In July, best-selling author James Patterson awarded Village Books with a $7,500 grant as part of his pledge to give $1 million to small booksellers. Patterson made the pledge after a dispute started between Amazon and his publisher, Hachette, one of the world’s largest publishing companies with authors including J.K. Rowling and Malcolm Gladwell.
The two companies are negotiating their contract, with e-book prices being a point of contention. Amazon sells 65 percent of all e-books according to a recent New Yorker article. They want the power to set prices on Hachette’s e-books. In May, Amazon stopped selling some Hachette books and delayed shipment of others.
In an official statement, Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch said, “This dispute started because Amazon is seeking a lot more profit and even more market share, at the expense of authors, bricks-and-mortar bookstores, and ourselves.”
Chuck Robinson, owner of Village Books and former president of the American Booksellers Association, weighs in on the dispute and its affect on local book stores.
BBJ: Has Village Books been affected by the dispute between Hachette and Amazon?
CR: We deal with Hachette all the time. What we’ve seen is more awareness on the part of our customers. We’ve been asked some questions about it. A general reaction from people is that Amazon has been pretty heavy-handed. I think particularly what’s been impressive to our customers is the position that a lot of authors have taken by speaking out against Amazon.
BBJ: What concerns you about the dispute?
CR: One of the biggest concerns I have as a bookseller and someone who cares about who controls ideas out there is the seemingly insatiable way that Amazon has to be in control of everything. I think Jeff Bezos has been fairly open about that. I think that’s a concern for anyone who cares about democracy.
People tend to forget that a monopoly has never been good for consumers. It’s a situation where individuals use the same short term thinking as corporations–they get what’s cheaper now. In the long run, you don’t think e-book prices are going to stay low, do you? If Amazon controls 90 percent of the market they’ll charge whatever they want for e-books.
Now Disney’s movies are going through the same thing (a contract dispute). That’s not going to be the last of it. It would be missing the point a little bit to think that it’s all about e-books. What it really is about is who’s going to control this transaction and who’s going to run the business.
BBJ: Is the $7,500 grant you received in July from Hachette author James Patterson a reaction to the dispute?
CR: It sent a message that he was very concerned. He is appreciative about what independent bookstores have done over the years. We’ve certainly helped launch bigger authors in many cases.
BBJ: How does your one-book pledge work?
CR: We swiped the idea from a friend of ours at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Customers sign a pledge, either in the store or online, to buy one more book from us and one less from somebody else. (800 people have signed up since it started in 2011.)
In our quarterly magazine there’s an article in each issue about someone who is a one-book pledger. It’s sort of a profile of them. It is really an opportunity to educate people and remind them and give them the opportunity to say why it’s important to them to have a local book store.
BBJ: Do you think there will be a place for brick-and-mortar stores in the future?
CR: I do. We’re now in the fourth year that there has been a net increase in independent bookstores that are members of the American Booksellers Association. More stores have opened than have closed in the last three or four years.
I was the president of the American Booksellers Association from 1992 to ‘94. When I started in ‘92 I think we had more than 4,000 members in the association.
That was the time when Barnes & Noble and Borders and other big-box stores were rolling out. We dropped membership pretty fast. Within a few years we were down to about 1,500 members. I always like to point out to people that that’s what my presidency did for the association. Those were kind of rough years.
BBJ: How does the challenge of competing with Amazon and other online retailers compare to competing with big-box stores in the early 1990s?
CR: We were on sort of a level playing field with the big-box stores. The only thing that was un-level was the amount of capital they had, and that’s sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. Small businesses can react faster. There are some advantages to being in one place and being able to make a decision about something and implement it the next day. It allows some nimbleness.
I think the way that Amazon has chosen to do business is much much different than the way that Barnes & Noble, for instance, ever did business.