Barnes & Noble has said that it will not stock, in its stores, books published under any of Amazon's imprints - including importantly those released by Amazon Publishing's East Coast Group -- run by Larry Kirshbaum -- the books from which will go to market under Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's newly named New Harvest imprint.
As I speculated earlier in the week the addition of HMH to this publishing equation really changed nothing for those booksellers reluctant to stock titles from their most fearsome rival. In fact the interjection of what one blogger called Amazon's beard, seems only to have ratcheted up the ante: B&N's earlier position was that it would not stock Amazon published titles where it was unable to also sell the digital file: now it says it won't stock those books at all in stores because of Amazon's past bad behaviour.
The New York Daily News summed it best with the headline: Barnes & Noble to Amazon: Drop Dead.
The B&N statement came from BN chief merchandising officer Jamie Carey and was sent to Brad Stone who published it on his Google+ account. In full it reads: "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.”
Being locked out of B&N's "showrooms" would be a serious blow to any fledgling publishing list, but looks disastrous for Amazon's East Coast list which has huge pretensions. As Amanda Hocking told me two weeks ago, not being able to get books into bookshops was a deal-breaker for her, and will be for many authors and their agents. Of course, there are still more independent bookshops in the US than there are B&N stores, but many indies have already spoken of their resistance to stocking Amazon titles, and it seems likely that a fair rump will follow B&N's lead.
Oddly, Amazon had hinted recently that it was prepared to compromise in order to get its books into stores, including allowing rival e-booksellers to sell digital copies of these titles, particularly those books published through Kirshbaum. But the olive branch has come too late for many in the book business, who are now avowedly anti-Amazon.
Witness for example, a remarkable article published by US Authors Guild overnight. The piece runs through the recent coverage of Amazon and B&N in the national media, and offers up its own backgrounder and conclusions. It warns that Amazon controls "every growing segment of the industry" threatening the ecosystem on which book publishers, and most new authors, depend and is intent on undermining traditional publishers with its new publishing imprint.
Remember this is a group representing some of the US' biggest writers. Its contention is that Amazon's strategy puts "literary diversity" at risk. "Established authors, for the most part, do fine selling through online bookstores. It’s new authors who lose out if browsing in bookstores becomes a thing of the past. Advances for unproven and non-bestselling authors have already plummeted, by all accounts."
The AG said it believed that recent articles in the New York Times and Business Week show that the "long-running behind-the-scenes battle for control of the publishing industry had finally broken into full public view". It writes: "The book industry is in play, and has been for a while. The good news is that people are finally starting to pay attention."
The mood is not much different in the UK, where Waterstone's James Daunt has recently spoken publicly about the evil empire, calling it a "ruthless, money-making devil", while publishers are more than happy to bad-mouth the e-tailer even as they bank the Kindle cheques.
In this case neither jaw-jaw nor war-war is the answer. There is no doubt that Amazon is ruthless and single-minded and driven by the unwavering vision of one individual to batter all competition into submission under the cloak of customer satisfaction; but the company's ambitions won't be deflected by industry chatter while it continues to deliver the goods in ways its competitors seem unwilling to match (yes, I'm looking at Waterstones' here, whose introduction of the Nook in the UK is going to be pivotal).
I tend to think that much of what has been written recently about the 'death of the book business' at the hands of Amazon is overblown. The company has been a boon for many over too many years to now be written down in such hyperbolic terms. Amazon may or may not be looking to control publishing, but I doubt very much that such control could ever really be exercised for any great length of time: publishing is just too much of a slippery eel with bestsellers time and time again coming out of leftfield. Remember it was not so long ago that the big-box booksellers such as Borders and B&N were the villains and it was left to Meg Ryan to represent the indie bookshop hero.
But the AG is right about one thing. We must be vigilant. The routes to market are undoubtedly narrowing, and until we figure out discoverability on the web we need to keep the showrooms open, and that means hard decisions for many many publishers. Most importantly those companies which aren't Amazon need to figure out why they are different and talk it up: B&N using the fact that it has 1,300 showrooms to demonstrate a competitive example to authors and publishers is a supreme example of this. But publishers need to do this too: if Amanda Hocking can voice what publishing has done for her, why can't they?
It is two years since Macmillan USA helped push through the first agency agreement for e-books, a move that many now believe "saved" the publishing industry. We will look back in two years and view B&N's decision in the same light - not for what it might do to Amazon but for what it shows about B&N and the advantage of shelf-space. Everyone needs to find their own unique identifier in this game.
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