Chelsea Green And The Great Big Mistake

August 20th, 2008 · 11 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Here we are in 2008 and Chelsea Green, a small publisher, took a chance. It thought, “Hmm, offer an exclusive window to Amazon for our new book on Barack Obama, or choose broad distribution? We choose Amazon, and Amazon alone.” Which, of course, angered all the other booksellers in the world, the booksellers who see Amazon as both usurper and competition. It was a calculated risk that smacks of someone forgetting to carry the ones.

On paper, this probably seemed brilliant. Amazon has great distribution. By working with BookSurge, a division of Amazon, print runs could be managed. The problem, of course, is obvious: not every book buyer shops at Amazon (in fact, most don’t, odd as it seems). The repercussions were great: Barnes & Noble cancelled their order (Borders stayed in the game, for what it’s worth). If you’re a small press hoping to make a decent profit, losing these sales is pretty significant.

Significant = painful.

Amazon wants to rule the world. They haven’t hidden that goal. Barnes & Noble, however, continues to own the face-to-face market. Chelsea Green, whose ability to find traction in the distribution chain is very much dependent on the kindness of strangers (including smaller bookstores, who are reportedly not happy campers), can’t afford to play favorites. One hopes, for the sake of their bottom line, that Amazon offered incredible financial incentive to the publisher.

Remember: most readers don’t give a flying fig about the delicate behind-the-scenes deals. They hear about a book, they want the book. If the book isn’t available at the retailer of choice for that consumer, it will take a powerful amount of motivation to force that person to seek out other retailers. Is this “exclusive” window worth taking that kind of risk?

Perhaps only those political books that are fabricated out of holey cloth are destined to top the bestseller lists (when, pray tell, are we going to see serious analysis of those sales figures?) and this book will garner respectable but not blockbuster interest. It’s near-impossible to predict the future*, but if there’s one truth about this new world we occupy, it is this: your fifteen minutes is much shorter than it used to be. You don’t mess around with initial distribution.

Granting an exclusive window to Amazon has certainly garnered headlines for Chelsea Green and its book Obama’s Challenge. But those headlines are, sigh, running in the industry press, not permeating the mainstream consciousness. This book has a limited shelf life (unless I’m wrong and it turns out to be one of the seminal texts on Barack Obama), and Chelsea Green made the mistake of choosing old school tactics over smart distribution.

After all, we’re living in a “give to us now, how we want it, when we want it, where we want it” world.

* – Big fat lie — we do it all the time here at BS.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

11 responses so far ↓

  • Mike Cane // Aug 20, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    The bookstores will have to live with the insults — because more and more will be coming down the pike.

    If Apple enters eBooks, how many writers will really give a damn if their books are on paper? With millions of iPhones out there *daily* in the hands of people — *worldwide* — that’s more reach than B&N, et al.

  • Jay Sandhill // Aug 20, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    it’s interesting that this isn’t being offered as an ebook (doesn’t amazon own kindle?)

    aren’t ebooks greeen?

    isn’t green part of the publisher’s name?

  • Linsey // Aug 20, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Chelsea Green situation is an interesting one. I remember meeting with one of their people last year at the Denver Publishing Institute and we talked ebooks at that time–specifically we talked ebooks as a review item. It was about the time that Chelsea Green pulled out of offering up one of their books (for the life of me, I can’t remember who or what it was about) in some sort of giftbag for a big name conference because they felt that the print run plus shipping etc would have an environmentally adverse effect that would not be offset by the publicity garnered by being involved. I think that they saw the Amazon opportunity as one that allowed them to get a jump on book sales for a book that really has no competition in the market at the moment, while once again offsetting said environmental affects because Amazon is already set up for this. (Whether or not the process was still environmentally friendly, I don’t know).

    Considering that Chelsea was quite popular with the booksellers/publishing types in Denver, it would be interesting to see their reception now. It’s unfortunate that they had to be the first small publisher to take this route and as such get slammed for it, especially when I don’t see a lot of independent options that would have been able to provide the same level of all in one service as Amazon. The idea behind using controled print on demand set up is made for the blink and you missed it moment most political books have to catch on. I wonder if they’d also offered an ebook whether or not the outcry from independents would have been as loud. Powells offers ebooks through its site and it can’t be the only one.

  • Joan Reeves // Aug 21, 2008 at 8:14 am

    Guess Chelsea Green could now put their own book out: Obama’s Publisher’s Challenge: Overcoming Bad Marketing Decisions.

  • deb smith // Aug 22, 2008 at 9:10 am

    The frustrating irony is that the chains and indies who are protesting this marketing technique are incredibly fickle about their support for small presses; as a small press publisher I can attest to how hard it is to get shelf space unless the marketing budget includes plenty of payola, that is, co-opt money. Brick and mortar booksellers want small presses to play by rules that benefit the booksellers far more than the publishers.

  • Book Marketer // Aug 22, 2008 at 10:57 am

    As a book marketer – and I prefer to stay anonymous because I deal with the booksellers for my own publishing list – I have some real concerns.

    First – does anyone think that B&N would have cancelled orders if one of the major publishers had set up this Amazon exclusive? Highly unlikely. This is what would have happened: B&N would have made an angry phone call to the offending publisher, which would have bowed and scraped in apology and offered some kind of other exclusive on another title in compensation. And none of it would ever have gone public. (Take note…in the cosmetics industry (and others,) it is utterly normal to set up retail exclusives with one vendor. The retailers are used to competing for the privilege.)

    I hope B&N and any indies who are cancelling orders rethink their stance. The publicity for the book has piqued consumer interest. The disappointed customer who might not bother to seek the book elsewhere might opt instead to rent a DVD– another lost book sale in a marketplace and economy where books are increasingly viewed as discretionary items. All this inside brawling and the customer has been forgotten.

    Many publishers currently offer exclusive marketing programs with retailers. The understanding is, as a publisher, that you play fair and offer one exclusive program to one retailer, and a slightly different one to another retailer in the form of author interviews, videos and so on. Going one step further into an exclusive distribution deal was inevitable. The marketing mistake Chelsea Green made was in not protecting their important relationship with B&N. A little imagination and perhaps Chelsea Green could have come up with an alternative exclusive marketing or distribution idea for bn.com (which, by the way, is currently accepting pre-orders for the book.)

    It hurts my heart to see a book sale lost. Can’t we all just get along? And work harder together to find those loyal reading customers and keep them buying books?

  • Kindle exclusive: Terry Goodkind’s first novel, Wizard’s First rule | TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home // Aug 22, 2008 at 11:09 am

    [...] Chelsea Green and the great big mistake, from Booksquare. Other bookstores didn’t cotton too well to Chelsea Green’s exclusive [...]

  • Contessa Isabella Vacani // Aug 22, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    I am not sure how many people actually buy books from bookstores. I avoid them like the Black Death. In London I haunt Foyle’s and other stores around the British Museum. In New York, The Strand is too fabulous for words.

    I am suspicious of the giant best sellers because I know all their dirty tricks.

    I live in the Italian Riviera and I have wrapped my literary tentacles around booksellers who have street stalls. A book chain will often discard their newest books after six months for a song. Thse street peddlers snap them up and sell them at two- thirds their original price. They also keep a lookout for me for the great classics which have long been out of print. No, I don’t mean The Happy Hooker.

    I buy many books from AMAZON because they can obtain out of print books for me as well. They are efficient, attentive and polite.

    Bookstores had better start offering reading rooms, tea and coffee shops. En fin, an ambience. They need to provide SERVICE and COURTESY.

    Chelsea Green’s decision was wise. If the book is marvelous the bookstores will clamor for it.

    Books on politicians are usually too boring for words. Tell all books.? Tacky, Tatty and terribly written as a rule.

    I can’t wait for Apple to launch en E site.

    Contessa Isabella Vacani

  • Globe Pequot and Amazon: Exclusive Is Another Word For Alienating Readers | Booksquare // Sep 10, 2008 at 11:53 am

    [...] political season, and I think we need to talk openly about it before it becomes a serious trend. You all remember that little issue with Chelsea Green and the decision to bypass traditional booksto… These deals seem sexy, with tossing off the words like “exclusive” in the press [...]

  • Globe Pequot and Amazon: Exclusive Is Another Word For Alienating Readers | Booksquare // Sep 10, 2008 at 11:53 am

    [...] political season, and I think we need to talk openly about it before it becomes a serious trend. You all remember that little issue with Chelsea Green and the decision to bypass traditional booksto… These deals seem sexy, with tossing off the words like “exclusive” in the press [...]

  • bowerbird // Oct 5, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    > Amazon wants
    > to rule the world.
    > They haven’t
    > hidden that goal.

    crap. another press release
    i must have missed… :+)

    -bowerbird