October 15, 2014

Do indie bookstores “ban” books published by Amazon? Pt. 1: Josh Cook


Porter Square Books does not ban books published by Amazon.

Porter Square Books does not ban books published by Amazon.

Is Amazon censoring Hachette authors? Authors United seems to think so. And Ursula Le Guin agrees. When asked why she had joined Authors United, Le Guin told The New York Times “We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author. Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”

Many of Amazon’s supporters disagree, however. The author Hugh Howey, for instance, has accused Authors United’s leader Douglas Preston of deceiving his supporters. “These authors signing these letters are being lied to,” Howey wrote on the blog The Passive Voice. “Douglas Preston keeps using words like censorship, sanction, banning, and boycott when no such thing is going on.” But Howey doesn’t stop there. For Howey and many others, the media is overlooking the real censorship story: bookstores have “blacklisted books” written by Amazon authors because they are published by Amazon.

But is this claim true? And, if it is true, is it censorship? I’ve emailed a few of my favorite independent booksellers to find out. First up is Josh Cook, who is a bookseller at Porter Square Books. Josh is a sharp observer of the publishing industry and has written smart things about the language of censorship, so I thought he’d be a great place to start. (Full disclosure: Melville House is publishing Cook’s first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, in March.)

If you work in an independent bookstore (or own one) and are interested in contributing, please send an email to alex [at] mhpbooks.com.

Josh Cook:  In general, I’m personally not a fan of the language of “banning books,” used by anyone in this debate. There is a difference between “banning a book” and “choosing not to carry it for a host of different reasons.” Readers can still get Hachette books, they just have to get them from somewhere else, like an independent bookstore. Though I think it is economically significant, especially to the affected authors, I don’t like giving “a slightly more inconvenient purchasing process” the same moral weight as “censorship.”

The big difference between what Amazon is doing to Hachette and how most Indie bookstores handle books published by Amazon (besides, of course, the fact that Amazon is actually trying to put us out of business and Hachette is not trying to do the same to Amazon) is if you order a book from us, we will get it for you if we can, no matter who publishes it and no matter what we may personally think about the content, quality, or intent of the book and even if the terms for our purchase of the book aren’t profitable. If the stock is such that we can get in it 1-5 business days, we’ll get it in 1-5 business days whether we want to give Amazon money or not.

Furthermore, indie bookstores, by definition, are not a homogenous entity. If you ever get the chance, sit in on a regional conference’s annual meeting and you’ll know the odds of getting every store to “blacklist” anything is pretty slim. Furthermore, with the internet, you can now find the indie bookstore that fits your reading tastes. For example, for a whole host reasons, many of them essentially the same as why very few indies carry self-published books, very few indies successfully stock romance novels, but Word in Brooklyn does. They found the right partner and they put in the effort to do it well. So if reading romance is what you want to do, you can shop with Word.

In terms of Howley specifically, here is some incontrovertible proof his books are not being “suppressed” by PSB: http://www.portersquarebooks.com/wool


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.