What the Amazon/Hachette dispute is really about

It wasn't long ago that readers could walk into any bookstore anywhere in the country and have a reasonable expectation that they could get any book they wanted. The book might not be sitting on the shelves, but any bookseller -- chain or independent -- would without question take and fill a special order for anything published in the US. We booksellers could rely on wholesalers like Ingram and Baker & Taylor to help us fill those orders because they stocked books from wide range of companies. If a reader was looking for something that Ingram and B&T didn't happen to have, we could go directly to publishers and be assured that they'd fill our order on equitable terms. Publishers even developed an easy, standard system -- the Single Title Order Plan -- to facilitate orders from stores with whom they may not have a regular relationship. STOP contacts and terms for all houses were a part of every company's listing in the American Booksellers Association's Book Buyer's Handbook, so it was easy for booksellers to know how to get any book from any publisher. Publishers and booksellers worked together because we all had the same expectation that readers did, that they would be able to get any book from any bookstore anywhere. We worked together this way not just because we had a common interest in serving the readers who are our mutual customers, but also because we understood that booksellers and publishers were fostering the free marketplace of ideas. We are among the vital institutions that make real the promise of the first amendment, a place where readers could access the free press that the framers held so dear. Selling books and, in particular, the filling of special orders -- whether through wholesalers or STOP orders -- has never been just about money. No one -- not the publishers, not the booksellers -- ever made real money from special orders, given the time and the shipping costs that go into them. But all publishers and all booksellers participated in this system.

That sense of common mission has frayed, and the policies and processes that enabled readers to obtain any book from any bookstore are in tatters. The reason is Amazon.

Amazon is engaged in negotiations with Hachette, one of the few remaining large publishers in the US, over terms of sale. While the details of the talks are not public (at least they're not anywhere I've seen), we can surmise that Amazon is asking for terms that Hachette does not offer to other retailers and that Hachette has not agreed to Amazon's request. We know that they haven't because Amazon has made it more difficult for readers to obtain Hachette titles -- removing pre-order buttons, delaying shipments, reducing or eliminating discounts.

It's easy to see the Amazon/Hachette dispute as a petty business disagreement, and Amazon partisans have likened it to situations where Barnes & Noble or independent bookstores have not stocked particular books. A member of the DorothyL mystery genre discussion list writes: "Barnes & Noble can and does refuse to carry books because it doesn't like the cover. Most independent bookstores refuse to carry books by Amazon Publishing, because they don't want to support their competitor."

Of course any business is entitled to make decisions based on what it thinks is best for that business. For bookstores there is no more crucial calculation than weighing whether to commit inventory dollars, shelf space and other limited resources to a particular book. Retailers rise and fall based on these decisions. If Barnes & Noble thinks that a cover for a book isn't going to work, then they're right to pass on it, and use their resources to stock an alternative that their experience tells them is more likely to lead to a sale -- a better return on their dollar.

But here's the difference. Barnes & Noble might decide not to stock copies of a title on the shelves of its stores based on its cover. Some independent stores might decide not to stock books from Amazon Publishing because Amazon won't make its titles available to independents on the same terms that Amazon expects others to sell to it. However, in either case, if a customer walks up to the store's special order counter, the booksellers will take the time to locate and order in a copy of that book with the hideous cover or that book published by the company that is the store's fiercest competitor. Booksellers will take the time, every time, and they'll do it happily. No "real" bookseller -- chain store or independent -- would let a business disagreement stand in the way of a reader who's looking for a book. That's just not in a bookseller's DNA. The fact that Amazon is doing otherwise tells you that they're made of different stuff, that they're willing to impede readers trying to buy the books they want instead of just making books freely available to the best of their abilities.

I realize that sounds like an odd thing to say about a company that has genuinely done an enormous amount of good in enabling folks in remote and rural and isolated places to have access to a wider selection of books than they've ever had in the past. Through its CreateSpace and Kindle platforms, Amazon also offers countless authors and independent publishers (my own small publishing program included) access to readers that they would not otherwise reach so easily. There's no question that Amazon has triggered revolutions in bookselling and in publishing that have lead to many positive outcomes for readers, writers and publishers -- and even for other booksellers who have had to become more efficient and effective as a result of the changed landscape.

But even as we recognize the good that Amazon does, it's important to recognize that what they're doing is contrary to the bookselling ethos that grew up with and supports our democracy. In seeking preferential terms from publishers like Hachette, Amazon is seeking to bolster a monopoly position that threatens every other bookseller, a threat that puts Amazon closer to the position of being the only bookseller. Democracy is not well served by a marketplace of ideas that consists of only a few retailers; democracy is stronger when a level playing field supports a diverse marketplace made up of many retailers.

Even on its Kindle platform -- a system that allows many voices access to readers -- Amazon is making an effort to restrict the market. Through its KDP Select program, Amazon offers significant incentives to encourage authors/publishers to sell exclusively on Amazon, not allowing any other retail sale of a digital text -- not even on the author/publisher's own website. I can't think of any other example in the recent history of publishing where any one bookseller has ever tried to prevent publishers from offering books to other retailers. CreateSpace is no better. Much of what is produced on this platform is unavailable to the trade through Ingram or Baker & Taylor. There's no listing for CreateSpace in the Book Buyers' Handbook. CreateSpace titles might be offered direct to other stores on terms that Amazon itself would find laughable, an effort to achieve de facto exclusivity on these books.

These kinds of exclusive arrangements are prevalent in other categories of retail. It's not unusual for large stores to have their own "house" brands that are not offered to competitors. But that can't happen in the book business because books are different. Booksellers and publishers have always worked together so that readers could walk into any bookstore and have a reasonable expectation that they could get any book they wanted. Bookselling has never been about exclusivity. If a particular brand of toilet paper is sold only in one store, that's ok because toilet paper -- as necessary as it is -- is just toilet paper. Books are different because they embody ideas. If ideas are available from only one store, then the free marketplace of ideas isn't so free any more.