Thursday, August 21, 2008

Say it ain't so, Chelsea

In one of the most insensitive, wrong-headed and self-important decisions that a publisher has made in the last 15 years, the small, independent and formerly progressive publisher Chelsea Green has managed to turn its prime book selling allies into enemies. Perhaps more amazingly, the press has managed to unite Barnes & Noble and independent book stores around the country in their ire at Chelsea Green's unfair business practice.

Chelsea Green has given a three-week exclusive on its new book The Obama Challenge by Robert Kuttner. The book was to be released on September 15th, but Chelsea Green thought it was too important to wait that long. Nothing less than the fate of the nation itself hinges on delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Denver buying a pro-Obama book, according to publisher Margo Baldwin. So, attendees will receive 25% off coupons for the book on Amazon when they arrive in Denver on August 25th. Kuttner's book, which details what Obama's policies should be after taking office, actually seems more fitting to release closer to the election.

What's so amazing about this whole deal is that Chelsea Green has a bold initiative to woo independent bookstores. The Boulder Book Store, along with nearly 40 other independents around the country, is a Green Partner with the press. The Green Partner stores are committed to buying their titles non-returnable, working with Chelsea Green on publicity and author events and for basically waving the same progressive flag as high as possible.

We were one of the first stores in the program along with Denver's great independent book store Tattered Cover. Did it never occur to Chelsea Green just how detrimental distributing 15,000 coupons for our prime competitor in our community could be? Wouldn't a true partner work on a way to drive that business into our stores? Or, perhaps more realistically, allowed us along with Barnes & Noble and Borders to compete on a level playing field with Amazon?

It's interesting that a press like Chelsea Green that has published so many progressive books, including Naomi Wolf's End of America and George Lakoff's Don't Think of An Elephant, would resort to backdoor dealings and cronyism that would make Dick Cheney proud. Instead of trying to live Barack Obama's message, which at its core is about fairness and opportunity, Chelsea Green went for a blatant money grab that would embarrass the most hardened Republicans.

Chelsea Green is blinded by their laughable hubris and the idea that somehow one book from a small press can really change the world overnight. In the end, they've inadvertently started a change in the publishing world that if it takes hold, will make the market a much more inhospitable place to the very stores Chelsea Green relies on to sell their quirky progressive books .

I'm not sure where we go from here with Chelsea Green. We've canceled our order of the book in protest, although if customers start requesting it, we will pick it up. We were planning to feature it on our recommended titles display. The future of our relationship with Chelsea Green is much more troubling. We've basically given them favored publisher status over the past two years. We've taken chances on many of their books that we wouldn't have from other publishers, we've accepted a non-returnable discount that is a few points short of what we'd really like, all in the hopes of making a small difference in our community.

We partnered with them because the books they publish match the political beliefs and lifestyle choices of our customers better than perhaps any press out there. They publish books about strengthening local communities and dealing with global warming. But their business practices and insensitivity (they still don't seem to realize how they stabbed their Green Partners in the back) belies the content of the books they publish. It makes it almost impossible to do business with them. At the very least, we will need to get out of our partnership with them. To do any less would be setting ourselves up for future pain. Say it ain't so, Chelsea.


Michael Weaver said...

I'm a rep for Chelsea Green and, for the record, a 15-year former independent bookseller (including some cherished formative years at the Tattered Cover) and loyalist who buys all my books from independent stores. I do understand the response on the part of many independent booksellers and have my own issues with our decision to utilize an exclusive deal with Amazon in launching “Obama's Challenge.” I won't defend that decision here except to say that I don't think that it has been clearly explained in any of the media to cover it so far. In the spirit of open dialogue, I'd like to clarify a few points that may help to explain our actions. I should also state that my comments do not represent the official opinion of Chelsea Green Publishing and probably shouldn’t be referenced as such.

Chelsea Green is making no profit on the POD version of “Obama’s Challenge”--none. And in fact we’re losing money on all the redeemed DNC coupons. The POD book is a marketing expense that will be lucky to pay for itself. I’m not fishing for sympathy here, but making the point that the goal of our little gambit is absolutely NOT to sell 100,000 copies of the POD through Amazon; the goal has always been to sell just enough to prime the pump so that we can sell 100,000 finished books before the election, through all channels.

This may sound insignificant or even disingenuous to independent booksellers who are rightfully pained to see Amazon selling the book before it has access to it. I’m absolutely not saying that it was the right decision, but I would emphasize that all along our focus was on how to best market a book that really needed to be available by convention time, not playing favorites with our customers.

Could we have included indies in this little marketing scheme? Maybe. I’m not sure. We did approach at least one POD vendor other than Booksurge and were told that they couldn’t deliver a book in time for the convention. Obviously I wish fervently that we had tried harder to find a more equitable solution.

But the point is that we didn’t view the POD as sales, per se. It was more like giving away a bunch of galleys to end users, except that we were subsidizing our costs by selling them. Simon and Schuster and Random House can afford to give out 10,000 or 15,000 galleys; Chelsea Green cannot. And the fact remains that the equation only works for us if the finished book sells through all channels. The last thing this strategy was intended to do is undercut sales of the finished book.

Does this justify the decision we made? Perhaps not. I truly hope that this sordid little episode prompts a conversation about how we, or any other publisher, could utilize indies for marketing crash titles like this one. I, frankly, am not at all sure whether we could have found a cost-effective way to do that in this case. I’d love to work with Indiebound on this.

It just sickens me that Chelsea Green is being cast as an enemy of independent booksellers. If I believed that it was our intention to slight the indies, I promise you, I wouldn't still work for Chelsea Green.

Michael Weaver
mweaver at

Anonymous said...

They should have you write Margo's open letters. Seriously.

lady t said...

With respect to Mr. Weaver(who does speak up much better for his company than Margo Baldwin did),given the fact that Chelsea Green has a program in place to work with independent book stores(who lose money on non returnable books),the Amazon coupons are understandably seen as a slap in the face.

I'm sure that there was no direct intention to insult anyone but there were other options to consider. One that I've seen mentioned include simply printing up an excerpt from the Obama book to hand out at the DNC ,which sounds like a good idea to me.

I'm a former bookseller,too,and some of this debacle reminds me of the time that Dave Eggers' first novel,You Shall Know Our Velocity,first came out. The book was advertised as being available only thru indie book stores and we at our place had several requests for it.

However,the catch was that the book was easily available to indie stores that already had a McSweeney's account. Stores like ours in NYC who weren't signed up with McSweeney's couldn't get copies from Ingram,B&T or any of the other book distributers and had to tell their customers that the Eggers book had to be special ordered from the publishers(which would involve extra charges).

Our customers were confused and annoyed by that,with some of them saying to us"But it's supposed to be at independent book stores!" We were not the only bookseller who was affected by this highhandedness,which ticked me off since Eggers had no qualms about having other work published with folks like Random House and Houghton Mifflin who have plenty of access to wide distribution.

McSweeney's is doing well,but that bit of business didn't leave me with a very good impression of their business. I was unfamiliar with Chelsea Green before this incident and now,I'm not the only one who has gotten a bad first impression of CG. The fact that Barnes & Noble has sided with the indies here by canceling their order as well just goes to show what strange bedfellows politics can make.


Lady T

Dullcinema said...

I remember from past years as a book buyer making a special effort at the national book shows to support the little press, valiant Chelsea Green, whose publishing efforts we felt so important. We really worked to support them, not just going out on an economic limb to justify our purchases, but sometimes adding an artificial limb when existing ones looked too weak to sustain our argument. We really wanted CG to stay in business. This new face of Chelsea Green, even with Mr. Weaver's layer of cosmetics applied, is heartbreaking. The end, CG, does not justify the means; the end is the means.