… But who struggle to achieve presence in an Amazon-dominated world. In the same way that the major publishers use their PR machine to overshadow independents in the market, so Amazon has used it’s PR machine to overshadow the major publishers.

    Independent authors won’t get much help from Amazon sales if there are too many other books in there, making it too hard to find a single book. Sooner or later, everyone will understand that, and work harder to establish a new source for finding new books. But without good promotion and PR, Amazon will remain on top.

  8. Shatzkin does have a couple of valid points here. It is almost certainly true that the majority of the reading public won’t consider this much of a big deal, at least at first when the names with Amazon are not particularly big. And if Amazon starts landing some big names. . .well, that’s the second valid point, that the main purpose in B&N doing this is because they want to protect the Big 6 (and by extension their brick and mortar stores) from big-name authors jumping ship.

    It might work. But one thing it does exemplify is Barnes & Noble’s non customer-centric approach to everything shaking out now. Whether it will have a material impact on customers or not, what retailer in the right mind trumpets what they DON’T carry? I can’t help thinking that their general approach is doomed in the face of the combination of shrinking paper sales and Amazon’s very different approach.

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