March 12, 2014

LA Times Festival of Books relents, adds IndieBound buy buttons


LATimes DWIEarlier this month, the LA Times Festival of Books announced that it had added Amazon buy buttons to its website. As Shelf Awareness‘s Bridget Kinsella wrote at the time, “although the e-tailer is not listed as a LATFOB sponsor or exhibitor, the Festival has quietly become an Amazon affiliate, earning a commission on book sales by the e-tailer originating from its website.” The decision, though “quiet,” was unsurprisingly controversial. As my colleague Dustin Kurtz wrote at the time:

The Festival brings together artists from around the country but, most importantly in this context, the festival involves local bookstores. It used to know their names, back when it was looking for its break. It was so appreciative, so polite. But now, with the fake tan and the underhanded kickbacks from “friends in Seattle,” it’s like the Festival has forgotten about these bookstores entirely.

Kinsella quoted Mary Williams of Skylight Books “I was alarmed to see the buy buttons and even more alarmed because so many local booksellers exhibit at the festival. The Festival of Books is a huge part of the L.A. book scene–but then, so is the L.A. bookselling community. We’d like to see the festival support us like we try to support the festival.” Even with this misstep from the Festival, Williams was polite enough not to mention the recent work it seems to have had done around its eyes.

The Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (or SCIBA, an acronym that sounds like something you catch from a wrestling match) was incensed. As Publishers Weekly‘s Wendy Werris reported, “The indie booksellers… protested aggressively, individually and through the auspices of SCIBAarguing argued that they have faithfully exhibited at the Festival for years on end, while Amazon has never participated in the Festival of Books, now in its 18th year.” The move, in other words, seemed like a slap in the face to small local businesses that had helped build the festival over two decades from a scrappy upstart into an institution.

Yesterday, the LA Times Festival of Books relented (to an extent) and announced it was working to add IndieBound links to its website—they’ll be present alongside the Amazon links that have been there since early March. SCIBA’s president Maureen Palacios saw it as a victory for her organization, and indie bookselling in general. In a letter to members, he wrote, “Thank you to all who voiced their concern and showed their passion. Many people took action and shared their objections regarding the Festival of Books’ ill-advised buy buttons pointing only to Amazon. Now, the IndieBound buttons are in place.” Executive director Andrea Vuleta made a similar statement to Werris:

“It’s good to know that SCIBA members are now considered on the same page, literally, with Amazon… We want to make sure that consumers have the choice to buy locally. IndieBound is a perfectly good alternative to Amazon.”

Vuleta was not surprised by the vociferous reaction to the situation by SCIBA members. She was, however, “surprised by the response from those who aren’t members,” she said, “including authors and small presses across the country.” As to why the Times reversed its decision, Vuleta believes the Festival of Books team, led by Maret Orliss, ultimately “stood up for us, and addressed our concerns.”

Book festivals obviously cost money to run and the LATFOB’s decision to investigate affiliate options is understandable when that fact is taken into consideration. But, Amazon isn’t a sponsor of the festival and independent bookstores have been a huge part of both the festival’s past and its success; with that in mind, its decision to ally itself with the Amazon Affiliate program becomes something of a slap in the face—especially without other options. The controversy that ensued was entirely justified largely because it was entirely avoidable, when you consider other options. By offering multiple options for its supporters, The LA Times Festival of Books made the right decision; they just made it later than they should have.


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