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Who Decides What Gets Sold In The Bookstore?

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We can probably agree that the local supermarket has no moral or ethical or business obligation to sell cherry-flavored Cap’n Crunch. If the owner doesn’t like cherries, she doesn’t have to sell them.

And the cereal maker shouldn’t work under the assumption that every store that sells food will necessarily carry the Cap’n, even on special order.

But what about books?

There’s been a long history of ubiquity at the bookstore. With a few extreme exceptions, just about every book is available at every bookstore if you’re willing to order it. Universal availability feels like part of the contract we make with bookstores–we expect them to sell everything. In the digital world, this goes triple, because there’s no issue of shelf space to deal with.

I just found out that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) is rejecting my new manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams and won’t carry it in their store because inside the manifesto are links to buy the books I mention in the bibliography.

Quoting here from their note to me, rejecting the book: “Multiple links to Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) store. IE page 35, David Weinberger link.”

And there’s the conflict. We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores (Amazon, Apple, Nook…) and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing. Apple, apparently, won’t carry an ebook that contains a link to buy a hardcover book from Amazon.

That’s amazing to me. It must be a mistake, right?

First, because the web, like your mind, works best when it’s open. Second, because once bookstores start to censor the books they carry (business reasons, personal taste, etc.) then the door is open for any interest group to work hard to block books with which they disagree. Where does the line get drawn?

A key part of the argument about SOPA was that choke points and blacklists break a system that works best when information is allowed to flow freely.

I’ve evolved my thinking on this over the years. At Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO), I was a proponent of having the company buy Netscape and integrate Yahoo into the browser. And I think there’s nothing much wrong with merchants and vendors working hard with exclusives and deals to increase market share. When it comes to a content screen, though, I get nervous, particularly when the device is part of the store. Once you are reading your books on a device that is hooked into a store, the person curating the store has a great deal more power than a local bookseller ever did.

I think that Amazon and Apple and B&N need to take a deep breath and make a decision on principle: what’s inside the book shouldn’t be of concern to a bookstore with a substantial choke on the marketplace. If it’s legal, they ought to let people read it if they choose to. A small bookstore doesn’t have that obligation, but if they’re seeking to be the one and only, if they have a big share of the market, then they do, particularly if they’re integrating the device into the store. I also think that if any of these companies publish a book, they ought to think really hard before they refuse to let the others sell it.

[Should YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG) be able to block videos that promote Vimeo? Should Bing refuse to link to Google docs if you search for it? What about the Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) cable box on your TV — should CBS (NYSE: CBS) be off limits?]

It’s easy for me to have a workaround here with this project. Just visit the site on your iPad or iPhone, choose the EPUB edition and open it. But many authors won’t have the same ability, particularly if they want to use enhanced functionality on a given platform.

These stores can’t have it both ways. The web works because it’s open. The stores (all three of them) need to be too.

This post originally appeared on The Domino Project.

Seth Godin is the founder of The Domino Project and has written twelve books that have been translated into more than thirty languages. Every one has been a bestseller. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything.

This article originally appeared in The Domino Project.

34 Responses to “Who Decides What Gets Sold In The Bookstore?”

  1. What a wuss. If they won’t carry, its their loss, if u need their help in selling more, its ur loss. Stop complaining about ficticious elements that begin with the word ‘free’ – free speech, free market, they are all mirage. Get used to the capitalistic world or fade away

  2. It’s seems to me much more sensible to reference your own web page that has links on it so you can update the links when they break, add more links to other stores, or link to the freely available version when you are no longer selling it. In that case, you’d be showing accountability for the book AND the page where you maintain the links instead of offloading it to Amazon in hopes they would maintain the links indefinitely. Not to mention, an Amazon page that no longer sells an item is like declaring the item not worth having anymore.

    Having control over your own web page helps with future proofing, too. Having a website doesn’t cost that much. You might consider looking into getting your own website, Seth, it could really help out as a means of maintaining your reputation instead of have your reputation tarnished with broken links from old ebooks.

  3. Censorship is blocking a message or idea. If the removal of the hyper links to Amazon (not the underlying text) does not change the intended message then no censorship has occurred and the entire article falls down.

  4. T-Bone

    Hey Seth, did you get written permission from the Amazon Affiliate program to include your links in an eBook?  If not, that’s a violation of Section 7 (, and looking forward to your – “Who decides where I can post my affiliate links!?” follow up.

  5. This is like putting an add for a competing bookstore inside a book. Why would they want that. Just make the link to iBook store version of the book and you are good to go.

    Now if your book isn’t using links to amazon to sell books but simply as part of the story that might be another (easily missused probably) thing.

  6. Apple’s crime is not wanting to allow competitive ‘advertising’ in their products. This isn’t much an argument because people are aware there are other bookstores and the person seeing the information on Amazon has already purchased the book from Apple. It is akin to a store not stocking a product they don’t like or don’t support the producer.

    However, I find it more distasteful to patronize Amazon’s bookstore. The outrageous royalty share they take is sinful, not to mention the strings they attach… Have a look as compared to B&N

    • No, it *is* a big deal for Seth. Assume thousands of people buy the ebook from Apple. Given the strength of Seth’s reputation, I’d guess millions. Some percentage of those sales go to Seth as the author. Now, there are all these thousands or millions of readers. They’re happily reading along and they come across an Amazon link to a book Seth recommends. Remember, Amazon is a competitor of Apple’s.

      They follow the link on the strength of Seth’s reputation and a certain fraction of them buy the book on the spot. Seth’s affiliate link pays him a cut of the sale prices. Again, since Seth is a famous author, I’m guessing many thousands of clicks and much better than average click-through and conversion rates. Seth is a phenomenal salesman!

      The bottom line is that Apple would be *selling* and distributing ad copy for Seth and Amazon to consumers, many of whom would *not* realize they were in fact reading ad copy and paying Seth a commission on all books they bought via the links. Because of Seth’s numbers, that is a *very* big deal, and I say, “Bravo, Apple!” for refusing to allow it to happen.

  7. Much ado about nothing. Funny how some cry out for “freedom!” here, while what they really wish to do is *restrict* the freedom of Apple (and others) to decide which books they will sell.

    Should I also complain bitterly about my local Christian bookstore not placing a special order for me for a pornographic novel?Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, etc., are not public spaces. They are private businesses. They don’t have a monopoly stranglehold on book distribution, nor do they have a moral obligation to Seth, or anyone else, to carry any particular book.Don’t confuse enforced censorship (e.g., books banned by law) with the freedom of companies in the marketplace to choose which books they wish to sell, or not to sell, for whatever reasons they like. The author (Seth) also does not disclose important, relevant information, such as that the links to Amazon are actually affiliate links — meaning Seth gets a cut of each sale. In other words, he was essentially attempting to publish a catalog or online storefront *for another store* through iBooks.

  8. Techpm

    Why is a book linking directly to purchase pages of other books anyway? Just seems greedy and wrong. 

    Link to the publisher’s or author’s page, or link to WorldCat so readers can check their local libraries too.

    • No, its not.  Its not illegal to refuse to carry an ebook AT ALL.  Any more than its illegal for Wal*Mart to decide not to carry a product or Barnes and Noble.  Apple can refuse to carry anything for any reason legally.  The author has the right to write his book, he has the right to distribute or even sell his book, but he doesn’t have the right to compell someone else to stock and or sell the book.

      If the author chooses to he can give away the eBook in ePub format and iBooks will still read it, thats his choice.  He could even sell it in ePub format.  But he can’t force Apple to carry it.  Seriously, you really need to research this sort of stuff before you declare it to be an anti-trust violation.  Its not even close to that.

  9. Walt French

    There are many, many issues that you’re glossing over.

    First, Apple’s share in eBooks and total book sales, has to be such that the idea of a “choke point” is laughable. WalMart’s and CostCo’s and other big-boxers’ decisions of what they will or won’t carry are maybe 10X as important. Don’t even think about special orders with any of ’em.

    Second, you will ask many booksellers, including the rather huge B&N, in vain for the Kindle imprints (Amazon Encore, Montlake Romance, Thomas & Mercer…) titles. Cash on the counter notwithstanding. Amazon’s aggressive push to cut out others in its drive to domination has led all sorts of shops to stop doing business with a firm committed to putting them out of business.

    Let’s tweak your Cherry Cap’n Crunch analogy just a bit: suppose each box comes with a coupon for $2 off some OTHER Quaker products that are only sold at Safeway stores. You can’t be very surprised if your local Whole Foods decides they don’t want to carry it. Likewise, most books list the author’s opus without a whit of concern. But you’re going a step or two further: you’ve turned your current work from being a piece of writing into being an Amazon storefront. That’s not what iBook was meant to be, and all your arm-waving won’t change the fact that Apple doesn’t distribute competitors’ catalogs.

    Therefore, equating Apple’s moves with either censorship or narrowing the market is pretty hysterical. What’s really happened: you’ve elected to transition from “writing” to “promoting/selling” and chosen the wrong forum. Hope your sales efforts find a better venue than one where you have to pretend they’re “books.”

  10. Wait, were the links to buy the hardcover books only going to Amazon and not other online retailers of print books? If so, why? Doesn’t that also lead to a narrowing of the market?

    • It’s better. The author line to Amazon because he gets a cut. Personally I don’t think Apple is at fault here. I’m sure Amazon would reject a book if it linked internally to the iBooks store and not the Kindle store…

  11. Amazon should retaliate by stop selling iPad, iPhone, iPod, iMac, and all Apple products, including books that mention Apple, such as Jobs biography (which was top selling last year). 

    • Jersey125

      Except iPad, iPhone, iPod, iMac, and all Apple products, including books that mention Apple are all top selling prodcts in their respective categories. Amazon would be cutting off a huge revenue stream and would be the bigger loser compared to Apple.

      Whats the saying: Cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    • That would be a great way to blow this even more out of proportion!!  Hey Rk, why don’t you go count how many Apple links exist on that Amazon isn’t getting either a fee or commission on for Apple products?  I’m going to say that number is zero.  Apple is totally within their rights here, anyone who thinks this is a free speech or a digital rights issue doesn’t understand either.

  12. SOPA/PIPA was about forcing individuals/companies to comply with some other companies distorted idea of what they want to censor.

    Apple is perfectly in their right to refuse whatever works from online estate they’re controlling (as they did in this instance). You may not agree with their decision, but if you agree with the principle of freedom and free markets, then you shouldn’t think about forcing them.

    If you really care about that works can be published somewhere without interference by special interests of the publishing party, you should think about how walled garden ecosystems are harmful, and how to change that so they’re also unattractive (why don’t you make a competing book-store that writes in it TOS that they will not reject publication of works for reasons of conflict of interest or somesuch)?

  13. You are a bit late to this shindig.  It goes beyond “linking” to other books in other eBookstores.  Apple has rejected eBooks that even *mention* that they are available in Kindle format.

    And hey, did you think it was a good thing when the App Store wouldn’t carry a magazine that was for *Android* users?

    It’s incredible how some people pay attention to freedom and liberty *only* when their *own* is threatened.

    • Exactly. This climate has existed for decades and for every step toward freedom and openness in the digital realm, two steps are taken backward. Until recently, anyone who’s warned of the potential or existing problems of locked formats and over-reaching content control policies have been conspiracy theorists in the eyes of the general public that’s been too lazy to check out organizations like the EFF. Apple’s behavior is far from surprising. It’s typical.

      Of course, we should all keep in mind that it’s beneficial for Seth Godin to talk about how awful Apple is now because The Domino Project works directly with Amazon. I notice he’s quiet about Amazon’s faults. As much as I love Amazon from a consumer perspective at times, they’re far from faultless when it comes to digital rights and how they treat the writers whose works they publish.

      The fact is we need neutral internet and formats or this sort of climate will continue to exist.

    • Mike, that’s a bit harsh – I tend to follow the openness issue with content, and I had never heard about the App Store rejecting an Android magazine or rejecting ebooks that mention Kindle versions (ironic, because I have the Kindle app on my iPad). Sometimes things don’t get mentioned because, well, they don’t affect the person. Can’t say it’s a selfish thing particularly.