Who Will Save Publishing?
Utah towns designate June 30-July 4 Independents Week. A Grand Junction public radio station cancels its Am*zonSmile donation campaign after an independent bookseller suggested the station would get more donations from local businesses than through the Am*zonSmile program if it didn’t promote its relationship with their biggest competitor. A survey sponsored by UPS finds that the number of consumers who are willing to go out of their way to shop at small, local businesses, even if it costs more, has increased in the last year. Sherman Alexie appears on the Colbert Report to tout an upcoming Hachette title–not one of his–that Am*zon has made unavailable for presale, and Stephen Colbert puts a link on his website to Powell’s Books so folks can order any Hachette title without delay and offers this sticker you can slap on your book (or anything else). The Buy Local First movement that was initiated by independent booksellers and the Indies First campaign–where authors volunteer their bookselling services at independent bookstores–started by Alexie have grown beyond grassroots campaigns. But the fight for survival goes beyond independent booksellers and local businesses. Publishing itself is in peril.
Am*zon has long been a threat to independent booksellers and local merchants of all kinds, but their concerns are getting unprecedented coverage as Am*zon and Hachette continue their negotiations while Am*zon makes Hachette titles less and less available. Nonetheless, the Goliath of merchandising still commands over 40 percent of all new books sold, and an astonishing 65 percent of all books sold online, including print and ebooks. As it works over Hachette, Am*aon is using its giant market share to force publishers to bear some of the brunt of its unprecedented discounting. Am*zon apparently doesn’t want to be the only one taking a loss as it sells books below cost. Now, Hachette is one of the biggest companies in publishing–it’s a huge, international conglomerate with dozens of imprints. With bated breath, publishers big and small are waiting to see if CEO Michael Pietsch can hold the line and insist that Hachette be compensated for the curating, editing, and marketing that it invests in every title it takes on. Am*zon contends that gatekeepers like publishers are an unnecessary nuisance, an expensive impediment blocking a fluid stream flowing from content producers to customers in brown boxes with smiles. But publishers and published authors argue that pages with text between two covers do not a book make, that publishers add important value that makes the product what it is by the time a happy reader takes in a first line. Blockbuster YA author John Green–who is NOT published by Hachette–puts it bluntly: “What’s ultimately at stake is whether Amazon is going to be able to freely and permanently bully publishers into eventual nonexistence,” adding that ”the breadth of American literature and the quality of American literature is in no small part due to the work that publishers do, and it’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, to see Amazon refuse to acknowledge the importance of that partnership.”
Ultimately, the future of books comes down to the delicate dance between culture and economics. Literature–like strong investigative journalism–by and large has never paid for itself. Big publishing houses depend on income from blockbuster celebrity books and the occasional literary hit to finance the risks they take on lesser known or unknown authors of literary fiction and creative nonfiction. At Torrey House Press, we’re still taking the financial risks out of pocket. And like everybody else in publishing, we make less per book on every copy Am*zon sells compared to sales to libraries and independent booksellers because Am*zon squeezes Consortium, our distributor, who depends on Am*zon for upwards of 30 percent of its total sales. While Am*zon represents a much smaller percentage of our sales thanks in large part to indie booksellers, what happens between Am*zon and Hachette could hold the line at the uncomfortable but probably bearable status quo or erode publishing with potentially devastating and lasting consequences, even for little us. If Hachette gets its legs cut off, I don’t know if even the indies can save publishing.
Am*zon: The Smooth Brome Grass of Your Local Economy
Have you seen your favorite nonprofits urging you to join Am*zon Smiles: You Shop Am*zon Gives program? Sign up, and your favorite public radio station, environmental organization, homeless shelter, you-name-it will receive a percentage of every purchase you make at Am*zon, at no additional cost to you. Seems pretty win-win. And so feel-good. But don’t let the smile fool you: here be dragons.
First of all, the contribution the selected nonprofits get is small. Tiny, really. It sounds great to have a portion of your next order of printer paper going to your favorite children’s hospital, but only 0.5 percent of each purchase goes to the designated nonprofit. That means if you wanted to give $50, you’d have to spend $10,000 through Am*zonSmile. Which means $10,000 to Am*zon, $50 to your charity. Who’s the winner here?
Second, the donations are made by the Am*zonSmile Foundation, not you, so one of the biggest companies on earth gets a tax deduction rather than you. Now, that may not be the worst thing in the world. Tax deductions aren’t the most important reason people give, and big isn’t by definition always bad. I certainly don’t begrudge Bill and Melinda Gates their tax benefits that result from their education and public health efforts around the globe. But Am*zon’s market share is so big in some sectors that it is changing local and industry landscapes, which comes with its own consequences.
Third, while signing up for the program can give would-be givers a charitable, warm fuzzy feeling, doing so may actually reduce overall giving. Researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business found that “if people are able to declare support for a charity publicly in social media it can actually make them less likely to donate to the cause later on.” While this study focused on social media, the similarity between a “like” and choosing a charity through Am*zonSmile is not insignificant. While the program may help people be more charitable in theory, it may make folks less charitable in reality.
Finally, nonprofits promoting Am*zonSmile can inadvertently end up hurting their own communities. For instance, this week, a public radio station in Grand Junction, Colorado, urged listeners to sign up for the program, thus giving free advertizing to its local businesses’ biggest–and most dangerous–competitor. Grand Junction is fortunate to have some terrific bookstores including Grand Valley Books and Out West Books, and independent stores like these are on the front lines of Am*zon’s march toward being, indeed, The Everything Store. By steering business away from these hometown businesses, the public radio station manages to both injure important friends in the community and deprive itself of donations from local business owners who depend on their local customer base. Seems much more effective to ask those stores for a $50 donation rather than wait for $10,000 in designated Am*zonSmile sales. That’s win-win.
Salt Lake City, Grand Junction, Durango, Reno, Prescott–like other cities Mark and I love, these all have thriving independent bookstores, which invigorate the cultures and economies of their lucky communities. Booksellers at Maria’s Bookshop, Sundance Music and Books, and Peregrine Book Company are terrific champions of Torrey House Press books, and we The Salt Lake City area boasts a half-dozen indie bookstores, each with a slightly different focus and often different customers. The stores employ well over a hundred employees between them, adding to local economic activity in numerous ways, and authors from near and far come to read, sharing ideas and stories that stimulate intellectual life. Without these bookstores, Salt Lake’s economy would be flatter, its cultural landscape less diverse. It would be a much less vibrant and attractive place to live.
There’s no question that Am*zon has mastered delivering just about anything faster and more cheaply than anyone. It has invested staggering amounts of money and astonishing engineering talent to do so. Fast and cheap is expensive, but it’s good customer service, and Am*zon is committed to that. So good that it can be hard to see the harm. But single-minded efficiency often comes at a cost we might not be willing to pay if we could see all its outcomes. For example, back in the 1880s, the West was introduced to one of its best growing, most productive grasses, one that state and federal land managers still plant in forests and deserts around the West to benefit public lands livestock growers. Much like the Kentucky bluegrass gracing front yards everywhere, smooth brome grass has a strong and elegant rhizomatous root system and a prolific seed cycle that easily take over plant communities that once boasted a variety of native bunch grasses and wildflowers, with pollinators buzzing about, stimulating the food chain. But smooth brome is a great forage producer, and a big meadow of it hardly looks like a smokey factory or dull, forgettable strip mall. Alas, in the arid and semi-arid West, what it really is, though, is a biodiversity destroyer, a horticultural monopolizer. Where you could have this: you eventually end up with what is essentially a single-species monopoly, like a Kentucky bluegrass lawn. I like lawn just fine, but I’d hate to have it everywhere, and I don’t want to be responsible for helping it take over the landscape.