Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Amazon Buys Marshall Cavendish: I'm just the writer here

On the surface, a union between book publishing and bookselling is unholy marriage. Everyone understands this, don't they? I’m a writer and we writers have been singing this chorus since time immemorial. Writers tend to champion free-standing publishers and independent booksellers. We all have indie buttons on our blogs or websites. We know there is nothing in the literary universe that beats the power of passionate human beings promoting the books they love. The power of the indie is that they have the freedom to carry a book for no reason other than somebody at the store loves it. Some editors—a diminishing number—have the same freedom. Fortunately, I found one of them. She edits books for Marshall Cavendish.

So here's my slightly different take on the Amazon buyout of Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books--a few points that none of the morally indignant people, who are talking the way I normally talk, are managing to mention. Please note, if you haven’t already read the press release of this buyout that was picked up everywhere, my young adult book, National Book Award Finalist  My Name is Not Easy, was one of the 450 titles acquired by Amazon. And please know, right up front, that I heard of this transaction only moments before you did. I was sent the press release at the same time it went out to the world, which was right before it was published in the source where you first read about it. Did I have any say over this business deal that affects me on a very fundamental level? No, of course I didn't. That's how the writing business works. I sell rights to a publisher. What the publisher does with the rights I sell is its business, not mine.

We all understand—and many of us have experienced first hand—the unhealthy influence that the big chains have had on the industry and on the cause of diversity in literature. Word has it that if Barnes and Noble says they won’t sell a certain kind of book, some publishers won’t buy it. Is this true? I don’t know. I do know that you can go into pretty much any Barnes an Noble in the country (except for the one in Anchorage, Alaska, bless their hearts—specifically the heart of book lover and book seller Renee Sands) and my books won’t be there, not even the book that was just acquired by Amazon, the one named a National Book Award finalist. Ditto, it appears, in the bulk of the independents across the country. But my books have always been available on Amazon because Amazon operates on a different model. They don't let selected buyers pick and choose. If it's in print--or even if it's out of print--they have it or they can link you to someone who does. 

Now, here’s my personal experience. I spend ten years writing a book, a book of my soul, one I was driven to write. Some people tell me it’s a good book, maybe even an important book, but I don’t really care for any of that. I'm writing it because I have to, because I'm a writer and that’s what writers do—we write the stories that speak to our souls, looking only at where we have succeeded and where we have failed, determined to do better this time and even better next time. Happily, in my case, my book is published and a small group of other writers sees fit to name it a finalist for one of the top awards in the industry. Suddenly lots of people want my book. My small publisher, who has never had a National Book Award finalist, goes into a frenzy trying to get the book reprinted and into bookstores. I’m patient with them. They get a reprint done fast and the book is out there. Or so I think.  Then I start getting reports from friends all over the country: no one can find my book. In NYC, not one Barnes and Noble carries it. Ditto in LA and Boston. Two weeks ago, my husband, who is president of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, had ten minutes with President Obama. I didn't have a copy of the book to send with him so he decided to pick one up in DC. The book, after all, is his story. He went to five bookstores there and nobody had it. He finally found a copy at a used bookstore. Yes, President Obama got a used copy of my book.

This was all very frustrating. Why wasn't Marshall Cavendish getting my book out there? To everyone who told me they couldn't find my book anywhere, I had only one response: it's available on Amazon. Then I learned: Barnes and Noble stores in the major markets aren't buying it. Does it matter that My Name is Not Easy was a National Book Award finalist? Apparently not. Why is this? I don't know. Is it too regional? Too culturally specific? As one Good Reads reviewer said of my first book, Blessing's Bead, is it a case of, "I'm sure if you're into inuits and whatnot you might dig it. Just not my schtick."

So here’s my confession. I shop Amazon. I live in the northernmost community in the country. It's not on any road system. It's a $500 dollar plane ride to the nearest bookstore. I supported one of Alaska's largest independents before they went under. I got schools to do book fairs through them. I did events with them. I shopped with them. But here's the truth: half the time they didn't have the book I wanted and told me it would take two weeks to get it and the other half of the time their shipping was about a week slower than Amazon's, despite the fact that they were closer to me geographically. Just how far does one go in the name of loyalty?

And now, people are threatening to boycott Marshall Cavendish because of the Amazon buyout. To all those independents who say they're going to happily return all of their Marshall Cavendish stock I say this: Hey, I’m the victim here! I had no say over any of this. I just wrote the best book I could and followed my editor to a small publisher who treated me well. Like every other book ever written it probably isn’t everyone’s schtick. Written from within a little known cultural context, it had an uphill battle from the start. Then it got a lucky break. Okay—no. I don't think it was entirely lucky: I worked for it. I worked all my life for it. These independent booksellers who are returning their stock may think they're punishing Amazon, but in fact, it's me and the writers behind those other 449 titles who being punished. And what about readers, readers like me, who love shopping at small independent bookstores? Is it fair that we’re being denied access to books, not on the merit of the book itself, but only because of industry politics?

So now the rank and file is calling Amazon evil. Yes, the price-checking AP was a bit unsettling, but don't shoppers have the right to price check? Don't venders have the right to meet or beat anyone's price? Does it make me happy as a writer that people want to buy my books cheap? Not particularly, but I'd rather see my books in the hands of 5000 readers, at a reduced price than 500 at full price. Does it suit me as a buyer? Actually I am not sure why anyone would want to go into a bookstore to find a book and then go through the hassle and delay involved in ordering it online. If one is inclined to order online in the first place, why go into a bookstore to check out the books? First chapters and previews are available on Amazon. Is it unethical to read a book in a bookstore and buy it online? Somebody referred to this as intellectual shoplifting. Shoplifting, intellectually, from whom? The bookstore? Does the bookstore own the intellectual property rights to my work? Is it unethical stand in a bookstore, read an entire book, and then walk out and not buy it anywhere? It’s not a happy thought but, in the final analysis, the book has to sell itself. The book has to grab the reader and say: take me home. All we writers are asking is that booksellers give our books a chance, a fighting chance, to do so.

People can go ahead and say what they please about Amazon but at least they’re not killing our books by not selling them. Amazon is very democratic this way: they sell everything. Yes, the move into publishing is a game changer. But then again, maybe the game needed changing.

I made an interesting phone call the other day. I dialed in to Book Talk Nation to listen to a conversation between Judy Blume and Rachel Vail sponsored by Bank Street Books through a program administered by the Author’s Guild. I hadn’t intended to buy a book, but by the end of the program I just knew I had to get another copy of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing—an autographed copy for my granddaughter.  As I went through the checkout process—online—I mused, again, about how vital it is to have passionate people, talking about books in an open forum. Here was a wonderful example of an indie doing what indies do best and doing it in such a way that even I, in a breathtakingly remote corner of the world, could participate. Now, here was a model worth emulating.

My plea, as a writer who wants to see more rather than fewer book people, is this: come on indies, make a new game for the new millennium. Independent doesn't have to mean insular. Work together to build something core to the cause of literature, something that supports our books--all of them. Something only real people, real book people, can do.


  1. Very interesting and thought-provoking post, Debby.

  2. Have posted the link on Twitter...

  3. Thanks! I am still mulling this and will likely post more. There are many different angles to consider here.

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