“Care of Wooden Floors,” by Will Wiles, is the kind of novel you’d expect to see on a “staff picks” shelf at an independent bookstore. A slim but sophisticated farce by a relatively unknown author, the book is full of witty asides and snappy comments about modern life; its wry, endearingly hapless narrator feels like he might have stepped out of a Nick Hornby story.
But many local stores, both independents and chains, are refusing to stock it. They don’t want to promote what they see as a predatory publisher. “Care of Wooden Floors” was issued this month by New Harvest, a new collaboration between Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the arch-nemesis of brick-and-mortar bookstores: Amazon.
Earlier this year the two companies signed a licensing agreement whereby Amazon Publishing acquires, edits, markets and publicizes books that are then distributed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s sales force, according to Alexandra Woodworth, a publicist for Amazon/New Harvest. The partnership was an effort to woo bookstores into stocking Amazon-published books. But many booksellers are balking.
“We don’t want to do anything that will support their publishing venture,” said Mark LaFramboise, chief buyer for Politics & Prosein Washington. The bookstore is not stocking Wiles’s novel, though it will order the book upon customer request.
“Amazon has not been a very cooperative fellow bookseller in any fashion,” LaFramboise said. “They pretty much want nothing more than our demise.”
Busboys and Poets is not carrying Wiles’s novel, either. “We are certainly not trying to be a satellite showroom for Amazon,” owner Andy Shallal said. “We don’t support Amazon’s ‘Wal-Martization’ of bookstores.” (Busboys’s Web site takes that position even further, saying Amazon “has strong-armed many publishers into reducing the prices of their books and eBooks.”) Busboys will not special-order the book but will direct interested customers to the Amazon site.
It’s not just the independents that are protesting. Barnes & Noble also has decided not to stock New Harvest books in its 689 stores. It will, however, sell them on its Web site and special-order them for customers. “Our decision is based on Amazon’s continued push for exclusivity with publishers, agents and the authors they represent,” Jaime Carey, B&N’s chief merchandising officer, said in a statement in January.
Woodworth would not disclose how many copies of “Care of Wooden Floors” were being printed or had sold since its release Oct. 9. “We’re excited about the reaction so far,” she said. Features about the book have been aired on NPR and appeared in the New York Times, where a full-page ad for the book ran in the Book Review earlier this month.
Wiles’s novel was originally published in the Britain by Fourth Estate and received generally positive reviews there. Amazon will not provide sales figures for the book, which was ranked 40,588 on its U.S. site as of Tuesday. According to Nielsen BookScan, fewer than 1,000 copies of the book had been sold as of last week. “My Mother Was Nuts,” Penny Marshall’s memoir, which New Harvest published Sept. 18, sold just 7,000 copies in its first month, despite a reported $800,000 advance; Jessica Valenti’s “Why Have Kids?,” released by New Harvest on Sept. 4, has sold 1,000.
Without prominent display in bookstores, “authors are not going to get the kind of exposure they want,” said Becky Anderson, president of the American Booksellers Association, a trade organization for independent booksellers. “If I were an author, I would think twice” about signing on with Amazon.
Then again, if enough bookstores refuse to sell Amazon’s books, they could become just the kind of hard-to-get, underappreciated gems that independent bookstores typically champion.