Author Jaime Clarke's new novel "Vernon Downs" will be available on Amazon in April of next year, but fans and new readers who heed the author's plea can get a copy this December. His only request: Buy "Vernon Downs" straight from the publisher and not from Amazon.
In a Web site aptly named pleasedontbuymybookonamazon.com, Clarke lays out his call to support independent publishing and push back against the aggressive cost-cutting tactics of Amazon that, he says, are great for consumers but detrimental to the livelihood of independent publishing.
Clarke -- who also published the novel "We're So Famous," edited and co-edited a number of other titles and was a founding editor of the Boston College-published literary magazine Post Road -- is co-owner of an independent bookstore in Boston called Newtonville Books.
"As a bookstore owner, I see small presses come and go -- they usually publish a book or two and then fold after running out of money," Clarke writes. "For many small publishers like Roundabout, Amazon accounts for a large portion of sales, but the publisher realizes very little of the purchase price owing to Amazon's discounting policies."
"Vernon Downs" is published by Roundabout Press, from which readers can preorder the book online. Any royalties on sales received from preordering the book now from Roundabout will go directly to the publisher, Clarke said. In addition, anyone who buys the book from Roundabout can get it shipped to them in December. Amazon can't start selling the book until next April, according to Clark, after "Vernon Downs" has gone through the publishing process to get an official bar code.
The author's move is just one more chapter in the "Amazon vs. small businesses" battle that has expanded especially with regard to books. In July, US District Court Judge Denise Cote ruled that Apple had conspired with five of the largest publishing companies in the US to fix e-book prices. Resting upon the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the decision has all but secured Amazon's position as the largest and most successful bookseller for years to come.
Despite the fact that independent bookstores have been making a steady comeback as small businesses rebound in the strengthening economy, three independent East Coast bookstores have filed suit against Amazon and major publishers in an attempt to level the playing field. President Barack Obama even got pulled into the debate after New England Independent Booksellers Association Director Steve Fischer late last month condemned the president for visiting an Amazon warehouse in the wake of the Apple e-book decision.
In an interview with CNET on Friday, Clarke laid out his reasoning for why readers should shift support towards independent publishers -- even it if it means slightly higher prices -- and the current issues authors, publishers, and booksellers face in the rising e-book and Amazon era. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Q: Why would you urge people not to buy books, or at least your book, from Amazon? Is it simply that people should not buy books published from independent publishers on Amazon, or that people should avoid all book buying on Amazon because of what you think it's done to the industry?
Clarke: My campaign to urge interested readers to purchase my novel "Vernon Downs" directly from the publisher is mostly economical, which is to say small, independent publishers like Roundabout Press need all the capital they can lay their hands on.
Unfortunately, most indie publishers rely on Amazon to sell their books, and to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, the price is high. Indie publishers realize a fraction of the purchase price and are at the mercy of Amazon's discounting policies. As a bookstore owner, my obvious preference is that readers buy books at bookstores, but I know a lot of readers don't live in proximity to a bookstore.
Given Amazon's dominance, where do you see both the e-book market and physical book selling at large in five years time?
Clarke: Industry numbers have borne out what I suspect all along: The e-book market is the new audio book market. E-books are settling to be about 20 percent of the book market, which is what audio books were in the '80s and early '90s.
I actually think e-books might be creating new readers, which isn't a bad thing. But people who love books, love books. And books have been around for 500 years. A bigger threat is whether or not the current generation values the book. They'll be around, but will they be read?
What will happen to independent publishers and bookstores as Amazon's hold continues to solidify?
Clarke: Amazon has done all it's going to do to the industry, I think. It's interesting that Amazon's early ambitions were to be the Walmart of the Internet. Books were incidental to their plans -- books just happened to be sitting in warehouses across the country ready to be shipped. It could easily have been lawn furniture.
Now that Amazon is the Walmart of the Internet, it's clear they want to take on technology service providers like Apple. They seem to be hanging around books and publishing mostly out of spite.
Recent reports are saying that independent bookstores are thriving even in the age of Amazon. Do you find this to be true in your own experience with Newtonville Books, and if it is indeed true, what do you think are the causes of the uptick in interest?
Clarke: My wife and I bought Newtonville Books in 2007, just before the economy collapsed. A number of stores were shed and, in fact, we bought Newtonville because it was going to close.
It's true that the number of new bookstores has increased in the last couple of years, which is likely owing to the improving economy. I think any community that is so inclined can support a small, independent bookstore. The big, warehouse bookstore with deep discounts (for instance, Borders and Barnes & Noble) are dinosaurs and are frankly just trying to replicate physically the Amazon experience.
But if having a neighborhood bookstore is important to the neighborhood, it can be done. Even if it means only buying half your books on Amazon, or one in three. I recently heard [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos bragging about how Amazon is a customer-centric company, meaning he doesn't listen to all the criticism about Amazon's shoddy corporate policies, etc. All is in service to giving the customer the lowest price, fast and easy.
But I'd argue it's not that customer-centric, especially if the customer's house catches on fire and the fire department can't come because the customer bought all their stuff on Amazon without paying sales tax. Or the customer's kids have to be bused an hour away because the local school had to close because of the loss of tax revenue on all those Amazon sales -- on down the line.
Some individuals claim that Amazon's self-publishing and digital selling tools have removed the barriers for young and upcoming writers to get published. Is this accurate in your eyes?
Clarke: I don't have a lot of experience with that side of Amazon. I'm a populist by nature and so I'm against barriers, especially as it relates to art. Amazon is a marketplace and their terrible corporate policies notwithstanding, they're likely providing a valuable service to the little store in Iowa who has something on their shelves that a customer in New Mexico is desperate for.
That may be true, too, for self-publishing. If so, great. I'm sure all the advantages are really on Amazon's side of the transaction, though. They've never shown themselves to be concerned with art or art-making. Just money.
What is the benefit to literature in having both independent and large publishing houses to help curate and assign value to creative works?
I worked in publishing in the late 1990s and know firsthand that like any big business, publishing is mostly guessing. It drives aspiring authors crazy, but books are mostly published based on the passions of a few people, i.e., the author, the author's agent, and the author's editor.
Though in the last decade or so that circle has widened to include marketing people and others at the publishing house, I suspect. I think that's why there are more and more independent publishers springing up.
What makes the publishing industry different in your opinion from other the institutions around other creative media like music?
Clarke: The music and movie industries have undergone a dramatic digital revolution, and while the early going was rough, it seems like those industries are adapting well. The difference for books is simply it's a printed medium.
We listen to music and don't really care what the delivery system is. Same for movies. We sit and stare but don't really care which format we're staring at. But inherent in the book is the idea of reading, and as a society we have respect for reading so much so that we disparage reading things on our computers as a matter of rote.
We imbue reading with seriousness and revere "People Who Read," which conjures the image of someone spending time with a book. As I say, that reverence could be in jeopardy with the current generation, but we'll have to wait to see.