Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that it was looking into the possibility of filing suit against Apple and five of the country’s largest publishers – Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group, HarperCollins, and the Hachette Book Group. The DoJ is alleging collusion and price fixing in the area of e-book sales. At issue is the publishers’ agreement with Apple to adhere to an agency model for e-books, which allows the publishers to set prices and prohibits Apple (and other sellers) from discounting them.
The agency model is opposed to the wholesale model, which allows sellers to set prices, and has resulted in steep discounts from Amazon, an online retailer that has parlayed losses on lower e-book prices into a virtual monopoly in the area of e-book sales.
The conflict between the two business models, and the possibility of action on the part of the DoJ, prompted Scott Turow, best-selling author and president of the U.S. Author’s Guild, to issue an open letter decrying the potential legal action. By selling e-books at a loss, Turow contends, Amazon is actually engaging in a practice of predatory pricing meant to drive competitors – including bricks-and-mortar bookstores – out of business. The agency model, Turow argues, promotes competition, which is essential to a vibrant literary culture:
Two years after the agency model came to bookselling, Amazon is losing its chokehold on the e-book market: its share has fallen from about 90% to roughly 60%. Customers are benefiting from the surprisingly innovative e-readers Barnes & Noble’s investments have delivered, including a tablet device that beat Amazon to the market by fully twelve months. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are starting to compete through their partnership with Google, so loyal customers can buy e-books from them at the same price as they would from Amazon. Direct-selling authors have also benefited, as Amazon more than doubled its royalty rates in the face of competition.
Let’s hope the reports are wrong, or that the Justice Department reconsiders. The irony bites hard: our government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.
The vitriolic responses from proponents of cheap books and digital publishing were as swift as they were predictable. Writing on Joe Konrath’s blog, author Barry Eisler takes Turow to task for foolishly suggesting that Amazon is killing bookselling by selling a metric shit-tonne of books:
Watch the linguistic dodge: Scott is implicitly arguing that the only model that counts as “bookselling” is the current model, built and maintained by legacy publishers and brick-and-mortar stores. That is, “bookselling = physical bookstores. Online bookselling doesn’t count as bookselling.” He’s arguing as though physical booksellers are the only legitimate organisms in the forest, while Amazon is some sort of exotic interloping alien species rampaging through a healthy native ecosystem. This is the only way to make sense of an argument that states, “Amazon is destroying bookselling by selling so many books.”
Well, actually, that’s not what Turow is implying, although that is clearly what Eisler is inferring. What Turow is actually arguing has less to do with the volume of Amazon’s sales and more to do with the reason behind them. It’s the artificially depressed prices Amazon offers that are the problem, at least in Turow’s conception, and it is this point that often gets lost in these arguments.
One side-effect of the steep discounts Amazon offers – discounts that, at the risk of being repetitive, mean Amazon takes a loss on sales because they sell their e-books at a price point lower than their own cost – is that they condition consumers to expect books to be so cheap. The consumer advocate will argue that he or she should not pay more than what the market will bear, but this conceals a basic fallacy. Amazon’s prices do not reflect what the market will bear, and they sure as hell don’t reflect fair market value. Professionally produced books – whether they be digital or otherwise – require editing, type design, marketing, and sales support. None of this comes for free. (In point of fact, most people performing these tasks in any publishing house in North America are likely being paid much less than their skills are worth.) Other booksellers don’t artificially mark their prices up; Amazon artificially marks its prices down. This is what has convinced consumers that $30 is too pricey for a hardback novel, and it is also what has contributed to Amazon’s monopoly over the e-book marketplace.
The problem, as The Washington Post‘s Steven Pearlstein points out, is that breaking this monopoly will result in higher prices for consumers.
So which is better: a market in which Amazon uses low prices to maintain its e-book monopoly and drive brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business, or one in which the major book publishers, in tacit collusion with Apple, break Amazon’s monopoly and raise prices?
Pearlstein’s own answer is, at least provisionally, the latter:
[T]he danger of regulators and judges focusing solely on short-term price effects is that it can mean turning a blind eye to business practices that temporarily lower prices even as they drive competitors out of business, lock in customers or limit entry into the market by new firms with better products.
Or to put it another way, it’s great to be able to buy e-books for $9.99, but maybe not if the alternative is accepting an Amazon monopoly that drives Barnes & Noble and your local bookstore out of business.
The only really safe mechanism for setting price is open competition, says Andy Gavil, an antitrust expert at Howard University, and anything that prevents that ought to be viewed with suspicion.
Meanwhile, Konrath reprints a letter author Suzanne White sent to the Author’s Guild in response to Turow’s own missive, in which she criticizes the guild for not working on behalf of authors, but rather trying “to protect what is obsolete”:
Where in the traditional publishing industry can an author command 70%? Where can an author have utter dominion over cover art? Formatting? Content? Illustrations? Impact? Marketing? The answer is Amazon. And a little bit Pubit and sometimes Smashwords or Apple as well. Where in the standard publishing industry can an author revive a book that he or she wrote in 1982, sold to a publisher who printed it, didn’t sell very many and took it right off the market? Amazon, that’s where. Author gets rights back, re-formats the book, slams it up for sale on Kindle and in six months is making money with that book.
Where? Tell me. Where can an author do better?
Why does a Guild for Authors rail on about monopolies and decry the demise of old-fashioned publishing as we knew it? Dinosaurs still prowling the streets of Manhattan want their good old boy industry back. Give it up already.
Any publisher worth her salt knows that in many cases, giving authors “utter dominion” over things such as cover art, formatting, and marketing is a recipe for disaster. By the same token, no publisher worth her salt is currently resting on her laurels, hoping to exploit authors and consumers by raising prices above all reason, or acting like a “dinosaur” prowling the streets of Manahttan or Toronto. Indeed, most of Konrath, Eisler, and White’s despised “legacy publishers” are bending over backwards in an attempt to innovate. ECW Press now offers free digital copies of their frontlist books when customers purchase a hard copy. Coach House Books has done the same. Penguin Canada has recently experimented with modestly priced e-book “singles” publishing. None of these is the action of so-called “dinosaurs.”
Perhaps the time has come for both sides in this debate to tone down their rhetoric, to shelve the righteous indignation on the one side and the frequently paranoid defensiveness on the other and try to find some common ground. Of course, in order for this to happen, each side will have to admit that the other has some valid arguments. In my experience, the “legacy publishers” have historically been much better at this than the upstart digital evangelists.
It is becoming more apparent with each successive move that Indigo Books & Music, along with its CEO, Heather Reisman, sees no future in bookselling.
At the beginning of this year, the company implemented a 4% co-op fee on all books sold through at its stores, replacing the previous model, in which publishers paid for co-op individually. This made a number of industry watchers nervous because, it was assumed, if Indigo were to dictate placement rather than publishers buying space for individual titles that might not otherwise be afforded prominence, the chain would give preference to surefire bestsellers purchased in large numbers. These concerns were not ill-founded. If you want to see the effects of the new co-op regime in action, take a jog over to the Indigo-owned World’s Biggest Bookstore in downtown Toronto, where one single title, Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Steve Jobs – a recent “Heather’s Pick,” and one of two books that appear to be driving Reisman’s retail philosophy at the moment* – has placement in practically every prominent space at the front of the store (on the walls, table displays, free-standing shelves, and at the front cash), as well as appearing in significant numbers on tables and stand-up displays in both the business and biography sections.
Then in March, the company announced it was replacing president Joel Silver with Tedford G. Marlow, a former executive at such bookish companies as Urban Outfitters, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Soon after Marlow’s appointment, Indigo announced it was planning to make significant changes to the product mix in its stores, decreasing the amount of floor space devoted to books in favour of space for more lifestyle-oriented products (read: candles, desk lamps, and tchotchkes). These, it should be noted, would be designed for Indigo out of a studio in New York.
At around the same time, Indigo changed its returns policy, saying that it would re-evaluate the industry norm of ninety days before stock could be returned, with underperforming titles facing potential return in as few as forty-five days. Such “underperforming” books would not, of course, be ones like Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, but rather titles from smaller Canadian houses that were ordered in lower quantities and then placed spine out on the shelves. (If you think this constitutes the dictionary definition of a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” you’re probably not far off.)
At the time, Reisman told Publishers Weekly that the changes were necessary to compete with the drop in book sales resulting from customers’ migration to e-books: “In order to continue to be in the physical book business, we must add other product which feels like it fits with our journey because if you don’t and you lose 20%, 30% of your business to digital, you can’t stay in business.” Indigo’s “new mission,” Reisman told PW, would be “to enrich the lives of our customers. We are transitioning from being a bookstore to being a store that enriches the customers’ lives.” However, when all is said and done, Reisman, who styles herself as the company’s “chief booklover,” insisted, “Books and reading are at the heart and soul of Indigo and always will be.” (My emphasis.)
That was back in April. Cut to late afternoon this past Tuesday, when much of the publishing industry in Toronto was focused on that night’s ceremony to award the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. A press release was sent out announcing that Kobo, the e-reading company in which Indigo holds a majority stake, is being sold to the Japanese e-commerce outfit Rakuten for the astounding sum of $315 million (U.S.).
The deal, from which Indigo stands to receive between $140 and $150 million, initially seemed like a tech story and little more. But that was before an article in the business section of today’s Globe and Mail suggested that Reisman does not intend to use the new money to bolster the bookselling side of her business, but rather to funnel it into the development of lifestyle products. In the Globe article, Marina Strauss writes that as a result of the Rakuten deal, “Ms. Reisman is in a stronger position to make acquisitions and expand non-book ventures, to offset Indigo’s shrinking book business. She will invest heavily to shore up her new product design and development studio in New York City, which is focused on home decor and gift items.” The article states that Indigo forecasts book sales to account for only 50% of its revenue in “a couple of years,” down from 75% now.
What is remarkable about the Globe article is the way brand strategist Anthony Campbell analyzes Indigo’s divestiture of Kobo. Campbell points to the incipient appearance in Canada of U.S. discount chain Target, and suggests that Indigo’s new direction will help them maintain “focus” to be competitive in the coming retail landscape: “It is a big challenge – there are a lot of retailers in this [lifestyle gift and home decor] space and it is where the world is going for a lot of other brands … Target’s been doing it for a long time, and they’re going to be in Canada in a short while. Heather & Co. is seeing that future … She’s getting ahead of some of her competition in this move.” Note what the presumed competition is: Target and other lifestyle retailers. The space in which Indigo operates, according to Campbell, involves interior design and decor. Nowhere do books even enter the equation.
Of course, Reisman may indeed be ahead of the game in her move to reinvent the Indigo brand. A report commissioned by the Australian government’s Book Industry Strategy Group pointed to Indigo as a potential model for Australian bookstores to follow if they wish to remain profitable while confronting the “paradigmatic change” thrown up by the advent of digital reading. An article in the October 4 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald states:
While there was no ”silver bullet” for booksellers, the report singles out Indigo, Canada’s largest bookseller, which promotes books as a ”lifestyle,” not a product. It sells giftware, children’s toys, video games, music, gourmet food, and even flowers and is an example of an independent bookseller leveraging people’s affection for books.
But it seems ever more apparent that Reisman is unconvinced of “people’s affection for books.” Her assertion that Indigo is “transitioning from being a bookstore to being a store that enriches the customers’ lives” leaves aside the notion that books themselves are capable of enriching people’s lives. But given the precipitous drop in the number of books people are actually buying over the counter at bricks-and-mortar bookstores, both large and small, the move to diversify her stores’ product mix may prove to be a wise business decision in the long run. The big-box bookstore model was likely unsustainable anyway, something Gordon Lockheed foresaw in a 2001 article for Dooney’s Café, right around the time that Indigo merged with its then-competitor, Chapters:
What nobody has considered, in the general rush to declare Heather Reisman a culture hero and save Chapters/Indigo, is the possibility that as a machine for selling books and making money, Chapters and its successor doesn’t seem to work. It is becoming painfully obvious that the only real economy of scale Chapters/Indigo enjoys is the muscle it wields in dictating terms to suppliers. From the beginning, Chapters bled red, and there isn’t much evidence to suggest that Chapters/Indigo can make money today …
What was true a decade ago is even more true in the digitally obsessed present. Perhaps a sharp right turn into lifestyle products will alleviate some of the burden from the company’s bottom line. However, it appears less and less likely that books will remain “the heart and soul of Indigo” in the new order of things.
*The other is Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz’s Onward, also a Heather’s Pick.
Indigo Books and Music, the country’s largest bookstore chain, is planning to revamp their co-op program in the new year, in a way that is sure to ruffle some feathers in the publishing industry. Previously, publishers paid co-op money to the chain in exchange for premium placement on tables or endcaps. Under the new rules, which come into effect on January 1, all publishers will be charged a 4% fee on all titles that sell through at the chain. Unlike the old model, however, publishers won’t necessarily have the ability to dictate where the co-op money gets allocated, which gives Indigo more flexibility to promote titles it wants to sell.
Bahram Olfati, vice president of adult trade at Indigo, recently sent an e-mail to publishers and distributors informing them of the impending changes. Here is the relevant paragraph from the Quill & Quire story:
The question now is: will publishers continue to have a say in store placement? Or will placement be determined entirely by Indigo staffers? In his e-mail to vendors, Olfati stated only that “we will continue to work closely with the publishers to make sure that all new authors and titles needing special attention/promotions receive front of store placement,” and that “all titles of more than 800 units will receive table placement.”
Of course, this puts smaller publishers and mid-list or debut authors at a disadvantage, since Indigo rarely orders titles from these groups in volume numbers. Small publishers are much more likely to see Indigo stores stock one or two copies of their titles, spine out on the shelves.
Publishers in Canada have been understandably reluctant to go on the record about the revamped co-op program, not wanting to adversely affect their relationship with the largest bookseller in the country. However, it is easy to see how many publishers might be uncomfortable with the new scheme, which amounts to a tariff levied on all books sold. Once again, it will be the smaller and regional publisher that will bear the brunt of any pain that the new rules cause: it’s hard to imagine brand name authors from Random House or HarperCollins getting short shrift in terms of placement at Indigo, while it is very easy to imagine this happening to books from Breakwater or Turnstone.
If there is a silver lining to all this, it is that Indigo likely already accounts for fewer sales of small press titles than do independents and regional outlets that will hand sell them in a dedicated way. Still, the change could result in a decrease in the breadth of titles that receive exposure at Indigo locations, which is not heartening in today’s difficult bookselling environment.
Back in July 2009, readers found that digital editions of two books they’d purchased from Amazon – George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm – had mysteriously vanished from their Kindle e-readers. Although it turned out that Amazon removed the books (and credited the affected accounts) because the editions were unauthorized, this episode stands as a cautionary tale about the power e-book retailers have over e-book readers.
That power could be about to expand exponentially. Today, NPR published an article outlining the data that various manufacturers of e-reading devices collect about their users. If the irony of having Orwell’s books erased from Kindle readers is thick, imagine what the author would think of the following:
- According to Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Amazon can track how fast a person reads by the number of page clicks, and can tell where the reader stopped reading.
- Bestselling author and president of the Authors Guild Scott Turow says of Amazon’s Kindle: “They could tell you with precision the age, the zip codes, gender, and other interests of the people who bought my books.”
- Google stores pages from books a reader purchases through its eBooks store to keep track of where the buyer finished reading, but also for “security monitoring” and to police “abusive sharing” of titles.
- Apple’s iBookstore sends “functional data” back to the company so that Apple can better “understand customers and customer behavior.”
- Kindles and iPads are equipped with GPS software that allows their manufacturers to track not just what you’re reading, but where you’re reading it.
If all of this Big Brotherish activity strikes a cold note of fear in your heart, you’re not alone. Author Stephen King, who knows something about fear, told NPR, “Ultimately, this sort of thing scares the hell out of me.” And it should. The more society hands over its privacy and information to the digital machine – which increasingly means big corporations trying to sell people stuff – the closer we edge toward a precipice beyond which everything we do is monitored, crosschecked, analyzed, and monetized. Orwell feared that Big Brother would take the form of a totalitarian government; the truth is it may take the form of rapacious corporations collecting minute amounts of data on us to better understand how to enrich themselves at our expense.
Of course, it’s foolish to blame corporations and product manufacturers alone for the current state of affairs. The public at large seems all too eager to allow anyone and everyone access to every corner of their lives. Social media like Facebook and Twitter, and geolocation sites like Foursquare, provide constant updates about a person’s whereabouts, activities, and interests.
This has not gone unnoticed by the folks at Kobo, who are in the process of rolling out a Facebook-linked app called Reading Life, which will allow users to post reading lists to their Facebook pages, along with favourite passages, comments, and reading histories. What caught my eye, though, was a paragraph in Quill & Quire‘s report on the Kobo initiative:
The app isn’t just about cultural sharing, however – it also provides Kobo and other companies with new marketing opportunities. [Michael Serbinis, CEO of Kobo] gave this example: Kobo will be able, via the app, to detect if a particular user reads frequently at Starbucks. If that reader logs a certain number of reading hours at Starbucks, they could be offered a coupon on their next latte. If Kobo users don’t want Facebook to know what they’re reading or where they’re reading it, the app can be temporarily deactivated.
Kobo is quick to point out that Reading Life is an opt-in service – in other words, users have to consciously turn it on for it to work. This would likely be small comfort to the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, or to the novelist Auldous Huxley, who, in Brave New World, predicted that humans would be all too willing to assist the forces desiring to subjugate them. The uncritical enthusiasm with which users have embraced Facebook, Foursquare, and other social media indicates that Huxley was right. Who can blame Kobo, Apple, and Amazon for wanting to profit off such consumer indifference? The problem is that by the time we realize we’ve relinquished our lives to the machine, it will be too late.
Consider this: in the movie Seven, detectives Somerset and Mills track down the serial killer John Doe by accessing his library records. In that movie, what the detectives do is clearly meant to appear unethical and underhanded. In today’s wireless world, it’s just business as usual.
December 1 is World AIDS Day, and to mark the occasion, the country’s largest bookseller has teamed up with one of the world’s most recognizable publishers to promote a new line of classic novels that will help battle HIV/AIDS in Africa. Indigo Books and Music has signed on to sell special (RED) editions of 16 Penguin Classics titles. Fifty percent of profits from the (RED) editions will go directly to the Global Fund to eliminate AIDS in Africa.
The special (RED) editions have been repackaged with newly commissioned cover art. The traditional black has been replaced with red, and the covers employ words and phrases taken from the books.
Indigo CEO Heather Reisman is quoted in a press release from Penguin Canada:
Penguin Classics have captured the imagination of millions of readers around the world for generations, transforming the way people think, feel, and read forever. The message of this campaign is that these great books still have power to change lives – and, literally, to save lives.
The sixteen titles in the campaign are:
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
- The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
- Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
- The Lady with a Little Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
- The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
- Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
- Silas Marner by George Eliot
- Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
- Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola
- The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
- Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackerey
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Indigo has an exclusive licence to sell these titles until January 31, 2011. After that, the special editions will be rolled out to the trade, according to Yvonne Hunter, vice president, publicity and marketing at Penguin Canada.
There is a story about Mordecai Richler that goes something like this: when he was young, Richler was asked what he wanted to do with his life, and replied that he wanted to be a novelist. His bewildered interlocutor reportedly responded by saying, “Yes, but how are you going to make money?”
It’s a good thing Richler didn’t start writing in the digital age. According to a Wall Street Journal article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, reprinted in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, the advent of e-books is making it harder for untested writers to earn even a modest income from their writing:
It has always been tough for literary fiction writers to get their work published by the top publishing houses. But the digital revolution that is disrupting the economic model of the book industry is having an outsize impact on the careers of literary writers.
Priced much lower than hardcovers, many e-books generate less income for publishers. As a result, the publishers who nurtured generations of America’s top literary-fiction writers are approving fewer book deals and signing fewer new writers. Most of those getting published are receiving smaller advances.
In one sense, this is not news. It has always been necessary for novelists who don’t exist in the top tier alongside figures like Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling to augment their incomes by taking other work. This is not a recent phenomenon: Chekhov was a doctor. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer for an insurance company. Anthony Trollope worked for the Royal Mail. And so on.
What is dispiriting, however, is the notion that the e-book format, currently the only publishing format that is experiencing growth rather than flatlining or declining, seems to privilege established writers over new voices, and populist genres over literary writing. Trachtenberg admits that Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom has done well in electronic format, selling “well over 35,000″ copies in its first two weeks of publication. Franzen is a literary writer, but one with definite populist instincts. Twice anointed by Oprah Winfrey, reigning queen of American popular culture (her endorsements of Leo Tolstoy and William Faulkner notwithstanding), Franzen has written about his own ambivalence toward the literary and popular divide (which he refers to as Status writing and Contract writing, respectively) in his essay on William Gaddis, entitled “Mr. Difficult.”
Regardless, Franzen is not in a position to need sales, digital or otherwise. His popularity and reputation are already well established. It is newer authors without proven track records who will suffer from digital books cutting into publishers’ bottom lines. Trachtenberg acknowledges this discontinuity when he writes:
The e-book is good news for some. Big-name authors and novels that are considered commercial are increasingly in demand as e-book readers gravitate toward bestsellers with big plots. Unlike traditional bookstores, where a browsing customer might discover an unknown book set out on a table, e-bookstores generally aren’t set up to allow readers to discover unknown authors, agents say. Brand-name authors with big marketing budgets behind them are having the greatest success thus far in the digital marketplace.
In other words, e-books encourage readers to seek out familiar names and traditional approaches, and discourage exploration and experimentation. They are another step along the pernicious road to the kind of blockbuster mentality that has infected Hollywood for years. Which is undoubtedly good for Jonathan Franzen. It’s not so good for literature in general.
Yesterday, yr. humble correspondent moderated a joint Book and Periodical Council/Book Publishers Professionals Association Ideas Exchange panel on the future of the bookstore (one reason among many for the lack of a short story post yesterday; there’s one coming later today, I promise). The panel discussion touched on the bookstore as communal space; the need for booksellers to pick up the slack from publishers in promoting books and authors; the way e-books and print-on-demand technology will change the appearance and nature of a physical bookstore; and issues surrounding parallel importation laws. Although the subject came up very briefly, no one said anything particularly substantive about Indigo Books & Music’s recent breach of protocol in deciding to release the highly anticipated final book in Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, a full 11 days prior to the publisher’s specified release date.
On Monday, Bookninja posted a piece asking readers to confirm e-mails that had started rolling in over the weekend stating that Larsson’s book was on sale in Chapters and Indigo locations, despite the fact that the book’s publisher, Penguin Canada, indicated that the book’s on-sale date was May 25. Readers quickly chimed in with additional information: apparently, there was no signed embargo on the book, but there was an understanding that Penguin’s on-sale date was May 25, and a general expectation (vain hope?) that booksellers would abide by this. In any event, Penguin’s director of publicity and marketing told The Afterword, “The book was not a strict on-sale,” meaning that there was no signed contract stipulating a one-day laydown. Regardless, if a publisher sets a specific on-sale date and a bookseller ignores that, there may be repercussions, such as restricted access to a publisher’s titles in the future.
The problem in this case is that many independents didn’t even have the book in their stores when Indigo jumped the gun, which means they lost out on the crucial first few selling days of the title. A Bookninja commenter from the Guelph indie The Book Shelf says that books were shipped to Chapters/Indigo warehouses a week prior to the specified release date, as per usual, but Chapters then couriered the stock to individual store locations, much to Penguin’s chagrin.
Even if there was not a signed embargo agreement, it was dirty pool for Indigo to release its stock more than a week before the publisher’s stated release date. As publishing moves further and further toward Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, the first few selling days of a major release become more and more important, and independents that didn’t even have the title in their stores when Indigo put the book on sale lose out. One indie bookseller commenting on the Bookninja thread acknowledges that customers who had placed advance orders for the book called to cancel, saying that they had already picked up the title from Indigo over the weekend. Clearly, every lost sale hurts independent bookstores, which are already struggling in a highly inimical environment.
Penguin would be entirely within its rights to exact punitive measures against the big blue monster, such as restricting when (or even if) the chain receives stock of future titles. Naturally, Penguin will not do this. How can it? Indigo accounts for too large a slice of the bookselling pie in Canada. Penguin would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. It would be much easier to exact punitive measures against smaller independents, which may be ordering only 20 or 50 copies of a given title.
Interestingly, another independent bookseller on the Bookninja thread posted a screenshot of a letter from Random House Canada that reads, in part, “During 2009 we have witnessed a noticeable lack of respect from some of our customers in honouring the on sale dates assigned to our new title publications. For this reason we are implementing strict policies that will allow us to restrict shipments to those customers that choose to violate our on-sale dates.” The letter, which is signed by Duncan Shields, vice-president of sales, goes on to say, “We have been very lenient in the past but feel it is time to take such measures to ensure all of our customers have the same advantage when it comes to selling our books” (my emphasis). The letter was apparently sent in an e-mail with the subject line, “Fwd: Sensitive On Sale Dates letter for Independents” (my emphasis).
What is clear is that there is one set of rules for indies, and another for Indigo. Independent booksellers are being punished as a result of their relatively small market share. This highlights one of the dangers of a virtual monopoly in any industry, and should be a cause for concern among everyone who loves books in this country. As Lori Cheverie, a buyer at the Bookmark bookstore in Charlottetown, PEI, told Quill & Quire, “It’s such an unfair practice that the big guys are able to dictate when they sell a book and there’s never any repercussions about it, whereas if it were us, we wouldn’t get our next shipment [from the publisher].” It’s well past time that such unfair practices came to an end.
Seems Mount Allison University has decided to bestow an honourary degree on Heather Reisman, president and CEO of Indigo Books & Music. This has prompted a bit of a backlash. One of the most vocal critics of the university’s move is Amanda Jernigan, editor of The New Quarterly and a Mount Allison alumna. Jernigan feels so strongly that she sent an open letter to the university administration. The letter reads in part:
I studied English literature at Mount Allison University from 1997–2001, and have since returned (in 2009) to teach in the English department here. In the intervening years, I worked in the world of Canadian small-press publishing, and so had a front-row seat on the depredations of Chapters/Indigo in the Canadian book trade. A recent article in THIS Magazine paints the picture: “Some 350 indie bookstores closed across Canada in the past decade, and, according to Susan Dayus, executive director of the Canadian Booksellers Association, much of that had to do with the arrival of the Chapters chain. ‘Those closures happened very quickly when Chapters opened,’ Dayus says. ‘The leadership of Chapters was very predatory – they opened across the street or kitty-corner to successful bookstores. And those who didn’t have strong financial backing went under.’”
It wasn’t just the independent bookstores that Chapters threatened; small publishers felt the squeeze as well. It wasn’t that Chapters didn’t buy our books (I say “our” because I was working for Porcupine’s Quill, Printers & Publishers, in Ontario at this time): they did buy our books — and then returned them, in ruinous numbers.
The full text of Jernigan’s letter is online at Bookninja.
In what is becoming a depressingly familiar cycle, the iconic Vancouver indie Duthie Books has announced that it will close its last remaining location on 4th Ave. in Kitsilano, citing untenable competition from a combination of big box stores, Amazon, and e-readers.
Facing pressure from online bookseller Amazon and multi-national chains such as Chapters, owner Cathy Duthie Legate has decided to pack it in and close the last of eight locations on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano.
The family-owned chain was founded in 1957 by Bill Duthie.
“I’m just not making it, so I’m going to close it down,” said Duthie Legate. “We are going to start our regular sale January 28, but it will be better, of course, with discounts of 40, 60 then 80 percent and I hope to have all the books out of here by the end of February.”
“Then I will tear down the store,” she said.
So, yet another independent falls victim to the price gouging online sellers, the tech evangelists, and the blockbuster mentality of the big box stores. And what really annoys me is that one day in the not-too-distant future, when the indies have vanished entirely, taking with them the most conscientious, knowledgeable, and dedicated booksellers in the business, all the people currently singing the praises of new technology and easier access to information will have no fucking idea what it is we’ve lost.
They say bad news comes in threes. On August 31 of this year, one of Toronto’s beloved independent booksellers, Pages Books and Magazines, shut its doors after 30 years in business. The very next day, TYPE books closed its Danforth Street location. And today, the Toronto Star is reporting that McNally Robinson has closed its Don Mills location as part of a larger restructuring. This is, to say the least, dispiriting news capping a year in which books and booksellers seemed to have been under a sustained assault.
A note on McNally Robinson’s website attempts to put a positive spin on things:
By now you may have heard that McNally Robinson has had to close two stores, one in Toronto and the other at Polo Park. Many jobs are lost and many customers will be disappointed. This has been a heart-rending process. However, Grant Park, our flagship store, has survived, as has our Saskatoon store. In addition we continue our wholesale division, Skylight books, and our website, www.mcnallyrobinson.com. These continue to reflect the quality of bookselling that has led to 7 citations as Canadian independent Bookseller of the Year since 1996. So while the potion is bittersweet, the glass is more than half full.
While it’s clearly important for McNally Robinson to keep its corporate chin up, it’s hard not to feel depressed about the Toronto store’s demise, a scant nine months after it opened. The news comes hot on the heels of a plea for financial assistance from yet another Toronto indie, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, which needs to raise $40,000 in order to avoid closing.
For all the optimism about digital books heading into 2010, those of us who are devoted to actual, physical books need to make a concerted effort to ensure that the trend of bookstore closings doesn’t continue apace. Support your local independent bookstores, people. Let’s try to ensure a happy new year, wot?