By Jennie Coughlin
Just last week Penny Marshall (or her book, anyway), was unceremoniously yanked from the shelves of Barnes & Noble, where they had surreptitiously shown up despite the retailer’s promise to ban them (we can almost hear the cry from corporate: “No shelves of ours will be dirtied by those Amazon-pubbed titles!”). It wasn’t really a surprise. After all, those Amazon-pubbed titles were plenty warned.
But the latest act of book discrimination isn’t quite as clear cut, and until recently, Amazon’s print-on-demand service (POD)—CreateSpace, tended to stay on bookseller’s shelves and somewhat above the fray.
First a bit of background for the uninitiated.
POD services allow authors to print a paperback edition of their book with minimal upfront cost and to keep it in print indefinitely. With POD, each time a reader orders a book, the POD service prints it. Compare that to traditional printing, where authors or publishers must decide how many books to print and pay for all those books up front, then wait until they sell before printing the next run of books. That makes for a large upfront investment, and can put a print edition of a book out of reach for many indie authors. POD services put paperbacks back in play, and CreateSpace is one of the most commonly used, in part because Amazon shows CreateSpace books on its website as available for immediate shipping. And while authors can choose distribution channel options through CreateSpace to allow any bookstore to order the book, indie booksellers are quick to point out that they don’t get the traditional 40 percent discount off list price as they do from Ingram, the most common book distributor.
Sounds good so far.
Vivien Jennings, who co-owns Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kansas might the distinction of being the first indie bookseller to turn away local authors who use CreateSpace. Back in July she told Publishers Weekly that even if she’s busy, she takes a few minutes to explain to authors why. Jennings cited the Department of Justice suit against Apple and five publishers over ebook pricing, as some in the publishing industry blame Amazon for the suit. She also cited sales tax, since Amazon only charges sales tax in states where it has a physical presence. Beginning this month, that’s just eight of the 50 states. Six more are scheduled to start charging sales tax between now and 2016 as Amazon opens more physical locations in the U.S.
Jennings seems to be in the minority for now, but that could change. Cindy Dach, general manager and co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., has a clear consignment policy for local books, and it doesn’t mention CreateSpace. Like many indie booksellers, Dach has seen an impact on business from the deep discounts and ample ebook selection Amazon offers. Since Amazon’s Kindle ereader can only use Kindle files, that locks a chunk of the ebook market into buying from Amazon.
In late August, Kobo and the American Booksellers Association (ABA) announced a deal that will allow indie bookstores to sell Kobo-formatted ebooks—through the stores’ websites. While that will hopefully bring in more ebook reading customers, it won’t bring in those without an app to covert Kindle-formatted books, another reason that booksellers are inclined to not like Amazon.
“When an author brings in their CreateSpace book, we let them know about the Amazon relationship with CreateSpace and we let them know the facts about Amazon’s impact on our business,” says Dach. “We ask them to consider choosing an alternative printer for their next book. And then we hand them a list.”
The education piece—suggesting alternatives to CreateSpace—is similar to Jennings’ approach, but Dach said they don’t turn away CreateSpace titles — though that option was on the table at one point. “We considered not carrying any CreateSpace books, nor hosting events for the authors of those books, but we realized very quickly that many of the authors of these books are our customers who have supported our store for many years”.
The fine line that Changing Hands has to walk — not offending authors who also can be good customers — is one reason Diana Portwood, owner of Bob’s Beach Books in Lincoln City, Ore., is willing to stock at least one copy of every local author’s book, no matter how it was published.
“I’m not in the business of choosing what people read. This is a business, so I have to do business. I want our customers to know we’re here for them, I don’t want them to think we’re judging them so they run off to buy ’em all from Amazon.”
Portwood said she considers stocking the books both a community service and an investment in the future. In her view, the worst-case scenario is that a few years down the road, the book that didn’t sell by a local author ends up being donated to a charity raffle.
“Ok, we’re out $9, but we’re up again on community support. And the local author still felt great about seeing their book in a real bookstore,” Portwood said. “Go the other way and let’s say the author becomes a bestseller! Well, we’ve established good relations with them. We were there at the beginning.”
Portwood is also unusual in that she buys the books outright, rather than stocking them on a consignment basis. Most indie booksellers, like Dach, have a consignment policy and prefer to handle self-published books on that basis. Changing Hands’ policy, in fact, was passed around in an online discussion among members of the New England Independent Booksellers Association and held up as the “gold standard” for indie booksellers by Steve Fischer of NEIBA.
A common thread in that discussion was balancing requests from good customers to stock their books—ones the booksellers might not find up to their standards—with not irritating those authors who often are among an indie bookstore’s most faithful customers.
Good relations with local authors aren’t the only reason Sacred Circle owner Carey McCallum doesn’t mind CreateSpace-published books. The Staunton, Va., bookstore stocks both new and used books, and with McCallum’s specialty—religion, spirituality and global issues—he often gets used books that might sell faster or more quickly online to people outside the area. His choice for an online retailer? Amazon.
“My basic feeling is that, like it or not, Amazon (and other online booksellers) are not going away and I might as well use them in ways that help my business and increase my reach,” McCallum said. “Through a site like Amazon, I’m able to sell books to customers living across the country or even in other countries—which is a positive for me. On the other hand, I’m sure I lose some customers who would otherwise buy a book from a local shop like mine.”
McCallum also notes, however, that books have become a smaller part of his business since he opened five years ago. Fair Trade gifts and work by local artisans and crafters is a growing share, so his perspective on the issues surrounding Amazon and indie booksellers might not be the same as booksellers who sell mainly books, he explained.
That’s one reason there is no standard among indie booksellers. Unlike chains, where the policy comes down from corporate, each indie bookstore has its own approach. The American Booksellers Association (ABA), the main trade association for indie booksellers, doesn’t even track information from members on who accepts self-published books and on what terms, said Meg Z. Smith, the ABA’s membership and marketing officer.
Some large indie bookstores have even decided to offer an alternative to Amazon. Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver launched its own self-publishing operation — Tattered Cover Press—using its Espresso Book Machine to provide Denver-area authors with a different option. The machine is expensive, so smaller stores aren’t likely to go that route. But for indie authors who expect most paperback sales to be local—to people who know them — it could be an option.
The variation among local booksellers adds another wrinkle to the process of choosing a POD publisher. If your local bookstore is one that only reluctantly takes CreateSpace books, does it make more sense to choose a different POD provider, even if the terms aren’t as good for the author? Or, as an author, do you pick the service that works best for you and not worry about whether it will hurt your reception at an outlet that could be one of your best options for discovery of your book? If you live in an area that has large indie bookstores, is it worth researching to see if they have self-publishing programs like Tattered Cover Press?
Indie authors and booksellers alike have a lot to consider when making decisions about POD paperbacks. For authors, a little research at your local indie bookstores could save you some frustration down the road.
Jennie Coughlin is a newspaper editor and the author of a short-story collection, Thrown Out: Stories from Exeter. Her first novel, All That Is Necessary, will be out in January. Contact her at email@example.com.