I Meant What I Said But ...

by Craig Stark

#77, 18 September 2006

Maybe It Will Help to Elaborate

I may be mistaken, but I don't think I've ever written an article in response to feedback I've received from a previous week's article. However, circumstances this week seem to dictate that I make an exception. Several things we published in the BookThinker last week touched a nerve with some of you. One was my From the Editor; the other was Cathy's interview with Abebooks' Sue Connors. I won't - and of course can't - speak for Sue, but I can speak for myself and elaborate on what I said.

First, the last thing I aspire to be is an apologist for major bookselling venues - the three A's and eBay. They are, first and last, corporate entities; they understandably behave like corporations - that is, they seek profit. What this means to me personally is that they aren't my buddies. I guess it'd be nice if I felt more connected to them - it'd be nice if I felt more connected to Wal-Mart too - but this just misses the point by a mile. The only thing that ultimately matters is how many books they help me sell, and all four of them help a lot. If one of them stopped helping tomorrow, I'd do something I wouldn't do to a buddy: I'd dump them. What I will do from time to time, and in fact have, is point new booksellers to those venues that produce best.

So, it seems fatuous to expect these venues to treat me like a buddy if I have no intention of reciprocating, and yet the lion's share of criticism I see directed towards them seems to issue from a they-don't-care-about-us perception. Well, of course they don't. They care about profit, and, if they care about us at all, it's only to the extent that we can help them increase their profit. That's what corporations do. There's just no point for us to treat them like buddies who have let us down. The currency of friendship is caring; the currency of business is money. Two altogether different things.

Second, there were several reasons for doing this series of interviews, one of which was to remind booksellers that even corporations are comprised of human beings, and when we heap criticism on them, it lands in laps, not on steel desks, and if the criticism is based on flawed or insufficient information, it's necessarily difficult to listen to, especially if you aren't in a tenable position to respond to it in the context it originated in. (Usually the case, by the way.) Through BookThink, I've gotten to know a few people who are associated with these venues, and without exception they have treated me decently, have been responsive to my requests, and, frankly, have never given me reason to say anything negative about them. This isn't based on things I've heard other booksellers say; it's based on my personal interaction with them. However, I don't go bowling with any of them, and I'm pretty sure I never will.

Like anybody else, I don't like it one bit when fees are raised - or am presented with any other change that seems to benefit them more than me - but reminding myself that there are human beings making these decisions helps to temper my response and at least allow for the possibility that circumstances I'm ignorant of made the change necessary. Which brings me to the other reason for doing these interviews - to offer venue spokespersons a forum to explain some of the decisions they've made, especially their unpopular ones, and answer questions that are of concern to booksellers. I've been pleasantly surprised at their candor, also their willingness to talk at great length about any issue Cathy raised. If anybody disagrees with anything any of them said, I'd be happy to offer a forum for you to express this disagreement - as long as your arguments are supported by facts.

Finally, I'd like to clarify the comment I made about Old School booksellers - those, I mean, who have been selling books long enough to understand what it was like to be a bookseller in pre-Internet days. I know more than a few of them, some personally. I've listened to their criticism of online venues, and, given where they've come from, I don't doubt that it's valid. I also think they have every right to be resistant to any change that erodes a proven, longstanding method of doing business. Being resistant to change, in my mind, isn't always a negative. If I'd walked the same path they did, I might be saying the same things. The point I was trying to make was this: Valid criticism doesn't always travel intact from one realm to another - rather, it isn't always universally applicable.

Take the issue of autonomy. It's perfectly understandable to me why a bookseller who once had almost complete autonomy doing business in an open shop would be critical of online venues who enforce policies that shrink autonomy - those who place limitations, for example, on customer contact, no longer offer booksellers the choice to process their own credit cards (and the laundry list seems to be getting longer, not shorter). Okay, so, yes, I'd say this is a valid criticism, but I'd also say that the natures of the beasts are different, and what's valid for the goose may not be for the gander. Online venues face different challenges than open shops do, and some of these challenges may persuade or require them to limit autonomy. Again, if you don't agree, fire away with something substantive, and I'll make sure that you'll be heard.

Bottom line for booksellers is this: It's about sales. If this venue or that is truly thwarting our attempts to sell books for a fair profit, you and I and everybody else will start leaving for another venue, and that's as it should be. I understand that this process sometimes feels like a war of attrition - a relentless chipping away, inch by fee-raising inch - but don't forget that we're the ones who make this all happen, and, ultimately, we're the ones who will decide who wins and who loses.

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