February 1, 2012

Issuing a defiant statement, B&N joins indies in banning books published by Amazon


Let me get this out of the way: I told you so

Late yesterday, in a dramatic statement from its Chief Merchandising Officer, Jaime Carey — why it wasn’t the CEO, I don’t know — the country’s biggest brick-and-mortar bookseller, Barnes & Noble, said that it would not sell any books published by Amazon.com‘s publishing imprints. The announcement was seemingly in response to a bizarre scheme announced just days ago in which a new imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt would act as a front for Amazon Publishing by printing and distributing its books.

As we said in our previous report on that scheme, surely B&N would not accept this, and surely they did not. The company’s statement is concise, emphatic and, in its last sentence at least, cocky enough to warrant one reporter — Brad Stone, who is writing a book about Amazon but never mentions that in his reportage — to label it, here, as a declaration of “war.”

Or, as the headline on a New York Daily News report echoed one of its own most famous headlines, “Barnes & Noble to Amazon: Drop Dead.”

Here’s the statement in full:

“Barnes & Noble has made a decision not to stock Amazon published titles in our store showrooms. Our decision is based on Amazon’s continued push for exclusivity with publishers, agents and the authors they represent. These exclusives have prohibited us from offering certain eBooks to our customers. Their actions have undermined the industry as a whole and have prevented millions of customers from having access to content. It’s clear to us that Amazon has proven they would not be a good publishing partner to Barnes & Noble as they continue to pull content off the market for their own self interest. We don’t get many requests for Amazon titles, but If customers wish to buy Amazon titles from us, we will make them available only online at bn.com.”

As Julie Bosman notes in a New York Times report, the “sharp answer to Amazon”…

… could undermine Amazon’s efforts to sign authors who expect their books to be sold in Barnes & Noble’s 703 stores across the country, crucial real estate for sales of many titles …

Barnes & Noble’s decision on Tuesday could change the equation for authors who are deciding between Amazon and a traditional publisher. There are still many consumers who prefer to buy their books in person, whether at Barnes & Noble or at other brick-and-mortar retailers like Walmart.

“I can’t see that most authors who want a print publication would welcome the idea of not being carried in Barnes & Noble and depend on Amazon for their sales,” said Elyse Cheney, a literary agent. “If you’re doing a print book, you kind of have to be in Barnes & Noble.”

And yes, while it’s strange that Walmart is what comes to Bosman’s mind for “other brick-and-mortar retailers,” she does note, elsewhere, and importantly, that it’s not just B&N, nor chains in general, standing up to Amazon:

It also seemed unlikely that many of the 1,900 independent bookstores in the United States would be willing to stock Amazon books.

“There are no circumstances under which we would do that, none,” said Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan. “If Amazon wants to publish books, let Amazon sell them. And I think that’s what they’re going to have to do.”

Not that B&N doesn’t have its own bizarre take on things: Bosman also reports that “Barnes & Noble will sell Amazon-published books on bn.com, though exclusive deals mean that some will not be available.” Why will they sell on BN.com what they won’t sell in their stores? God knows. Corporate spinage only extends so far.

But it’s important to note that it did extend this far: the B&N statement includes the accusation that Amazon’s “actions have undermined the industry as a whole/” That’s something no executive or spokesperson for any of the Big Six publishers has ever said. And yet the actions of the booksellers cited above — both of B&N and the indies — are at root defending not only themselves, but the traditional publishing houses.

So what’s it gonna take for those publishers to take up their part in defending “the industry” — read, the culture — “as a whole” …? While I still say B&N is starting a slow withdrawal from the brick-and-mortar business — no matter what others say — they’ve made themselves the first of the giant players in the industry to say explicitly that there is an ethical concern here, and they deserve to be applauded for that.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.