Category Archives: retailers

5

What you can do about the DOJ lawsuit

Following up on my previous blog—and having read a huge amount in the last two weeks about this matter—I feel more strongly than ever that we all, agents, authors, publishers, independent bookstore owners, and readers, can and should do something about the settlement the DOJ is proposing.

In order to try to stop the Department of Justice there is something called The Tunney Act, which allows members of the public to comment on any proposed settlement by the government on a civil antitrust suit.  The “Competitive Impact Statement” filed in court by the Department of Justice on April 11th states that the Depart of Justice will cause written comments received from any person to be filed with the court and published in the Federal Register.

If you are in agreement that the terms of the settlement are onerous for publishing and bookstores, you  need to write a letter and send it to:

John R. Read, Esq.
Chief, Litigation III Section
Antitrust Division, United States Department of Justice
450 5th Street, NW, Suite 4000
Washington, DC 20530

You may also submit your comments attached in an email to john.read@usdoj.gov (with a copy to stephen.fairchild@usdoj.gov).

Please be sure to reference the name of the litigation in your comments.  We suggest the following or similar reference:

United States v. Apple, Inc. et al., No. 12-CV-2826(DLC) (S.D.N.Y.) – Comments on Proposed Final Judgment as to Defendants Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster

All public comments received will be considered by the U.S. Department of Justice and will be filed with the Court and published in the Federal Register (the Daily Journal of the U.S. Government).

These letters and e-mails must be received by June 23rd so please read all you are able to about the issues and write and mail your letters expressing your opinions as soon as you can.

I feel strongly that we must keep the publishers and bookstores alive—both independents and the remaining chains.  I hope you all will help.

10

Is the Department of Justice’s Suit Against Publishers Good for Authors?

Last week, the Department of Justice sued five publishers and Apple and charged them with collusion in the implementation of the agency model for e-book pricing. The charge is civil, not criminal.  Three of the five publishers, Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster are settling their suits, but Macmillan U.S. and Penguin Worldwide are not.  Here is what Publishers Weekly reported followed by statements from John Sargent CEO of  Macmillan and John Makinson, Chairman and CEO of the Penguin Group.

So, what does this mean to authors?

Ultimately it means that Amazon, which has had a very strong market share in discounting e-books recently with Barnes & Noble starting to catch up under the agency model, will now virtually have a monopoly on selling e-books.  The company, which as we know, sells many products other than books, can afford to lose money on their sales of e-books because they have so much other merchandise to make a profit from.

Barnes & Noble and other accounts, however, cannot afford to lose money and they will do if they are forced to compete with Amazon’s steep discounting.  In fact late last week, B&N stock took a substantial dive for this very reason.

And, if as a result of this, Barnes & Noble is forced out of business, it will be a disaster for publishers and authors alike.  There will be nowhere to display physical books any longer.

I am not a lawyer and so I can’t discuss the legalities of any of this.  What I can suggest is that if authors agree that giving Amazon a true monopoly in the e-book publishing business will be hugely destructive to the business as a whole, then they should blog, write op-ed columns, and get as much publicity possible in order to attempt to turn this situation around.  It is myopic, in my humble opinion, to believe that allowing Amazon to become a monopoly in the e-book business will ultimate benefit consumers (see David Carr’s piece in today’s New York Times).

What do you all have to say about these developments?

8

Censor censure

I’ve been on a bit of a Words With Friends kick lately (okay, more a debilitating obsession than a kick but no one’s kicked me off a plane yet) and one of the frustrating things I’ve found about the game is how it censors what it considers unacceptable words. Not sure what geniuses (or algorithms) decide what works and what doesn’t but when you’re behind by 15 points and you’ve got the letters to wipe your opponent out with a word you know is a word but that WWF won’t allow…well, it makes you a little short tempered.

Thing is, censorship is all around us and, by and large, we tend to overlook minor instances of it as long as the big freedoms aren’t compromised.   I can shake my head and keep playing WWF, say, because who cares about a silly app game.  But, is that the right attitude?  When you hear about Seth Godin’s experience with Apple refusing to carry one of his “manifestos” because there are links in it to the Amazon store, the whole Big Brother thing becomes a bit sinister.  This is censorship seasoned with monopolistic bullying, in my opinion.

How much freedom of speech can be guaranteed when behemoths like Apple and Amazon censor what is available to consumers for any reason other than that the work(s) in question poses a real physical threat to individuals?  Sure, a privately owned retailer may choose what goods and services it wants to offer, but when you have two or three entities responsible for the dissemination of vast amounts of information, it seems to me that it should not be morally, ethically, or legally okay for those entities to decide what consumers may or may not be able to buy.

Those of us in the publishing business have a rather bedeviled relationship with Apple, Amazon and B&N (especially the first two).  On the one hand, we need them in order to place our authors’ wares.  On the other, we are increasingly concerned with the practices of these soulless corporations whose only interest is the financial bottom line and for whom books and the entire publishing world are but a blip in their massive spreadsheets.  Is it time for the government to step in and regulate how content is served up?  What can we do as consumers (and book lovers) to safeguard our ability to buy any book (or story or manifesto) we want?  Should we be outraged or should we shrug our shoulders and lump this with the Word With Friends shenanigans?

What’s your take on all of this?  Am I over- or under-reacting?

13

Book love: a contest

UPDATE: Some great entries so far!!  I guess it probably would’ve made sense to set some deadlines and such, huh?  We’ll keep collecting entries till Friday at noon, and then Rachel will announce the winners that afternoon.  Keep ‘em coming!

Now normally Valentine’s Day is not my thing—in high school I established a cabinet for when I take over the world specifically to delete 2/14 from the calendar—but when Rachel sent me this adorable video, my icy cold heart melted just a bit.

Via Word Brooklyn, Rachel’s favorite bookstore, via Riverhead, comes this video from LA’s Skylight Books of books that are totally gettin’ it on throughout the store.  It’s charming and adorable.  (Except that dead Steve Jobs should probably not be participating in spin the bottle.  That’s sort of icky.)

But it made me wonder about what kinds of books actually would love each other.  Fortunately, Rachel helped me brainstorm some ideas:

The Great Gatsby would be all about EmmaLord of the Flies and The Hunger Games would go steady for sure, until their romance ended tragically and prematurely.  Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web could be a good couple since opposites attract.  And I could see a strong future for The Imperfectionists and Then We Came to the End, as long as one or the other managed to win the lottery so they didn’t have to bicker about how to pay the rent.

Which books do you think should hook up this Valentine’s Day?  Rachel and I will each select a favorite entry from the comments below to receive a DGLM mug!

24

Bricks and mortar (and Lego Men)

I’ve gone on the record here a number of times about my pro-bookstore bias, so I won’t go into it again, but let me start by saying this isn’t a physical vs. digital post.  For now at least, we can all agree that physical bookstores exist, and there are people who still wish to patronize them.  I am one of those people, but I respect that there are people who have other preferences.

I wandered around the B&N behemoth at the top of Union Square the other day and thought about the ways that stores innovate in what are not the easiest times.  As I passed the sizable Lego section of the store on the escalator (and glanced down at the enormous book-reading Lego Men that I’d strongly consider purchasing if they were for sale), I realized that it’s well past the time that I cringed in response to non-book space in the store.  Don’t get me wrong: when that particular store expanded their Nook…nook, I was very happy they found space from the DVD/music area and not the bookshelves.  But even when I forced myself, I found I was happy that people who might not go out of their way to buy books have to pass tons of books on their way over to build at the Lego table.  What use are shelves and shelves and shelves of books that will be returned if no one goes into the store to buy them, after all?  However complex the economics, eyes on books seems better than not.

Over the years, we’ve seen stores adding cafés and media and toys and games.  We’ve seen stores try to find a home for themselves in a world of e-books with things like the Nook and the customized e-book shelf talkers that Melville House offers indies, as recently reported by Laura Miller in Salon.  When I worked at B&N, the store I was in had recently begun an events program (which was nothing new in general, but it’d previously been deemed too small to find the space for them), with signings, readings, story time and writing groups.  Whatever the results may be in this time of great change for the industry, I’m pleased any time I see that a piece of the intricate publishing ecosystem won’t go down without a fight (so long as it’s not at the expense of authors, of course—the rest of us are nothing without them).

For those of you who sometimes shop in physical bookstores, what do you see stores doing in a bid for survival?  Any great ideas that you think should be adopted more widely?  Any ideas you wish they’d try?

0

Humor helps

This has been a week of major Amazon consternation here in publishing land. First, they bought the 450-title trade list of Marshall Cavendish, a small, independent publisher of high-quality books for children. The reaction from booksellers was quick, including one tweeting that she was looking forward to shipping back all the Marshall Cavendish titles. Agents were (and still are) very curious to hear from the publisher about just what this means for our authors. Then they announced a fun promotion in which they’re asking customers to go to brick-and-mortar retailers, find items they want, scan their barcode with Amazon’s app, then get $5 from Amazon for doing price research for them! While this program does not include books (because as Josie Leavitt points out, they already know how much their competitors charge for books–no research needed!), booksellers and some authors have been up in arms about Amazon’s audacity. It’s certainly a ballsy move to proactively promote such behavior, though the app (and others like it) have been around for some time.

But one bookseller, Roxanne J Coady, has a modest proposal for Amazon that could help even the playing field. I won’t spoil the fun by giving anything more away, but please do take a look. A little levity never hurts.

How would you save the book biz?

We’ve all heard the horror stories over the last couple of years about the end of publishing and books basically becoming obsolete and going the way of the VHS tape.

Those of us who work in publishing do our part to help keep the business afloat. Writers by writing, where it all begins; agents by selling writers’ works; publishers by publishing and getting the books to the consumer. We work hard, despite the changing landscape and gloom and doom mantras, to get our books into the marketplace, especially those hard-to-sell titles that fall into the “labor of love” category, of which I can list my fair share from over the years.

Now bestselling author Ann Patchett has made the front page of the New York Times (rare for a publishing story at all, and a positive one at that) talking about opening an independent bookstore in her hometown of Nashville. I loved Ann Patchett before (State of Wonder was definitely one of the best books I read this year) and now I love her even more for using her own time and resources to help give back to her community, and by extension, to the publishing industry.

I can’t think of a quick-fix to transform the biz, but new successful indie stores will help, and as Patchett notes in the piece: “If you like this thing, it’s your responsibility to keep this thing alive.” Meantime, I will be continuing to try and sell books that make a difference in people’s lives, and I will be more mindful of supporting my local bookseller as we approach the holiday season.

If you could do one thing to help save the book business, what would it be?

5

World domination

When Dan Slater of Amazon, a longtime friend of DGLM, was visiting last week, I jokingly asked him what new steps his company was taking toward its ultimate goal of world domination.  Discreet as Dan is, he did not let on about the new Kindle Fire announcement (although we’d all heard buzz) but he definitely did not deny that Amazon was in the process of taking over the universe (at least the publishing universe).

Well, as the HuffPost live blog of today’s announcement by Jeff Bezos about the new tablet shows, the Amazon juggernaut rumbles inexorably on.  Not having seen one of these babies in person, I’ve no idea whether I’m going to rush out and buy the new KF instead of the iPad I’ve been thinking of gifting myself for Christmas.   On the one hand, I use my current Kindle quite a bit and, given how lame the Apple book store is, I expect that I’ll continue to get most of my online reading from Amazon anyway.  On the other hand, it’s hard to root for the prohibitive favorite in sports or big business.  I’m not sure I want to live under an Amazon dictatorship, no matter how benign.

Is it as dire as all that?  Or is this all just healthy, good fun on the part of the superpowers?  Are they just giving us all more options even as we have less and less time to avail ourselves of them?

2

Steal these books!

Gabe Habash at PW blogged about the sort of subject that gives me flashbacks to being screamed at by shoppers: the most frequently stolen books.  As I’ve mentioned, I toiled away in college at a bookstore in the West Village.  That particular store had a few factors influencing the selection of stolen lit, including the general romance of the Beat Generation’s heyday in the neighborhood, proximity to NYU’s “campus,” and a table out front selling books of, shall we say, questionable provenance.

So as not to unduly disparage the table seller of books, I’m sure many of them come by their wares honestly.  I once tutored a very nice man in basic computer skills through a volunteer program, and he turned out to be a guy who sells books on the street and had emails from publishers he bought books from.  I don’t even know if the particular gentleman whose selection mirrored what our store suspiciously lacked still sells books anymore at all, much less at that spot.  What I do know is that one day my colleague went out on his lunch break, walked immediately back inside, walked over to an end cap and glanced down at the empty floor, went back outside, and returned a minute later with the 25 copies of Randy Tamborelli’s Madonna bio that used to sit in front of that end cap before mysteriously disappearing a couple hours earlier, still with the company’s 50% off stickers affixed to the front.  The guy at the table apparently had no objection to their returning to their rightful home.  (He also once accosted Whoopi Goldberg as I was ringing up her purchase to tell her she is his favorite actress.  This is unrelated, but awesome.)

Anyway, our most stolen list was similar in many ways to those linked above, though I can’t recall anyone stealing Martin Amis.  We did lose all the rest of those, in abundance.  We also, repeatedly, lost an entire shelf of Paulo Coelho books.  So we lost the beat generation, we lost the sort of books you could sell to NYU kids, and we lost the kinds of books that sell well on the street.  We then started shelving all those authors on the shelves you could only reach by rolling ladder, so that when customers asked for them, we wouldn’t have to say, “Yes, we have 5 copies right…here.  Sorry.  Can I order that for you?”

This led to its own special problem, which is the aforementioned screaming customers.  Some people found this whole thing interesting from a sociological perspective, but there were people who did not take kindly to the implication that people who read the sort of books they like are also thieves.  I can see why people would be offended, but we would try to calmly explain that we totally understood their frustration, but knew from repeated experience that if the books were placed on shelves, we wouldn’t have any to sell, and no, we didn’t like that either, but knew that we had customers like them who would be happy to buy from us and wanted to make sure we could meet their needs.  I’d say about ½ the angry people calmed down upon explanation that we were not merely book bigots, but it wasn’t unusual for others to call me choice names and storm out.

In my last year or so of employment, the store cracked down on security and theft definitely declined.  (Prior to that, either the Village Voice or the New York Press named the company as the best to steal from in their annual best of NYC roundup, erroneously claiming that the company didn’t prosecute offenders.)  The thieves we had left were regulars.  They were scary.  Several of them had elaborate return scams.  One of those, who almost made me cry the time I caught him, seemed like he might have a side job in organized crime.  Many others coupled their theft with seemingly rather intense drug addictions.  Another guy was super friendly to cover up the fact that he was in fact robbing us blind, but he was really good at it, so it took ages to catch him out on it, and when he tried to return to me an art book that no one had ever purchased from the store with a fake receipt, it was one of the most tense moments of my life.

I bet those of you who haven’t worked retail didn’t realize it was so fraught with peril, eh?  Thanks for letting me unburden my brushes with the criminal element.  I’ll be sending your therapy invoice to PW for bringing up this whole mess.

The price of admission

There was a little used book store around the corner from my apartment complex, when I was growing up in Miami, that was my second home.  Nerdy, latch-key kid that I was, I spent hours browsing the shelves, trying to get the owner to throw in an extra dog-eared paperback in exchange for the stack of Spanish language comic books I was trading, and generally getting high on the smell of old paper and ink.  I still have treasured editions scattered throughout my many bookcases whose provenance was that little shop.

Then, when I first got to New York, I was blown away by places like Shakespeare & Co., Brentano’s, Coliseum Books, Papyrus and that promised land for bibliophiles, The Strand.   A few years later many of my favorite haunts had gone out of business or been taken over by soulless corporate giants (you know who you are) but I never lost my love of browsing aimlessly in book stores.  These days, I still occasionally wander over to the Barnes & Noble on Union Square and spend my lunch hour in the fiction stacks on the fourth floor.

Of course, book stores have also traditionally been a place for authors to do their dog and pony show in support of their work.   Book tours are going the way of the Amazon forests but certain authors are still a huge draw (just try to get anywhere near the third floor at the aforementioned Barnes & Noble when David Sedaris is doing a reading).  Some of these events can make you fall in love with a book or its author, sometimes both.   They’re also the makings of a cheap date for grown-ups and an alternative to a $30 movie outing for young kids.  Except, it seems, no more.

Check out this  Gawker piece about the new trend of book stores charging admission to author events.  I actually understand and support independents in their efforts to get people in the door.  These are trying times for book sellers and if they are to keep their doors open in the face of the online juggernauts (you know who you are, cough, Amazon) they are going to have to figure out a way to make money.  But it does make me sad.   How many times did I walk out of a book store with a title I had no intention of buying when I went in after stumbling upon an author reading from his/her book?  I wonder if the days of the accidental book buyer are numbered as a result of these new pay-for-play tactics.

What do you all think about this new development?