October 23, 2014

Do indie bookstores “ban” books published by Amazon? Pt. 2: Stephen Sparks


Green Apple Books does not ban books published by Amazon.

Green Apple Books does not ban books published by Amazon.

Is Amazon censoring Hachette authors? Authors United seems to think so. And Ursula Le Guin agrees. When asked why she had joined Authors United, Le Guin told The New York Times “We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author. Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”

Many of Amazon’s supporters disagree, however. The author Hugh Howey, for instance, has accused Authors United’s leader Douglas Preston of deceiving his supporters. “These authors signing these letters are being lied to,” Howey wrote on the blog The Passive Voice. “Douglas Preston keeps using words like censorship, sanction, banning, and boycott when no such thing is going on.” But Howey doesn’t stop there. For Howey and many others, the media is overlooking the real censorship story: bookstores have “blacklisted books” written by Amazon authors because they are published by Amazon.

But is this claim true? And, if it is true, is it censorship? I’ve emailed a few of my favorite independent booksellers to find out. Next up is Stephen Sparks, who is the buyer at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books. Stephen also writes a killer newsletter that you should subscribe to. Green Apple also just opened brand new store, Green Apple Books on the Park: if you’re in San Francisco, check it out.

If you work in an independent bookstore (or own one) and are interested in contributing, please send an email to alex [at] mhpbooks.com.

Stephen Sparks: It’s hard not to read Josh Cook‘s thoughts on the issue of censorship and simply say, “Yep, he’s got it right.” Like Josh, I have trouble with using the language of censorship in this context–there are multiple ways to get a book; if you can’t get it on Amazon you can order it from another retailer, pick it up a local independent bookstore, get it from the library–but the fact remains that Amazon, a company that is intent on controlling as much of the book industry as possible (as much, in fact, as to render the industry as it now stands obsolete), is deliberately making it more difficult to purchase books. Taking the company’s willingness to do that to its logical conclusion brings us to a frightening place, one that I am more astonished people like Hugh Howey aren’t worried about. After all, if Amazon goes to such lengths to strong-arm Hachette, how much do you, as a self-published writer, mean to them? How long until they put the squeeze on you? How much control do you want one company to have?

Even if I weren’t an independent bookseller, this would trouble me. As a bookseller, I feel an almost moral obligation to refute Howey’s claim that we (a group of thousands who have different philosophies, different clientele, different opinions) are “blacklisting” Amazon-published books. Wool is a staff pick at Green Apple, Publishers Weekly‘s 2014 Bookstore of the Year. We stock the other books in the Silo series. We don’t stock all of Amazon’s titles. We also don’t stock all of Knopf‘s or Scribner‘s titles. We make decisions about what to put on our shelves based on what we think our customers want or will be excited to discover. And, as Josh wrote, if we don’t have it on our shelves and we can get order it, we will. We do this because (a) it’s good business and (b) because we exist in a community and feel an obligation to and reciprocity with that community. Amazon, hidden behind its curtain, doesn’t seem to share that feeling. Personally, and I’m obviously biased, I think our way is better, more responsible.

Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.