Kelly Justice had this ring custom-made to celebrate her 20th year as a bookseller and her first year as the owner of Fountain Books. Photo by Ash Daniel
David Robbins spent two years working on his forthcoming novel, The Devil's Waters. The Sandston native traveled the world on military vessels and freighters to research the modern-day espionage adventure involving an elite team of rescuers, Somali pirates and a ship full of valuable U.S. contraband.
But his book's most interesting clashes may be occurring off the page. "Battle lines are being drawn,"Robbins sighs, echoing a Stephen Stills lyric.
After publishing his first nine books with traditional publishers such as Random House, the co-founder of the James River Writers group will be releasing his 10th in November through a newly formed imprint called Thomas & Mercer, which is owned by leading e-retailer Amazon.com.
"They were the ones most enthusiastic," the 6-foot-6 scribe says of the new "mystery and thriller" division of Amazon's growing publishing apparatus, which began signing up authors and issuing titles last year under company names such as AmazonEncore and Montlake. "Amazon is not just publishing an e-book. They are publishing the same book that Random House would be publishing," he explains. "It will be hardcover first, paperback second, e-book, audiobook, etc. … it's the same product." The only difference, he says, is that the world's most powerful Internet retailer will be behind it.
But unless something changes, Robbins' loyal readers will be unable to purchase The Devil's Waters from most bookstores — and that includes some local independents that were once his biggest supporters.
"We will not carry the book," says Kelly Justice, owner and manager of Fountain Books in Shockoe Slip. "It's published by my competition, so I can't do that. It puts me in a very awkward position because I've been selling David's books since his first, which is now out of print. It's disappointing and saddening that I won't be able to support this book. It breaks my heart, honestly."
"I consider us friends," Robbins echoes. "But Kelly has made it clear that she's not happy and will not be selling it."
The developing brouhaha over The Devil's Waters is only the latest skirmish in a battle pitting Amazon on one side and embattled bookshops (and now the traditional publishing industry) on the other. The threat has seen book chains and independent booksellers — once bitter enemies — join forces against what they view as a common enemy. "This current climate is making for interesting bedfellows as far as bricks-and-mortar [shops]," Justice admits.
"Barnes & Noble has made a decision not to stock Amazon-published titles in our showrooms," Jaime Carey, the chief merchandising officer for the nation's largest book chain, said in a January statement, echoing statements from other bookstore chains such as Books-A-Million and Imago. "Our decision is based on Amazon's continued push for exclusivity with publishers, agents, and the authors they represent. These exclusives have prohibited us from offering certain e-books to our customers." The Target chain also has announced a boycott of Amazon products, including the company's Kindle e-reader.
"We would never tell our member stores what to carry," Dan Cullen, content officer for the 1,500-member American Booksellers Association (ABA), says. There is no official ABA boycott of Amazon imprints, he stresses. Still, the independent coalition's online subsidiary, IndieCommerce, which many member bookstores use to order new books, will not carry Amazon-published titles.
Retailers have been outraged by the Internet giant for some time. "Amazon does not [pay] state sales taxes in most states, including Virginia," reminds Justice (although Virginia's status will change in 2013). Amazon recently introduced an app called Price Check that allows consumers to use established stores as showrooms in order to buy items more cheaply online. "That one was aimed at Walmart and big-box electronics dealers like Best Buy and Target," Justice says. "Bookstores were just collateral damage."
"I don't know of anyone who has a bookstore who is doing well right now," Piet E. Jones says. The owner of The Book Room, with locations in the Richmond and Charlottesville areas, says he's closing his Richmond shop largely because of the volatility of the market. The negative effect of Amazon on his business "has been huge," he says. "They can sell their e-books at below cost to drive out competition [and] they are working toward monopoly status, so that they can control every aspect, from publishing to distribution. That's a scary move." (Justin Golenbock, a public-relations representative at Thomas & Mercer, declined to comment for this story.)
With the rise of e-readers like the Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook, and Amazon's price cutting, Jones thinks it's an "ugly time" to be a bricks-and-mortar bookseller. "Even Barnes and Noble, it is spinning off its Nook to a separate company so that when its bookstores finally go under, the Nook won't be impacted. I look at the music industry as a model. Years ago, all of those big-box music retailers collapsed, Tower, Peaches … and now you've got small independent stores with specific niches coming up and doing quite well. I think the same thing is going to happen with bookstores, but we have to go through the collapse first."
Jones, a Richmond magazine contributor, says that he may try to reopen in Richmond in a couple of years, once the dust has settled.
Chop Suey Books in Carytown, which offers a limited selection of new titles, may or may not carry Robbins' latest book. "It all depends on whether or not Amazon will make it available to our distributor," the store's assistant manager Andrew Blossom says, adding that Chop Suey doesn't have an overriding policy against carrying Amazon-published titles. "We've carried one of their books, The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning, and it was because customers wanted it."
"This is all about the future of publishing," Robbins says, adding, "The Kindle, the Nook, online, PDAs, iPads … people are reading at a higher pace today. There isn't a problem with reading. There's a problem with writers making a profit."
Robbins acknowledges, with some sadness, that today's bookstores are suffering, but he feels that Amazon's publishing division is creating a new paradigm that is more favorable to authors. "In conventional legacy publishing, when a book sells, a piece goes to the writer, an embarrassingly small piece by the way, and a piece stays with the publisher, the retailer, marketing, printing … those are the things that the sale of the book has to cover. That paradigm was created in the 1800s with most of these publishing houses."
Amazon, Robbins says, is a publisher "for the 21st century. … they create efficiencies, and [that will] make them more profitable and take a lot of pressure off of me, the writer, to make the book profitable. And then they will be able to give me higher percentages on the books I sell."
"I encourage every author to make the decisions they need to make to be successful," Justice says. "I want all authors to be successful, especially those who write books that are near and dear to me, and David writes beautiful books, some of my all-time favorites. But I can't, as a businessperson, buy from my direct competition." She adds that Fountain will still carry Robbins' previous books. "Just not this one."
UPDATE: According to a report on the website PaidContent , Amazon's publishing imprint, Amazon New York, has struck a deal with Ingram Content Group to make selected e-books available to Barnes & Noble and other large retailers on a book by book basis. It doesn't mean retailers will actually carry these e-books, or that the physical copies of the books will be stocked. According to Justin Golenbock, the publicist for Thomas & Mercer, there are no current plans to include David Robbins' book as part of the Ingram distribution arrangement. He says that e-books of Robbins' forthcoming novel will be made available only through Amazon's Kindle.