I returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair to land in the midst of the news of Elliott Bay (likely to move) and BaileyCoy (closing) bookshops. More about them below, but first some context about my line of work, the book business, and how Amazon has changing it drastically.
Frankfurt was its oddest yet. The European economies are in many countries as tight and uncertain as in the U.S. Gustavo Gili has been an art and architecture publisher for 100 years in Barcelona, but this year no one is buying books in Spain. Hatje Cantz, the elegant German art book publisher, invited 250 people to a cocktail party at the Stadel museum to talk about the future, to recollect and reconnoiter. For almost the first time in 30 years, publishers came to talk to a bookseller — not simply to say hello or sell books; they have always done that. This time it was to talk. I went and said to one publisher, "Do you finally realize you might need fruit stands like mine?"
The publishers have the online business pretty well hammered out. Amazon signs them all to contracts, incentives, upfronts, delays, debuts, deliveries and such — for which each publisher gets squeezed to a margin they would never have imagined before. Their authors demand it. Publishers have no bookshops left anyway. And for an extra 5 percent discount, Amazon will send a check the next day, month after month.
Publishers are left with thousands of options: Position a book here or there, or how many copies. Now, their tasks are more about outflanking the other publishers for space and glitter and looks rather than worrying any longer about bookshops.
Online sales were once 20 percent of their sales; now it's 60 percent and growing, even as total sales are down 35 percent. If a book is to be an Oprah, or an NPR, or such, then the only issue is how much of the print run publishers should they send to Ingram, the Amazon distributor, or directly to Amazon. In truth, why not send most of them? Without paying a dime, Amazon then has all of the new bestsellers in their kitty. That was a bit too obvious, so now Costco, Walmart, Barnes and Noble, all want a piece of the stashing and selling new books. It is a slanted ramp, this discounting, and they deserve each other.
Under these conditions, why a book shop of any dignity would carry a book so discounted is not clear to me. Independent bookstores made Harry Potter. Then the author clearly, and to her roots, betrayed those very same shops and they should leave her as if she never existed.
But the publishers, each one of them it seems, have realized something. I once watched a snake catch a frog on the Hoh River. First it caught the frog by the toe. The frog thrashed and dashed and dragged the snake all over the water's edge trying to get away. Finally, exhausted, it paused. The snake moved up its leg for a better hold. Eventually, there was no more frog. This is the perfect economy for the snake.
That is what the publishers realized: Slowly and inexorably, they would be absorbed. Told what cover, told what author, told what time, told and paid and squeezed by more accountants and schemers than they could ever imagine or repel. But they also saw at least some light. They are tight in their seat and tight with their hopes, but there is this weird detail about online bookselling and discounting — not every book fits the sentence, not every book likes it. Amazon is a nasty one, with a scorched earth policy that will soon make Walmart look like a Shirley Temple. If a publisher tells them to not discount a book, Amazon will simply declare the title unavailable, or uncertain, even when it is available and certain. It holds the power and, as they say, does not share well.
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