Archive for February 2nd, 2012

Stop Scaring Me!

For the second time in recent months, Barnes & Noble is making a move to protest Amazon electronic exclusivity.  Salvo number one was fired back in October when Barnes & Noble pulled a significant number of DC comics off their store shelves after Amazon made an exclusive distribution arrangement for those titles on the Kindle Fire.  This resulted in particularly nasty press when they removed Sandman comics, and thus set themselves opposite Neil Gaiman and his more than 1.5 million Twitter followers.  At the time it struck me as a potentially self destructive move.  In order to protest not being able to sell DC comics through one distribution method, they’d refuse to sell them through all distribution methods.  It was a fantastic boon for independent comic stores, however, who were more than happy to absorb that customer base.

In the end, it was fine.  Whatever.  I’m not actually sure how much of the comics market Barnes actually holds versus the more tradition comic book store venues.

Now we’ve got Amazon looking to expand their new publishing empire.  The first move was opening the Kindle store to self published authors.  The second was to lure these self publishers into exclusivity agreements by dangling money in front of them, a clear move to undermine self publication to the Nook and iBook stores.  Now Amazon has an new venture: print publication.  This isn’t a Lulu POD set-up that Amazon is doing, rather they are taking the form of a publishing house, vetting and selecting manuscripts, and giving the ones they feel deserving a print run.  It’s an intriguing move, and one that has the potential of turning the Big Six publishers into the Big Seven in a hurry.  If anyone has the clout to muscle into such a long standing fraternity, it’s Amazon.  Or, rather, they could provide the muscle behind their publication partner, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to assail the Big Six.

What’s standing in the way?  Barnes and Noble.  Survivors of the great bookstore feud, the company that is still standing after Borders crumpled and shut down.  Really, the last bastion of the big chain book store in America.  They’ve decided they will not stock copies of the books published by Harcourt in their partnership with Amazon.

For the second time in six months Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest brick-and-mortar bookstore is refusing to sell books.

I’m not taking Amazon’s side in this fight.  Exclusivity bothers me, as I suspect I made clear when deconstructing their new KDP Select practices.  Clearly authors have the right to do with their stories as they want, especially when self publishing, but using corporate might to pressure for exclusivity strikes me as a stepping stone towards monopolistic practices.  However, even though I can understand Barnes & Noble’s position in wanting to protest exclusivity so their Nook is can compete on hardware quality rather than catalog depth…well…their methodology concerns me.  It creates a question of whether they’re using their might in the brick-and-mortar world in the same way Amazon is using their might in the digital world.

My concern comes out of my love of Barnes & Noble.  Even before Borders went under, Barnes was my clear favorite.  Oh, sure, they didn’t partition their fiction nearly as well as Borders, opting for broader genre categories, not shelving a horror section, but their stores were always more welcoming, more inviting, and better stocked.  Really, I guess my concern here is an entirely irrational and selfish one:

I’m terrified we’re going to lose Barnes & Noble, and that these are the first two steps along the way.

I’ve long said that Barnes & Noble is in a better long term position than Borders ever was.  They embraced the internet early, rather than allowing Amazon to control their web presence.  They’ve created an eReader on par with the Kindle.  Now Amazon is striking at them with a two pronged attack of exclusivity and print distribution.  I’m not sure what the best course of action is for Barnes & Noble here, and I’m not here to create a new strategy for the chain.  Rolling over and taking it will just embolden Amazon to expand its exclusivity, but refusing to stock titles for the second time is worrisome.  Certainly they’ll have plenty to stock their shelves with, but it makes me wonder what will happen if one of the Big Six enters into any kind of eBook exclusivity arrangement with Amazon, will Barnes continue to cut of their nose to spite their face?  It’s a disturbing pattern.

Two last little bits of interest.  First, clearly Barnes & Noble is only so unwilling to deal with Amazon, as the Nook is carried on Amazon.  However, the Amazon search engine is also salted so that a search for “Nook” returns the following products, in order.  Kindle Fire, Nook Color, Kindle Touch, Nook Touch, Kindle eInk, Nook Wifi.  No really, go see for yourself.  This is going to be a tough fight for the future of bookstores, and while I still don’t think Barnes is going anywhere anytime soon.  But I’m scared.

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