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Tears for Goliath


He’s No Riggio
“Believe me, if I had wanted to model it after you, I would have cast John Travolta instead of Tom Hanks,” Nora Ephron told Len Riggio, who she claimed was not the inspiration for the superstore owner in You’ve Got Mail.  

The initial order on my book was bleak—less than 100 books for more than 600 stores—but improved, ironically, after the ABA touted the title. In the nail-biting interim, I came to appreciate what a sour marriage we’ve all come to have: Barnes & Noble muscled into the market by courting consumer love, wielding cheap books, lattes, and acres of space. Then, one day, we (writers, publishers, and readers) woke up to find we had no other options.

In this scenario, isn’t Amazon the dashing new lover without strings attached? No pay-for-display, no book returns, no messy printing presses? Not quite. A recent study from the Codex Group showed that while 60 percent of book sales have migrated online, books are only discovered online less than 20 percent of the time. That means that physical bookstores still matter, even to Jeff Bezos. In defeating its competitors, Amazon might be, as Evan Hughes puts it in Salon, “choking off some of its own air supply.”

But Bezos owes more than that to Barnes & Noble. In truth, he’s replicating the chain’s earlier life cycle. First, make yourself irresistible, then make yourself indispensable. Corner the market, and you’ll be too big to challenge. That’s exactly the scenario publishers worried about when they arranged to pressure Amazon to raise its e-book prices. The Justice Department deemed the publishers’ efforts collusion.

The other defendant in the government’s suit was Apple, whose scheming with publishers took place in preparation for the launch of its iBookstore. Apple testified in court that its three-year-old book program already controls 20 percent of the e-book market. Bezos never had Riggio’s bookish pretensions, but he did start out as a bookseller of a sort. Steve Jobs never did. Could the book world one day wax nostalgic for the Amazon era? It’s one of the few things in the book business you can count on.

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