Booksellers Resisting Amazon’s Disruption

Amazon prides itself on unraveling the established order. This fall, signs of Amazon-inspired disruption are everywhere.
There is the slow-motion crackup of electronics showroom Best Buy. There is Amazon’s rumored entry into the wine business, which is already agitating competitors. And there is the merger of Random House and Penguin, an effort to create a mega-publisher sufficiently hefty to negotiate with the retailer on equal terms.
Amazon inspires anxiety just about everywhere, but its publishing arm is getting pushback from all sorts of booksellers, who are scorning the imprint’s most prominent title, Timothy Ferriss’s “The 4-Hour Chef.” That book is coming out just before Thanksgiving into a fragmented book-selling landscape that Amazon has done much to create but that eludes its control.
Mr. Ferriss’s first book, “The 4-Hour Workweek,” sold nearly a half-million copies in its original print edition, according to Nielsen BookScan. A follow-up devoted to the body did nearly as well. Those books about finding success without trying too hard were a particular hit with young men, who identified with their quasi-scientific entrepreneurial spirit.
Signing Mr. Ferriss was seen as a smart choice by Amazon, which wanted books that would make a splash in both the digital and physical worlds. When the seven-figure deal was announced in August 2011, Mr. Ferriss, a former nutritional supplements marketer, said this was “a chance to really show what the future of books looks like.”
Now that publication is at hand, that future looks messy and angry. Barnes & Noble, struggling to remain relevant in Amazon’s shadow, has been emphatic that it will not carry its competitor’s books. Other large physical and digital stores seem to be uninterested or even opposed to the book. Many independent stores feel betrayed by Mr. Ferriss, whom they had championed. They will do nothing to help him if it involves helping a company they feel is hellbent on their destruction.
“At a certain point you have to decide how far you want to nail your own coffin shut,” said Michael Tucker, owner of the Books Inc. chain here. “Amazon wants to completely control the entire book trade. You’re crazy if you want to play that game with them.”
Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of Book Passage, a large store in suburban Marin County, expressed similar reservations. “We don’t think it’s in our best interests to do business with Amazon,” he said.
Crown, a division of Random House, took on Mr. Ferriss in 2007, after more than two dozen publishers said no to him. “Crown put in a lot of effort to promote those books,” Mr. Petrocelli said. “He decided to walk away. That’s his decision to make but I can’t say I applaud it. I think writers should be supportive of publishers that are supportive of them.”
This isn’t a full-fledged boycott. Books Inc. and Book Passage said they would special order “The 4-Hour Chef” for anyone who wanted one. And some independent stores will even display it, if not enthusiastically.
Green Apple, another big independent San Francisco store, said it would stock the book, figuring that if there was money to be made on its sale, better Green Apple make it than Amazon. But Kevin Ryan, the store’s buyer, said there were limits. “We’re not going to go out of our way to promote something from Amazon,” he said. “We’re not going to stretch.”
When Mr. Ferriss signed with Amazon, he celebrated the new at the expense of the old. “I don’t feel like I’m giving up anything, financially or otherwise,” he said.
He has a somewhat different view these days. “By signing with Amazon, I expected this type of blowback,” he said. “I’ve been girding my loins.”
 
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