Chelsea Green and the politics of ‘Obama’s Challenge’

The publishing and bookselling world has been atwitter since the announcement on Friday of publisher Chelsea Green’s decision to offer Robert Kuttner’s Obama’s Challenge early exclusively on As soon as news of the announcement was posted on Publisher’s Weekly’s website, comments flooded in on the article, outraged at the decision by the publisher. Letters and complaints were also sent to Chelsea Green’s sales team, and the strong response prompted an open letter from Chelsea Green‘s president, Margo Baldwin.

Along with many other independent booksellers, I want to express my extreme disappointment with the decision by Chelsea Green to offer this exclusive to Amazon. I can think of no reason for the publisher to offer this exclusive to Amazon other than some sort of “payola” from the e-tailing giant. Chelsea Green is a great boutique publisher, and has enjoyed the support of independent bookstores for many years. As a fellow independent business, I would have preferred CG to return some of this support by at least offering this title to our stores at the same time as Amazon. As Claire Benedict of Bear Pond Books pointed out, it is tough to “tell customers to buy local when they can get a book three weeks earlier online.”

The open letter written by Margo Baldwin today did little to calm my fears that Chelsea Green would stick to their original plan. In fact, I found the letter pretty damn condescending, asking that we in the independent community need “a little perspective.” One line in particular caught my attention –

I wonder how many booksellers are happy to sell another few thousand “abomination” books while being “outraged” by Chelsea Green’s decision to make its book available as fast as possible.

While I certainly can’t speak for other booksellers, I do fall somewhere on the left on the political spectrum. However, I certainly don’t buy this suggestion that retailers are somehow hypocritical in selling books that they don’t agree with, or by wanting to get this new title as quickly as possible. While I applaud Chelsea Green for deciding to get Kuttner’s book out quickly, the release could have been accomplished in a way that allowed independents to stock the title. Ingram (a book wholesaler) has a Print-On-Demand service, and could supply retailers with Obama’s Challenge as quickly as Amazon can supply customers. Suggesting that we in the brick-and-mortar business don’t want the book to come out as quickly as possible is ridiculous – we just want the access afforded to Amazon.

I also balk at the idea that this is a “marketing strategy”, and not a sales strategy by CG. The publisher is offering 2,000 free ARCs (advance reading copies) at the Democratic Convention, along with 15,000 coupons for discounts on the book. These facts, along with the fact that the title is coming from a respected author and is one of the first major pro-Obama advocacy books, makes me think that the buzz would be just as big if the book was available for sale down the street from the convention at a bookstore. Baldwin suggest that “If we can successfully launch it with our special promotional coupon at the DNC, then your customers will be asking for the book by the time we ship the first printing.” Margo, why would they be asking for a book they’ve been able to buy for almost three weeks (especially when, due to POD, the title couldn’t possibly “sell out” at Amazon)?

I twitter, I blog, I listen to podcasts and I shop online. I couldn’t agree more with Baldwin’s statement that while the world is changing, the publishing and bookselling industries seem locked in their old ways. However, there must be a way that a small publisher like Chelsea Green can evolve and support the independent stores that support them, rather than turn their back on us.


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