• The Hub

    News, Notes, Talk

    Why it’s bad when a bookstore’s biggest competitor—Amazon—breaks a sales embargo.

    Josh Cook

    September 4, 2019, 12:30pm

    Most of the time, Porter Square Books gets books with a Tuesday release on the preceding Friday. If we did not honor strict on-sale dates or embargoes, that would give us a significant sales advantage over stores that tend to get their deliveries on Mondays; not because of something we do that makes us a better bookstore, but simply because we happen to be one business day closer to where the books ship from. This advantage gets even more significant with the rise in importance in preorders. Even if we could only promise the potential of getting books on Friday or Saturday instead of Tuesday, we would gain a significant sales advantage over stores stuck with that Monday delivery. So, in essence, strict on-sale dates and embargoes are simple tools that ensure a fair bookselling environment for all stores, regardless of geography.

    But they are also powerful publicity tools, effectively coordinating national and international publicity campaigns through a simple agreement. This coordination is most visible for midnight release parties, but can include everything from in-store displays (which PSB created for Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments), to threads from booksellers, to a wave of excitement from readers.

    Given its inclusion on the Booker shortlist, the stature of The Handmaid’s Tale in our culture, and the resurgence of fascism, The Testaments was going to absolutely dominate book twitter on September 10. It was going to trend worldwide. It was going to be a cultural moment, one that Margaret Atwood, her publisher, booksellers, reviewers, and readers were all going to contribute to and participate in. But with that embargo now broken by Amazon, September 10 has been diffused and all of that positive attention and interaction is hobbled.

    Except for Amazon themselves, of course. Their “error” generated dozens upon dozens of social media posts as Amazon customers celebrated their luck in getting one of the year’s most anticipated books a week earlier than expected. Amazon essentially received a massive amount of free publicity for violating the terms of a contract. Whether it is really true or not, the idea that Prime members have the chance to get coveted books early was spread and unless something happens, will stick.

    What this means for books and bookstores now depends entirely on how Penguin Random House responds to this “error.” If Amazon suffers no meaningful consequences for violating a contract that they and everyone else signed, what exactly is the point of strict on-sale dates and embargoes? If our primary competitor (and Amazon is our primary competitor) can just ignore them, either intentionally or in “error,” than why should we honor them?

    Finally, if publishers truly believe that independent bookstores are vital to the industry, if they truly understand that we create more sales for them than actually go through our registers (and they certainly say they believe this) what does it mean to give the retailer that already has every single sales advantage, yet another one?

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