It made for a good story last week when some independent booksellers became critical of Seattle’s most famous librarian after she formed a partnership with Amazon to publish a few out-of-print books. What kind of story, though? It all depends on how you frame it. There’s the story that The Seattle Times told last weekend and the story that its comments tell. There’s the story that Seattle Mystery’s J.B. Dickey told his customers last week. There’s the story Nancy Pearl told to the bookseller she had lunch with last Friday, her birthday of all occasions, and the story that Pearl’s Facebook page tells of how beloved she is by authors and booksellers in Seattle. There are the stories of 50 NW bookstores who signed an open letter to Nancy Pearl expressing their disappointment with Pearl’s alliance and her advocacy for the proprietary Kindle—a letter that even we, the letter writers, admit was hastily and emotionally written. There’s the story that the people who work here at NWBL headquarters told our families over dinner that night, about how it felt good to actually be doing something in response to an industry where the ever-changing landscape often feels more like a landslide for an independent bookstore.
Day after day of bad news, negative trends and poor outlooks roiling around us—it’s hard to not be on edge. So when booksellers looked up to see Pearl sporting the competition’s colors—the same Pearl who the independent booksellers of the Northwest honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011—it was a call to rally.
Booksellers wrote to us to say they felt betrayed, disappointed and disheartened. They were doing not so nice things to their Nancy Pearl action figures. We fumed, collectively, but not unanimously. A few stores thought it wouldn’t do any good to shout. Others offered forgiveness, citing Pearl’s advocacy of the independent market in years past—just enough unease about making an organizational decree that the official letter sits unsent.
We’ve reached out to Pearl, and her agent has responded that they were surprised that independent stores felt betrayed by Pearl’s decision to lease her brand to Amazon. Pearl has agreed to be part of a continuing discussion and to consider toning down her public display of affection for her Kindle.
We’re writing about all of this now because we want to recognize that all of these stories are relevant. Believe us, we’re as tired of the “indies versus Amazon” trope as many of you are—the conversation needs to evolve—but, on the other hand, it feels like we’re living out an Orwellian novel sometimes, and it’s hard to sit quietly, resisting the urge to repeat ourselves.
Dickey, of Seattle Mystery Bookshop, illustrated the situation well on his blog last week. Here’s one of his points: “Book Lust has a retail price of $16.95. If we order it at a 40% discount, we pay $10.17 for it and make $6.78 if it sells. Once again, that ‘profit’ of $6.78 . . . goes toward the rent, a new belt for the vacuum cleaner, bubblewrap for mail orders, pencils for the bookkeepers and M&Ms for the machine on the front counter. However, if you order Book Lust from Amazon, you pay only $10.29 – a 39% savings. That means that you can buy a copy of the book from them for nearly what we pay for it. How can we compete with that? We can’t and won’t try.”
Maybe we’ll never be able to re-write that story, but it is essential backstory to whatever happens next. Thanks, J.B., for continuing to speak up. And, thanks, Nancy, for hearing us out.