How Writers Have To Choose

Reading & Writing

Yesterday, Amazon was accused by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee of bankrupting booksellers by using corporation tax avoidance schemes that made it impossible for them to compete. This is the latest skirmish in the war; Amazon’s publishing arm is also being challenged by established publishers. Last week the New York Times reported that major US bookstores are refusing to stock one of Amazon’s bestselling new authors as a pushback against the aggressive online seller. The argument runs that if Amazon is now cultivating its own market leaders it is directly taking on the chains and independents who nurture their authors.

When Amazon was just a distributor booksellers’ positions remained clear. But if Amazon builds its own in-house stars, it takes sales directly from the booksellers. So far, so obvious. But in fact, booksellers have always had their own stars, so why should Amazon be any different? Booksellers have differing brand images. WH Smith is relentless downmarket, as was Borders, and I have had books turned down over and again by their team because my books are not felt to be right for their shops. Waterstones is harder to read and seems quite random – their website is hopeless, their shops can be chaotic but their shelves often throw up nice surprises. Foyles has a more controlled edge, and I’ve noticed that while I’m stocked in just about all Foyles stores, I’m harder to find in Waterstones.

Outside of the chains, the independents can be terrific or awful for genre writing. I never seem to be stocked in Daunt, a good bookstore chain I use a lot, but if an indie bookshop owner is predisposed to less cookie-cutter writing they’ll often stock more unusual selections. Daunt is clever and successful, and aims squarely at the hardback-buying middle classes, which is the key to their success, but I need what used to be called ‘Head Shops’ as well, which is where Forbidden Planet comes in.

My history with Forbidden Planet goes back through every incarnation of their stores, all the way to their first-ever venture, a market stall in Berwick Street, where I used to play pool with the sellers after work. I never consciously worked the room when it came to bookshops – it seems some naturally found me, but you’ll always go the extra mile for old friends, and Forbidden Planet has formed part of the background soundtrack of my life.

Now, it appears that writers may have to make a distinct choice between chains – I know a couple of writers who shamelessly court bookstores with lunches, old-school bribery if you will, but they’re people who need to because they’re better networkers than writers. The (so far low-key) war between Amazon and booksellers may make us all have to choose our loyalties.

11 comments on “How Writers Have To Choose”

  1. Alison says:

    Ah, I used to haunt Forbidden Planet when I lived in London. Although it will always be the place where I overheard one boy say to the other that he never read a book because “they’re boring”. Which was sad.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    And it’s only going to get hotter in this tradition against Amazon.com war.
    Every few months for several year’s now, there’s a newspaper piece reporting on another campaign – usually over the “no local taxes paid issue” – against Amazon. Or it’s a strike at Amazon made by Barnes & Noble over what they’ll carry and what will be charged. Caught in the middle is the scribe trying to get wide distribution.
    Here’s the way it looks at the moment or as far as I know now.
    Amazon, except for a few early – and probably regretted exceptions, will not collect state taxes, unless Amazon actually builds a physical structure in that state – after being awarded state and local tax breaks. If this ground plan should be fully implemented, there will be in theory a minimum of 50 such warehouse structures, one for each U.S. state, plus Puerto Rico which has finally decided to go for statehood. (Hello other party: more Spanish-speaking voters are on the way!)
    But wait! Amazon already has many warehouses in some states. So up the number of Amazon sites, large cities will have more than one and books are now the smallest portion of the Amazon catalogue.
    Amazon appears to be planning to do this: Build a facility or two around a large city, but in locations that are rural (cheap farm land), and near to a large highway, build a good road for trucks to reach that highway, hire and train struggling people living in the surrounding area. Then also open a self-pick up wing on the warehouse, so city people can order out and pick up the same! And build an Amazon gasoline station, with chips and drinks, so the buyer of whatever book, DVD, powerboat, grill can tank-up going back into the city. And maybe open a few Amazon pop-up shops IN the city for the holidays (ala Apple). Not kidding here, folks.
    So much for retailers vs. Amazon.
    What about on-line booksellers and their ebooks, well…. Many say -Barnes & Nobel in particular – I won’t sell your newest book, if Amazon publishes that book (unless it becomes a monster success then let me have a couple thousand copies). Amazon says “let us have your new book author and we’ll give you great breaks and possibly some promotion and, oh, if it’s a winner we’ll option it for Amazon Prime movies! Or just send us a script for our consideration. Also, foreign author send us your published book, we’ll translate it, publish it in softcover and if it sells offer it to a traditional publisher for hardback release. (They are doing it now.)
    And then there’s Amazon’s rapidly expanding line of electronics which will possibly include a smart phone and already includes loads of support gizmos.(Amazon right now has a few major Amazon-branded appliances, like a Starbucks coffee maker, and more coming, you betcha.)
    Where is it all going to end? If Jeff B. can keep his big tent approach up, I have no idea, but buying has never been easier.
    “Hey dear – I’ve ordered us Amazon caskets at a huge savings and, get this they have Kindle capability, so we can still read.”

  3. Helen Martin says:

    This is the ballooning phase of the development cycle. They will all get bigger and bigger until it becomes unwieldy then they’ll divide the big retail building into smaller boutiques which will be contracted out to “smaller” firms which will get bigger until they move out to their own location and….
    Speaking of periods/stops in abbreviations I refer you to http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php where they are showing you how to understand e-mails from your prof using his/her usage of punctuation.

  4. J. Folgard says:

    When some new books come out I’m always behind: I have to wait 4-6 weeks because they’re ordered specially for me (many ‘mainstream’ patrons don’t care much for science-fiction, horror or fantasy, except big media sensations -even reading crime fiction makes them think they’re slumming it), at no special discount, and it’s perfectly fine. I get to speak with real booksellers with actual advice for further reading (not ‘others customers also bought’ scrolling lists), I can thumb through books by unknown authors and meet new favorites. I hope I get to do this for a long, long time.
    One thing amazon’s good for, though: providing those handy ISBN numbers that are sometimes tough to spot on publishers’ websites! But that’s the end of it.

  5. John Howard says:

    Yes, Waterstones can be random but I like them because, believe it or not, it was at one that I found your books. It was a Bryant & May, forget which one, but now I have so much more to read….. Gosh, what did I do before.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I frequent Amazon.UK for the sole purpose of ensuring I get the “correct” cover on my Bryant & May and that the text inside is the unaltered Deep English of the author. I went looking for Admin in Waterstones within walking distance of his home and the very helpful clerk – can’t complain about him – had to send out for any of the B&Ms. I was re-reading a Mary Stewart which I read first when it came out in the 1960’s and it was quite a different experience because I could actually see the street the character was walking down and I knew the Foyle’s store she walked past. (Did you know that the character Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War was named for the bookstore?)
    A bookstore that has existed since 1947, under two names and three different owners, as well as three different locations is finally closing chiefly because a bus route was changed and people no longer stand outside the shop. Someone commented about the current owner that if all you could remember about the book was that there was a woman in a red skirt being chased by a man he could tell you the title and author. I can give you one, too: Mary Stewart, Airs Above the Ground, paperback 1965. I’ve just finished it.

  7. agatha hamilton says:

    Airs Above the Ground! Lovely! Lippizaners, wasn’t it? The one that was disguised, but discovered dancing?
    John Sandoe iin Chelsea is excellent – Johnny ( not Sandoe) always ready with a good suggestion for something unexpected one might not have come across.
    In Bristol, the Borders was wonderful, huge,but not downmarket. Still much missed. Better history and classics departments than the University Waterstones., which has also now closed – rumoured to make room for a ‘Learning Centre’. As it was all University property, one isn’t quite sure what the Learning Centre was going to add, but I think they’ve changed their minds.

  8. Dan Terrell says:

    I worked in two bookstores as a young man and it was great fun. Met some authors there: a place called the Magic Circle and a Brentanos on Long Island, N.Y. Nothing like them any more and I’m lukewarm to Barnes & Nobel for some reason, probably too much pap to wade through.

  9. snowy says:

    English understatement at it’s best, the Amazon PR man got a fearful telling off, everything short of having his pants pulled down and being severely spanked.

    [It’s not as if Parliament is ever short of Old Etonians, keen to give out or receive such a punishment…. allegedly.]

  10. Alan Morgan says:

    You have to applaud Forbidden Planet foir getting back on its feet after it’s old Denmark Street store was trashed in the fight between Captain Britain and Slaymaster back in 80s.

  11. Reuben says:

    @Alan Morgan
    Ha!

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