When it comes to Barack Obama book, booksellers are not ‘luddite idiots’


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What’s the buzz about booksellers and Barack Obama?

It started on Monday. The New York Times reported that big bookseller Barnes & Noble had substantially reduced its order of a new ‘admiring portrait’ of Obama -- ‘Obama’s Challenge’ -- after it found out that, another big bookseller, would get to sell it first, amounting to an exclusive deal until Sept. 15.

And that’s only the beginning. Independent booksellers were ‘disheartened’ by the Amazon decision, trade mag Publishers Weekly reported that same day; one bookseller called the book’s publisher, Chelsea Green, ‘a money-grubbing sellout.’


The Vermont-based publisher is hardly the type; its tag line is ‘Publisher of Sustainable Living Books Since 1984.’ (Go on, look at your bookshelf: How many organic gardening books do you have from 1987?) What it was trying to do, Chelsea Green insists, is get the book into people’s hands, and do it fast. The time from final manuscript to bound books will be less than four weeks.

That’s where the exclusivity with Amazon comes in. ‘Obama’s Challenge’ is being offered as print-on-demand, or POD, through Booksurge, which is part of Amazon. Chelsea Green will be handing out some advance copies at the Democratic Convention in Denver, but all 15,000 conventioneers will get discount coupons for the POD version of the book, available Aug. 25, the convention’s first day.

So what’s the problem? Why are Barnes & Noble and independent booksellers so upset? That’s what Jennifer Nix wants to know. Blogging at the Huffington Post, she writes, ‘Chelsea Green is facing angry calls for regressive business tactics based on an archaic system of book distribution, and canceled orders from booksellers large and small.’ (It might be fair to note that Nix, who thinks media and booksellers should band together to promote this particular pro-Obama book, is ‘editor-at-large for Chelsea Green.’)

Independent booksellers may be angry, but it’s Nix’s piece that got one bookseller from the Harvard Book Store upset. She blogs at Bookdwarf:

Sure some stores might decide not to carry it, but it’s not like we’re getting together to actively decide to boycott the title. Some will carry it and some won’t. Was Margo Baldwin’s desire to get the books out fast smart? Yes. Do we care that Chelsea Green is having Booksure print them? No. For me and others it’s the exclusive deal Amazon gets. Do they think that having the book only available in one place will really drive the sales? Wouldn’t a blanket nation wide roll out of the book make more sense?... And will they please stop talking down to us like we’re luddite idiots?

Closer to home, Vroman’s Bookstore ‘doesn’t care’ about Chelsea Green’s decision. But it does think that all the hubbub seems to be effective marketing.


-- Carolyn Kellogg

photo: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times