Penny Marshall's memoir My Mother Was Nuts would seem to be a no-brainer for independent booksellers to stock. Marshall acted in Laverne and Shirley, directed Big, Awakenings and A League of their Own and has more recently produced such films as Cinderella Man and Bewitched. But when My Mother Was Nuts is published in September, customers will find it in some independent bookstores but not others.
The problem? The book is published by New Harvest, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that licenses print editions of books published by Amazon Publishing's division in New York, headed by Larry Kirshbaum. (The licensing venture excludes electronic versions of those books, which will be available on Amazon.com.)
Bookseller opinion on carrying books originating with Amazon runs the gamut. Patrons at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., won't find Marshall's memoir in the store. If they ask why it isn't available, co-owner Elaine Petrocelli said she plans to be forthcoming about why the store is not stocking it or any other New Harvest books. "For us this was not a hard decision: we feel that Amazon is unethical," said Petrocelli, whose view is based in part on the company's sales tax policies. "We don't really want to do business with them." Still, Book Passage will special order New Harvest titles at a customer's request and is continuing to sell other books published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
For his part, Britton Trice, owner of the Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans, which will supply books customers want, emphasized, "I don't mind making money off Amazon. I have a small publishing company, and I sell through Amazon. It thrills me to be able to bill them for my books."
Laurie Brown, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's senior v-p of sales and marketing, commented: "We have confidence that bookstores will continue to make sound decisions and ensure that customers seeking to purchase books will be able to buy those books from the local bookstores with whom they have such strong relationships."
Like Book Passage, Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., also will not bring in any New Harvest books. "I am not going to support Amazon's efforts in any way," said owner Gayle Shanks. "We have been in a full-blown battle with Amazon in Arizona because they refuse to collect sales taxes in our state despite having four warehouses here and selling to Arizona residents. In addition, I am not in agreement with their policies of selling e-books in a proprietary way or their devaluing books by pricing them as loss leaders for their other products."
As at Book Passage, if a customer specifically asks for a New Harvest title, Changing Hands will order a copy of it from Ingram. And the store, too, continues to carry other Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publications. "I have always liked the books HMH publishes," said Shanks, "and always tried to support them by carrying and displaying their books in the front of our store."
Jason Smith, owner of the Book Table in Oak Park, Ill., plans to carry Marshall's memoir as well as two other New Harvest titles: For a Song and a Hundred Songs (January 2013) by Liao Yiwu, a now-exiled Chinese poet who recounts his four years of imprisonment after the Tiananmen Square protests, and bestselling author Timothy Ferriss's The 4-Hour Chef (November 2012).
"Like everyone else in the indie world, I'm certainly concerned about Amazon's growing power," Smith said, "but I'm more concerned with making sure my customers have access to the books they want." Regarding Ferriss, for example, the Book Table has done well with The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body, and customers will expect to see his latest in the store's New Arrivals section. After Barnes & Noble acquired Sterling Publishing in 2003, Smith refused to buy any of its books for about a year but ultimately decided to do so because customers wanted them. (Barnes & Noble reportedly will not carry New Harvest titles.)
"My bigger concern is exclusivity, so I was actually happy when the Houghton deal was made because it meant the books wouldn't only be carried at Amazon, but I would be able to stock them in the store too," noted Smith. At least for the time being, he is less concerned with e-book exclusivity. "There are plenty of publishers whose books are on our website and stocked in the store that have e-books available in Kindle format only, but not in a format that's sold on our website. It would be hypocritical of me to single out only New Harvest titles."
Other booksellers plan to assess New Harvest's list and take titles, if any, that are appropriate for their clientele. "We're being selective about it," said Daniel Goldin of Milwaukee's Boswell Book Co. "We'll carry what we think our customers want, but we won't necessarily put a lot of energy into handselling."
For Nikki Furrer of Pudd'nhead Books in Webster Groves, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, the situation is far from black and white. "I don't know the politics of the people that run Penguin, for example," she said. "I can't say for sure I'm supporting good causes by buying those books, but I do it anyway." Pudd'nhead carries titles that personally aren't to Furrer's taste, but her customers want them. "If it's going to sell, I'll get it, because the rent is due every month." Although it's not to say the Amazon connection won't impact decision-making at all. Timothy Ferriss has been a store favorite, but his new tome might not get the same hands-on treatment as his previous titles. "His other books I brought in and promoted because I like him," said Furrer. "Now, honestly, I can't say I'm going to support it with the same enthusiasm."
Contributing to an Amazon-initiated endeavor is not something Christine Onorati, the owner of WORD in Brooklyn, N.Y., has a desire to do and has no plans to order New Harvest titles. Although disappointed that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has partnered with Amazon, "I also live in the real world and understand why these things happen," she said.
Ultimately, like their customers, bookstore owners have the option to determine how they spend their money. "At least for now, I have no interest in giving any of it to Amazon to make them any stronger than they are," Onorati said. "I have that ability to decide as the store owner, and I will do that as long as I feel I need to. The bookselling industry is changing and shifting so quickly these days that I can't promise this will be my stance forever, but for now, it's how I feel." --Shannon McKenna Schmidt