How B&N's Shunning Amazon Affects Chicago Authors

My first outrage of the month came early Wednesday morning when I read this story over on Melville House's blog about Barnes & Noble refusing to stock books from Amazon's imprint in their stores.

Okay, you might be wondering: What the heck does this have to do with entrepreneurs in Chicago? Well, plenty.

Even though Melville House is a blog for a Brooklyn indie publisher, and Amazon and B&N are both big-box stores (online or otherwise), there are plenty of repercussions right here in Chicago. And even though authors don't fit the mold of the stereotypical entrepreneur, they are, in essence, entrepreneurs, hustling for the next pay day and pursuing their own dreams instead of punching a clock for someone else's.

Anyway, now that those dots are connected, here's the deal. It's understandable that B&N doesn't want to stock content created by its competitors, but this fragments the markets for consumers and ultimately will hurt the authors making the stuff being sold -- a.k.a. "books." (Even though Amazon happily stocks stuff from Barnes & Noble's imprint.)

To bring it home, I dropped a line to Open Books' manager, Kevin Elliott. (Full disclosure, his colleague, Stacy Ratner, also blogs for this site.) What follows is our email discussion of how this will impact authors in Chicago and worldwide.

Would you recommend authors bother getting published by places like Amazon if the market is going to fragment itself like this?

Kevin Elliott: I would suggest an author (especially a self-published or first time author) publish their works with whichever publisher or service that will get their work into the hands of their desired audience. If that means that an author thinks their customer base is someone who only buys through, then they should publish through Amazon. I would suggest that those authors become their own best publicity force as well. 

Furthermore, despite Amazon being a first stop for many who want to purchase a title, I doubt Amazon has hubris enough to think that they are not aided by bookstore displays, media coverage of books, word-of-mouth, book lending, and everything else that other bookstores and retail outlets provide. These things are minor, but so are the sales percentages that Amazon earns from a bookseller who sells stock through them as a third party. Amazon is smart. They may strive for exclusivity, but something tells me that they also know that they can't do it alone... for varying cultural, economic, and media related reasons.

Ultimately B&N snubbing Amazon's indie authors means it's taking money from the writers. Is there a better alternative you think for people to get published online and still get behind an audience that won't be shunned?

Kevin Elliott: This may not be an answer to your question, but I think your question gets to the larger issue. Who is thinking about the writers or the customers in this kerfuffle (yes... kerfuffle)? I know it is business and business politics, but those two people are the backbone of this industry... no matter how far it seems we've strayed sometimes.

Can you comment on the message B&N is sending with this move?

Kevin Elliott: The thing about this that no one seems to be discussing is that Barnes & Noble has the tenure and scope to make an impact with a statement like this. There are a few possible outcomes, as far as independent bookstores are concerned. One is that independent bookstores' defiant stance against Amazon means something more because they are now paired with a company that many indies used to blame for putting them out of business. Another is that those same indies will lose social equity to the defiant giant. In this day and age, that's a dangerous thing for an indie to lose. There are other possibilities, but those are the first that come to mind.

The way I look at it is this. Amazon has been disrupting bookselling for many years. First, quietly. Then, not so quietly (They named their e-reading device after a verb that means to start a fire). Now, Amazon is disrupting publishing... and winning. Is Barnes & Noble's stance a concerned reaction with the larger bookselling culture in mind or is it the response of another company who began as a publisher and has recently pushed hard into the ebook market? I assume it is a bit of both, but you don't hear much about the latter. 

Finally, I love physical books and bookstores. Especially Indie Bookstores! They are my preference. I also read ebooks sometimes. But do you know what I love more than either of these? The customer. The Reader!  

Are all of these public declarations making anything easier for customers to enjoy books?  Or is it a rallying cry that will fade into the convenience market share of a busy world? Readers want to connect with books and authors. They also want to connect with other readers. I want to help them do all of those things any way I can. Reading is an enjoyment for me, but it is also a life skill, and the more excitement and availability to books and skills that there are, the better our societies will be.  That may seem a bit romantic, but I truly believe it. There's an old saying in the book world... no one gets into book-selling to become rich. It's true. 

I may have personal opinions and strong feelings about what Amazon and B&N and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are doing, but as a bookseller, I want to make as many different books available to as many different readers as I can. Period.  

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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