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Are Indie Booksellers (& Liberals) Martyring Chelsea Green?

obamas-challenge-cover.jpgAs news spread yesterday about the bookselling industry’s outrage at Chelsea Green, the independent publisher that decided to give a two-week window of exclusivity on Obama’s Challenge, its attempt to define the agenda for an Obama presidency before the man even accepts his party’s nomination, the company did manage to find some defenders. Former employee Jennifer Nix used her new Huffington Post bully pulpit to suggest liberals need to get their act together: “The left seems unable or unwilling to absorb the important lesson about supporting progressive books,” she says, “so they, too, will debut on bestseller lists [and] monopolize media coverage…”

“Once again, a meticulously-reported and intelligent progressive book may die on the vine, from lack of progressive support, before word of it reaches the American public. On our side, we have no wingnut-welfare type support for our writers, who take the time to write and promote their work tirelessly in an effort to advance the progressive cause. Despite the odds, a precious few scratch and claw their way onto bestseller lists post-pub date, after tortuous weeks of book-touring and self-promotion, in the face of giant collective yawns from the progressive community. Most go to all this trouble, and still don’t make the lists.”

Also, she says, it’s wrong for independent booksellers to dogpile on Chelsea Green for having the courage to break free of the old way of doing things: “This isn’t just about business. It’s about activism and defeating the right, and getting our messages and ideas out in the most effective ways possible,” she writes. “A few thousand POD copies of Obama’s Challenge will lead to more people walking through your doors and asking for the book before the election. Boycotting this book is a mistake, and you know it.”

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Amazon Launches Podcast Network today officially launched its Amazon Podcasts network, an original podcast series offering customers four unique channels of free content: Amazon BookClips, Music You Should Hear, Significant Seven and Amazon Wire. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that the company expects to offer several additional channels in the coming months to meet its customers’ increasing demand for rich content related to the products they shop for every day on Each podcast is available via streaming and download from, and through RSS and iTunes. Amazon Wire is also available on TiVo.

“Amazon Podcasts offers customers exclusive content and interviews they won’t find anywhere else,” said Kristi Coulter, Senior Manager of Editorial at “Amazon is continually finding ways to improve the service we provide to our millions of customers. Thanks to this new and innovative podcast series, listeners can get more exclusive information about the artists, authors and actors they love.”

Postal Changes Means Bad News for Used Booksellers

The New York Times’ Bob Tedeschi reports on an upcoming change by the United States Postal Service that may have a dramatic impact on how used booksellers do business. That’s because as of mid-May, it would no longer transport goods internationally via cargo ships for individual customers. These so-called surface deliveries have been the crucial method by which booksellers have sold books to foreign markets because the cost is about one-third that of air mail. “If postage costs as much, if not more, than the book, it’ll be hard to sell books,” said Rob Stuart, owner of, a seller of rare and antique books in Frenchboro, Maine, population 75. “And maybe 25 percent or more of my books sell internationally.”

Analysts said would not be affected by the change; international book shipments represent a small fraction of its business, and because, like other high-volume businesses, it can qualify for discounts on foreign shipments. “We’re already competing with the special deals the Postal Service does with Amazon, eBay and the big book purveyors that get cut rates on postage because of volume,” Stuart told the NYT, emphasizing that the postal changes means the island’s mail deliveries could be threatened, and he may also be forced to lay off a part-time worker. “So when they drop economy international shipping, they’re playing with a model that talks about economies of scale – one that’s balanced by a few huge operations, and wipes out the little operations.”

Yvonne Yoerger, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service, said customers aren’t yet aware of other options. She told the NYT that “customized agreements” for surface mail are being developed for higher-volume shippers that will be enhanced over the next several months to address the needs of small businesses. “The Postal Service has a longstanding commitment to small businesses and is working to accommodate customers’ needs as the international mail changes take effect.”

Exact Sales Figures: The Needle/Haystack Conundrum

As part of its continuing coverage of the Clive Cussler/Philip Anschutz lawsuit (more on that below) the LA Times delves into one of the key points of the lawsuit – did Cussler grossly overinflate his sales figures – and fans back into the publishing industry’s general cluelessness vagueness of exact sales figures. Finding data about book sales got easier in 2001, writes Josh Getlin, when Nielsen BookScan, a New York-based firm, began compiling information that measured about 70% of the U.S. book market. Yet there is still confusion in the marketplace. BookScan records sales from major chain stores, a sampling of independent sellers, online firms like, plus Costco, Kmart, Target and Starbucks. But it does not track weekly sales from Wal-Mart, religious stores, gift shops, grocers, drugstores and other outlets.

Meanwhile, publishers routinely withhold full sales figures, saying the information is proprietary. The only people legally entitled to know those numbers are authors and their agents. “The publishing business has never gone out of its way to report actual sales numbers because it has no real interest in doing so,” said Albert Greco, a Fordham University economist who analyzes business trends in the book world. “It’s hard to know what’s real. If an author on TV talk says his book has sold 1 million copies, only a few people will know if that’s true.” Especially when announced print runs are about twice the number of actual books printed, the despair of returns at full price and the small number of readers as compared to other forms of media.

“Most books don’t have anywhere near the financial success of movies, even unsuccessful movies,” said Cathy Langer, chief buyer for the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver. “So if you look at sales figures, it’s not a pretty picture. And when you get so obsessed with numbers, you lose the wonder and creativity that’s basic to the book business.”

The Mystery of Amazon’s Fluctuating Prices

All David Streitfield wanted to do was buy a book. Looking around for a copy of THE IRON SKILLET COOKBOOK to “boost [his] dubious culinary skills,” the LA Times writer found a copy at, put it in his shopping cart, and forgot about it. The next day, he decided to buy it, only to get a pop-up message that the price had increased from $11.02 to $11.53. He checked with friends, who noted the price increase as well. How could this happen?

So Streitfield devised a test: he added a bunch of books, most of them newly published, most of them obscure, to his shopping baskets with both Amazon and its British affiliate, On December 15, he checked his shopping baskets, finding that “nine of the U.S. books had increased in price; three had decreased. At the British branch, nine had increased and none had decreased.” Could this be an instance of “dynamic pricing,” which involves selling identical material for different amounts based on the customer’s willingness to pay? Amazon didn’t want to comment on their strategies.
“Prices change,” spokesman Sean Sundwall said. “Prices go up, prices go down.”