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.