'Retail stonewalling' and Amazon sightings in bookstores

'Retail stonewalling' and Amazon sightings in bookstores

Oil and water...The general pattern, of course, has been simple: many bookshops, objecting to Amazon's effects on the industry, have declined to carry books from Amazon Publishing imprints.

A kind of major-player blessing on independent stores has been provided by Barnes & Noble's corporate stance, announced January 2012, against Amazon Publishing books. So frustrated with the situation was Amazon author Tim Ferriss that he resorted to a special promotion with Bit Torrent to try to compensate for what he called B&N's "retail stonewall." Gave us a good phrase, if nothing else.

Typically, authors signing a contract with one of Amazon Publishing's growing family of imprints have had to accept a bookstore blackout. They've known they'd likely give up physical store sales, in exchange for the quality of production and online marketing support of an Amazon imprint. 

Behind the noise and nerves of an industry at war with itself, however, an author's Amazon-produced book might, in fact, be spotted on a local store's shelf. 

So we learned last week when The Bookseller's Sarah Shaffi reported that books by Mel Sherratt, Mark Edwards, and Helen Smith from Amazon's Thomas & Mercer line ("Your Home For Killer Writing") were showing up at WHSmith stores "in Manchester Piccadilly, London Victoria, and London Paddington stations":

It is thought to be the first time that a bricks and mortar retailer in the UK has stocked physical books from Amazon, although a spokesperson for the publisher said “many physical bookstores” in the UK and US carry Amazon Publishing titles. The spokesperson has yet to confirm other named retailers in the UK. WHSmith has yet to comment on the stocking decision.

Mel Sherratt
Mel Sherratt

There's lots of no-comment around this one, you bet. And guarded reactions. Agent Sam Copeland (for Mark Edwards) placed on the table that most delicate phrase for us: "An interesting turn of events." Lovely. And telling. By not telling.

Sources near Seattle say to me, in fact, that Amazon Publishing print copies in the US as well as in the UK actually are stocked by many authors' hometown shopkeepers who are proud of their communities' writers and eager to fulfill their customers' desire to read the author-next-door. 

Waterstones in Hanley is carrying Sherratt's titles, Shaffi went on to report in a follow-up. And the company's publisher liaison manager Eva von Reuss said this:

Our policy remains unchanged. Buying decisions are based on each individual book’s merit. All titles available in the UK are available for our customers to order.

That last bit reflects the case almost everywhere, it seems. Even at Barnes & Noble, there's no guarantee that they won't look at you funny, but if you ask for an Amazon Publishing book, they'll order it.

Sherratt told The Bookseller that her Amazon/Thomas & Mercer books are in her nearby Webberley's Bookshop in Stoke-on-Trent, as well as in Waterstones Hanley, "and that they may be stocked by Waterstones regionally too.

"It's great to see them out there," she said, "especially now that I have another book deal with two further books set in my city, due to come out next year.”

Wherever you come down on the Amazon Opinion Scale, it's hard not to feel glad for Sherratt, no?

Apples, oranges, and other fruit people want to buy

Mark Edwards
Mark Edwards

It's tempting to ask whether there's not a correlation of some kind, a rough parallel to bookstores redlining Amazon Publishing books and Amazon applying its negotiating tactics to Hachette books or those of the Bonnier imprints in Germany? 

They're not, actually, the same. The widely criticised Amazon actions on its sales pages (delaying shipment, removing pre-orders, etc.) are applied to these publishers' books as a business-dispute maneuver. So was the blacklisting of Simon & Schuster books by Barnes and Noble last year in its contract disagreements with that publisher. 

So what's behind the news of Amazon Publishing's physical books being found in stores? Might be good sales sense: If you have a popular author right in your midst, if your customers want to read her or him, if you love books and you love their writers? -- you're going to refuse to carry their books to demonstrate your dislike of Amazon?

Consider Shaffi's report in March: Amazon Publishing's imprints will have released more than 500 titles in the UK this year. That's a lot of books. By a lot of authors. They don't all live in the UK -- that figure, Shaffi quotes a company memo, includes "US-acquired books which will be simultaneously published in the UK." But not for nothing was Eoin Purcell of New Island Books in Dublin persuaded to take the editorial lead of Amazon Publishing UK: there is value here; literary and commercial value.

Helen Smith
Helen Smith

And how effective are all these "retail stonewalls"? -- I like Ferriss' phrase. They're not always outright bans or full-on boycotts. And surely only a few booksellers would want to be quoted slagging their communities' authors who have the good fortune, skill, and talent to land Amazon Publishing contracts. 

How much good did it do B&N to block Simon & Schuster books? "Backfire" is the term you frequently hear now about Amazon's "negotiating tactics" against Hachette and Bonnier-imprint books. While motivations and situations vary, the results seem the same: How much good does it do this or that shop to refuse to carry Amazon Publishing books?

I keep asking industry types, "When do you think the public is going to catch on to these tactics and start caring?" 

Well, in Shaffi's reports of these local sightings of Amazon Publishing books, I think I'm getting my answer. At ground level, on the High Street, in the shops, where the readers walk up to shop counters: maybe they care now. And maybe some booksellers are right to take that to heart. 

An exchange might go like this:

"Yeah, I want to read the new thing from that author I heard about who lives here. And the story is set here, too, I think. Thriller. I don't know, she's got a man's name, Mick or Morris or Mel or something. Sherratt, that's the one. Mel for Melanie, maybe. Or Melissa? You're right, might be Melissa. I have a cousin named Melissa. Wouldn't dare call her Mel. Somewhere to Hide, that's it! That's the book. And she lives right here, doesn't she? I mean, do you know her? Does she come into the store here? So cool. Have you got the book?" 

You're going to say no to that? 

Is it time our retailers rethink this stonewalling thing? Not just the shops. The majors, as well. All of them, great and small.

Are "retail stonewalls" working for anybody?


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