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.