March 28, 2018
Independent booksellers continue to protest Chronicle’s handling of A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo
by Simon Reichley
The release of John Oliver’s parody book project, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, has been surprisingly complicated. First announced on Oliver’s HBO show Last Week Tonight, the book immediately rocketed to the top of Amazon’s sales rankings, beating out the book it was parodying, as well as pre-orders for James Comey’s memoir, A Higher Loyalty. But, despite being a relatively good-humored attempt to poke fun at Mike Pence’s homophobia, and a pretty dang effective way to raise money for The Trevor Project and AIDS United, the book has managed to cause a fair bit of controversy, in precisely the community it seems tailored to.
As we’ve mentioned in our previous coverage of Bundogate, several independent bookstores were immediately up in arms over the decision to make the book available only at Amazon and major chains in the first week of sales. Many of them took to Twitter to raise awareness and pressure Oliver and his show. While it was clear at the time that folks were pissed off, it wasn’t until yesterday that details regarding Chronicle Books’ decision to cut indies out of the loop came to light.
As Alex Green at Publishers Weekly reports, booksellers around the country weren’t just cut out of the distribution — they were kept in the dark regarding the existence of the book prior to Oliver’s announcement on air. This didn’t sit well with booksellers, who, facing a torrent of inquiries about the book’s availability, could only shrug and say, “We don’t have it, and we don’t know when we’re going to get it.”
According to Green, Tyrrel Mahoney, president of Chronicle, wrote a letter of explanation and apology to the boards of several regional bookseller associations last Friday. He explained that Chronicle “had to ensure that the book was a complete surprise” when it was announced. Which makes some sense. The book is primarily a publicity stunt and fundraising gimmick, and the timing of the announcement would be of paramount importance. But what doesn’t make sense is why Chronicle wouldn’t trust independent bookstores and booksellers to maintain the appropriate level of secrecy.
Independent bookstores might not have access to a robot army, or massive quantities of cloud computing, but that doesn’t make them a bunch of rubes. As Michael Hermann, owner of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, New Hampshire told Green, booksellers have “years and years of experience respecting embargoes and on-sale dates… there are tried and true ways of ensuring secrecy until a book is launched.” In other words, there’s simply no good reason to assume that these books would have been any less safe in the hands of independent booksellers.
Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, drove the point home after spending several days discussing the failure with Chronicle, telling Green, “Indie bookstores are used to taking all necessary steps to protect the confidentiality of title information, including signing of afadavits, and would certainly have done that in this instance given the chance. ABA firmly believes that our industry is stronger when we can all compete on a level playing field, and, conversely, that providing one channel a competitive advantage is, in the end, bad for everyone.”
Of course, the question remains: what are indies to do about the situation? Apologies from Chronicle and Last Week Tonight would certainly be appropriate. But is there any way indies can push for more? In a different, more competitive environment, it would have been much more difficult for Chronicle to even consider cutting an entire channel out of their first-week distribution. But in a marketplace so overwhelmingly tilted in Amazon’s direction, it becomes relatively easy to dedicate all your attention to a single outlet. What then, is to be done?
Most everyone agrees that a boycott isn’t in the cards, largely because, for indies, it’s simply a losing strategy (another unfortunate effect of their marginalization). On Twitter, Stephen Sparks of Point Reyes Books told our fearless leader Dennis Johnson, “I just don’t see what purpose a boycott serves. No matter how disappointed we may be, we’re still at the mercy of publishers… and our customers.” Which is an unfortunate assessment of the battlefield, but a well-informed one to be sure.
The situation echoes an episode from earlier this year, when UK indies began discussing the possibility of forming a retail consortium in response to Waterstones’ exclusive deal with David Fickling Books, publisher of Phillip Pullman’s highly anticipated La Belle Sauvage. Whether that strategy will prove productive remains an open question, but it does seem that independent businesses of all stripes are going to need to figure out more assertive—and possibly more militant—methods for negotiating an equal playing field.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.