B&N copies Amazon. Authors take it in the teeth


No doubt many of you have heard that a dispute between Simon & Schuster and Barnes & Noble has led to an extraordinary curtailing of book orders from the vendor of S&S books. Orders of new books from big names are very light while orders for debut or midlist authors are at zero.

Stephanie Burgis is one of those midlist authors, and she has a new book coming out tomorrow. See here for her take on the fact that, as far as she can tell, no B&N in the U.S. will be carrying her book.

In a way, that’s nothing new. There have always been books that big chains passed on, books that had to sink or swim in the indie stores or online. Usually, that’s a sign that a series is doomed because sales are low.

That’s not the case here. As with Amazon removing the buy button for all Macmillan titles, this is a dispute involving contract terms: B&N wants things to be more favorable, S&S resists. The dispute will result in a short-term loss for both of them, but the long-term effects will be felt by authors with books coming out this month and next.

Remember back when Borders went bankrupt? They’d always ordered a fair number of my books, but when those orders disappeared, there was no new vendor to take up the slack. They shut down forever in July, CIRCLE OF ENEMIES came out in August. If you’re thinking that was a big hit to my sales, you’re right.

Maybe that seems unfair, but that’s the way it is. When an author’s sales figures come back, there’s no asterisk next to the number. There’s no footnote that reads: “Big chain collapsed”/”Contract dispute reduced orders”/”Global economic collapse” or whatever. There isn’t even allowance made for the errors the publisher makes itself, whether it’s a terrible cover or ebook price screwups or zero promotional work.

The one who takes it in the neck is the writer. No, self-publishing is not the answer, no matter how readily people jump in to suggest it. It’s not for everyone. (While I have issues with Charlie’s timeline there, his overall point still holds.)

We’re facing a great many challenges at the moment. Amazon, while offering a lot of selection and a (somewhat screwedup) distribution method for self-publishers, is still hurting the industry as a whole by operating at a loss. Barnes & Noble would be in a better position right now if they fixed some of their more egregious company practices (they ought to allow local branches to control their own orders, because duh. The local staff are the people interacting with their community), but at the same time the pressure from Amazon’s so-cheap-we’re-losing-money! discounts and the effects of the Great Recession are destroying the company, and who will be able to step in to take up the slack?

Not Amazon. Sure, their sales will certainly tick up, but like telecommuting, we’re learning that online book buying is making it difficult for readers to discover new work. (That link takes you to an Ursula K.Le Guinn essay, so go ahead and give that a click.) When you stand in front of a bookstore or library shelf, you’re presented with an amazing number of titles to look at; there’s no way Amazon or any other online seller could load that many covers in your web browser. It would be too much information.

It used to be that a new book in a series would be published at the same time as an earlier one would hit paperback, or get a small new printing. Now, the book pops up on a Tuesday blog post or status update as yet another new release. Maybe it appears in a stack of books on Scalzi’s blog.

It’s not enough. We need healthy book stores. Indies, yes, but also the big stores with the shelf space to carry midlist authors and a large enough enough staff that there’s someone drawing a paycheck there with knowledge of each of the genres. I like those big stores. I like browsing those huge, long shelves.

Barnes & Noble needs to become less ossified and decentralized. At the same time, Amazon needs to put the brakes on its competition-destroying business practices; if they won’t someone else will have to put the brakes on. Because it’s not the big corporations that are taking it in the neck. It’s the people who create the product those corporations sell.