Booksellers try to fight Amazon with a book ban
A popular author is caught in the eye of a storm that dramatizes the changes and challenges facing the book-publishing world.
The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon.com prides itself on unraveling the established order. This fall, signs of Seattle-based Amazon-inspired disruption are everywhere.
There is the slow-motion crackup of electronics showroom Best Buy. There is Amazon’s rumored entry into the wine business, which is already agitating competitors. And there is the merger of Random House and Penguin, an effort to create a mega-publisher sufficiently hefty to negotiate with the retailer on equal terms.
Amazon inspires anxiety just about everywhere, but its publishing arm is getting pushback from all sorts of booksellers, who are scorning the imprint’s most prominent title, Timothy Ferriss’ “The 4-Hour Chef.” That book is coming out just before Thanksgiving into a fragmented book selling landscape that Amazon has done much to create, but that eludes its control.
Ferriss’ first book, “The 4-Hour Workweek,” sold nearly a half-million copies in its original print edition, according to Nielsen BookScan. A follow-up devoted to the body did nearly as well.
Those books about finding success without trying too hard were a particular hit with young men, who identified with their quasi-scientific entrepreneurial spirit.
Signing Ferris was seen as a smart choice by Amazon, which wanted books that would make a splash in both the digital and physical worlds. When the seven-figure deal was announced in August 2011, Ferriss, a former nutritional supplements marketer, said this was “a chance to really show what the future of books looks like.”
Now that publication is at hand, that future looks messy and angry. Barnes & Noble, struggling to remain relevant in Amazon’s shadow, has been emphatic that it will not carry its competitor’s books.
Other large physical and digital stores seem to be uninterested or even opposed to the book.
Many independent stores feel betrayed by Ferriss, whom they had championed.
They will do nothing to help him if it involves helping a company they feel is hellbent on their destruction.
“At a certain point you have to decide how far you want to nail your own coffin shut,” said Michael Tucker, owner of the Books Inc. chain in San Francisco.
“Amazon wants to completely control the entire book trade. You’re crazy if you want to play that game with them.”
Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of Book Passage, in nearby Marin County, expressed similar reservations.
“We don’t think it’s in our best interests to do business with Amazon,” he said.
Crown, a division of Random House, took on Ferriss in 2007, after more than two dozen publishers said no to him.
“Crown put in a lot of effort to promote those books,” Petrocelli said. “He decided to walk away. That’s his decision to make, but I can’t say I applaud it. I think writers should be supportive of publishers that are supportive of them.”
This isn’t a full-fledged boycott. Books Inc. and Book Passage said they would special order “The 4-Hour Chef” for anyone who wanted one. And some independent stores will even display it, if not enthusiastically.
Green Apple, another big independent San Francisco store, said it would stock the book, figuring that if there was money to be made on its sale, better Green Apple make it than Amazon.
But Kevin Ryan, the store’s buyer, said there were limits.
“We’re not going to go out of our way to promote something from Amazon,” he said. “We’re not going to stretch.”
When Ferriss signed with Amazon, he celebrated the new at the expense of the old.
“I don’t feel like I’m giving up anything, financially or otherwise,’” he said.
He has a somewhat different view these days. “By signing with Amazon, I expected this type of blowback,” he said. “I’ve been girding my loins.’’
The irony, he added, is that the $35 book was meant to be inviting to the casual book browser.
Amazon can do many things, but it still cannot let readers examine a book before buying.
“This is the kind of book that physical booksellers would be most excited to sell,’’ Ferriss said.
Only a few years ago, culture was delivered in discrete doses.
“The 4-Hour Chef” would have been in the chain bookstores by the stacks and in independents by the handful.
You wanted a book, you went to the bookstore. Simple. Now the technology overlords — Amazon, Google and Apple — are competing among themselves and with other players to control how the culture is consumed.
A Google spokeswoman referred calls to Amazon.
“We’re going to decline to participate,” an Amazon spokeswoman said.
Wal-Mart, asked if it would be selling “The 4-Hour Chef,” said only that it would be offered online through Walmart.com.
Target said it isn’t carrying the book, although it is carrying both online and in stores other new cookbooks published by the traditional presses, like Lidia Matticchio Bastianich’s “Lidia’s Favorite Recipes.”
Amazon has been publishing books since 2009.
Most of its imprints are run out of its Seattle offices, including lines for mysteries and romances.
Authors who write for these imprints say they are doing well, sometimes extremely well.
Their sales are largely digital. They live within the Amazon ecosystem, selling their books from the retailer’s website.
For the moment, though, a book that aspires to be a genuine national best-seller needs more than that.
And that is where the books being acquired by Amazon in New York, which are distributed to the book trade by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt under the New Harvest imprint, are faltering.
Its editors, led by a longtime publishing operative, Laurence Kirshbaum, seem to have backed off, at least for the time being, from buying prominent books.
“I had expected more,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester technology analyst. “I expected them to find the next ‘Hunger Games.’ I expected the next Harry Potter to come through Amazon. They have not changed the world like many assumed they would.”
In September, Amazon published the movie director Penny Marshall’s “My Mother Was Nuts.”
According to Nielsen BookScan, it has sold 8,000 hardcover copies.
“That should have sold 50,000, but they couldn’t go through the brick and mortar stores,” said Tucker of Books Inc.
He declined to sell that one too, and so apparently did just about everyone that wasn’t Amazon. Marshall’s agent did not respond to an email requesting comment.
As publication approaches, Ferriss has started aggressively promoting “The 4-Hour Chef” on his blog, announcing a weight-loss contest.
The book might need all of his considerable promotional talents.
It has not yet generated instant heat even on Amazon; on Sunday it was ranked No. 597 in books and 4,318 in the Kindle Store.
“The 4-Hour Workweek,” in an updated edition published in 2009, was by contrast No. 328 in books and 2,723 in Kindle.
“The nature of experiments is that sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail,” Ferriss said.
“This could be a landmark in a lot of ways, for better or worse.”