Aside from standing in long lines to
purchase outrageously overpriced books, there isn’t a whole
lot to complain about when buying a book these days. It is not a
difficult thing to do, especially in a place like Ann Arbor, where
bookstores seem to litter downtown.

Janna Hutz

In addition to traditional stores, there is also the convenience
of online shopping. Almost every bookstore has an online division.
Additional discounts and the ease of shopping at all hours of the
night makes buying on the Internet ideal. I would be willing to bet
that overall book sales have increased because of online
vendors.

This considered, there was a time when people thought Internet
vendors, like Amazon.com, would either fail miserably or succeed in
leading to the downfall of traditional stores. It had been feared
that since online stores have reduced overhead and can charge less
for their books, that they would steal patronage from local stores.
The e-book also spelled disaster for traditional paper lovers.
Initially, the same people who love to buy bound volumes feared
that too many would download books to their computer or PDA and
there wouldn’t be demand for paper copies.

These worries were pointless; the only thing that the Internet
and e-books have done is help the industry by giving customers more
options and cheaper price tags.

What happens when competition is taken away though? Now there
seems to be something new to fear in the book world, and it takes
form in the behemoth that is Barnes & Noble.

Last January, America’s largest bookstore chain expanded
its publishing business by purchasing Sterling Publishing for a
considerable sum. Sterling is best known for its variety of how-to
and informative nonfiction titles. Barnes & Noble already
published on a small-scale basis like other large chains —
typically classic works that are no longer copyrighted. However, by
acquiring Sterling they have changed the dimensions of the
bookseller/publisher game. Not only are they producing best-selling
books, but the store’s original publishing division, Barnes
& Noble Books, is beginning to churn out more popular
titles.

“Weird U.S.” by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman and an
unauthorized hardcover edition of “The 9/11 Report” are
two of their newest releases. Barnes & Noble Books published
“The 9/11 Report” in relative secrecy, adding to the
controversy. Most publishing houses announce their future releases
months in advance, in order to drum up as much excitement as
possible. But according to The New York Times, Barnes & Noble
chief executive Stephen Riggio said the company didn’t make a
habit of announcing upcoming releases.

Barnes & Noble, playing the roles of bookseller and
publisher, is in an opportune position to turn a large profit. It
has eliminated the cost of actually buying the title to distribute,
so the company can sell their books for less and still make big
gains. “The 9/11 Report,” published by Barnes &
Noble, sells at half the list price of the W.W. Norton &
Company hardcover. Borders, the nation’s second largest
bookseller, and the wholesale distributor Costco have both stated
that they would no longer carry Sterling titles, according to The
New York Times. The companies view selling the books as a conflict
of interest.

Borders apparently has plans to expand its publishing division
as well. What happens if Barnes & Noble decides not to carry
Borders’ books?

I can see the predictions now: Instead of going to one store to
find what you need, you have to make the trip to multiple
bookshops. Barnes & Noble would carry half the books ,while
Borders would carry the rest. The two business-savvy companies
would have made exclusive distributing agreements with individual
publishers not to sell their products elsewhere. Then the
independent bookstores are left high and dry with few major titles
to offer, unless of course the publishers band together and stop
selling to the superstores.

Obviously, this scenario is unlikely, but it is no more
far-fetched than thinking that online sales will bring an end to
traditional bookselling. As for Borders’ decision to ban
Sterling Titles from its shelves, I haven’t seen that
happening either. Amazon.com, the company in charge of
Borders’ online division, is still selling the books, and the
store on East Liberty Avenue still sells the older titles.

It is important to be informed about the company you are buying
from and what they are doing in order to decide if you want to
support their actions. More likely, however, the two super chains
of the industry will swallow their pride and carry the
other’s titles.

This new development hardly spells disaster for the consumer,
rather it presents a new opportunity to buy high caliber books at a
reduced cost.

 

Melissa’s too busy buying books at Barnes & Noble
to respond, but if you must, e-mail her at
“mailto:goghrun@umich.edu”>goghrun@umich.edu.

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