Christmas shoppers sifting through the gift-book selections at Barnes & Noble stores may think they’re seeing double. Not far from Penguin’s best-selling coffee-table book The Secret Language of Birthdays, lies a Doppelgänger – a similarly packaged, less-expensive volume called The Ultimate Birthday Book. The two books have the same outsize dimensions, strikingly close dust-jacket designs, and all-but-identical internal layouts, combining astrology, numerology, Tarot, and celebrity trivia. “It’s just a takeoff with the same format,” offers a perky sales clerk at the Barnes & Noble on Broadway at 82nd Street.
The book-publishing field is, of course, rife with clones and knockoffs. What makes this one noteworthy is that the takeoff volume is published not by one of Penguin’s competitors but by Barnes & Noble itself. That means the company trying to attract consumers away from the original volume just happens to be the company that controls the most shelf space of any bookseller in the country.
This development comes amid considerable public anxiety about Barnes & Noble’s ever-growing market share. Already a gigantic retail presence, it has recently acquired Ingram, the country’s largest book distributor. “It’s very scary. It really does look very much like a monopoly,” says Stephanie Oda, publisher of the industry newsletter Subtext. “And knowing Barnes & Noble chairman Leonard Riggio, he’ll push the envelope even further.” Some see the superstore conglomerate’s actual publishing of books as an even more ominous indication of its power over the entire industry.
“It’s a nightmare,” says literary agent Elyse Cheney, of Sanford Greenburger Associates. “These kinds of books are a publisher’s bread and butter. Publishers do risky literary novels because they can do safer bets like The Secret Language of Birthdays. Without those, they can take fewer and fewer risks.”
Barnes & Noble purchased U.S. rights to The Ultimate Birthday Book from Connecticut-based Saraband Inc., a packager that specializes in illustrated nonfiction books. Barnes & Noble approved their work at various stages and gave occasional direction on design. Saraband’s Nikki Gillies says that the fact that a very similar book had been on the market since 1994 was not a concern. “That’s always the case with anything we do,” she explains. “We like to do it one step better. We like the challenge.” Mary Ellen Keating, a Barnes & Noble senior vice-president, adds that their intent was “to create a book that went further into Eastern astrology and had a little more detail and accuracy in research.”
Joost Elffers, Secret Language’s co-author, says he isn’t surprised that his book is the object of such sincere flattery. “I thought we’d get two years until someone copied it,” he confesses. “That we got four is pretty good.” Penguin, which does a tremendous volume of business with Barnes & Noble, declined to comment on this matter.
“When Barnes & Noble has so much power that people are afraid to speak up,” says André Schiffrin, director of The New Press, “that’s the real problem.”
Not everyone in publishing is so taciturn, however. “Almost every time there is a big acquisition, apocalyptic echoes begin in the land,” says Tom McCormack, former head of St. Martin’s Press, who points out that Doubleday, a major publisher, used to own a chain of bookstores. ” ‘Oh, my God, Viking bought Penguin, Bertelsmann bought Random House – the end of the world is coming!’ It doesn’t come.”
“I don’t mind that they’re doing books. That’s the competitive way,” says Laurence Kirshbaum, CEO of Time Warner Trade Publishing. “We might get into e-commerce and become retailers ourselves. There already is a very blurred line.”
However one views the development, though, it’s clear that spinoffs like The Ultimate Birthday Book are not just a onetime anomaly. Barnes & Noble, which self-published 400 titles last year alone (most of them literary classics that are in the public domain), recently hired Barbara Morgan away from Reader’s Digest to produce a new line of illustrated reference books. The first of the series is slated for the spring of 2000.
Elffers himself is willing to play ball. “In the end,” he says, “I work with the one who provides the smartest strategy to sell books.”