Ten years ago, Nancy Pearl started a program for Seattle public libraries that she hoped would get adults excited about literature. It was called, "If...

Share story

Ten years ago, Nancy Pearl started a program for Seattle public libraries that she hoped would get adults excited about literature. It was called, “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book.”

Free copies of “The Sweet Hereafter,” a novel about a deadly school-bus accident, were distributed to individuals and book clubs. Posters encouraged people to read the book and discuss it at library-sponsored events. The novel became the top-selling book in the area. But Pearl’s program received little national attention despite its success. “We just weren’t on the map then,” Pearl said.

Today, her name is familiar to book lovers from coast to coast. She attracted attention in 2003 when she published “Book Lust,” a guide to must-read books. A few years later, a sequel coincided with her promotion to national book commentator on National Public Radio.

While she does not have as much clout as Oprah Winfrey, authors tell Pearl her recommendations cause book sales to jump.

In many ways, Pearl’s rise in the book world parallels Seattle’s rise in the publishing world. Though the big publishing houses are still ensconced in New York, the Seattle area is the home of Amazon.com, Starbucks and Costco, three companies that increasingly influence what America reads.

Books by relatively unknown or foreign authors become best-sellers by dint of their anointment at the hands of Amazon editors.

A forgotten older paperback, recommended and featured by the book buyer at Costco, can sell more copies in six weeks than it did in the last few years combined.

Almost every book Starbucks stocks in its coffee shops sells more than 100,000 copies in its outlets alone. That pushes most Starbucks selections into the top 1 percent of books sold that year, without counting sales in other types of stores.

3 powerhouses

Together, the three companies’ combined power in the book industry has put the city in the position of tastemaker.

Each in its own way, “guides their customers, by selecting the books they will see,” Pearl said. “New York may publish the books, but Seattle significantly defines America’s reading list.”

Industry trends suggest Seattle’s influence will keep growing.

More people are bypassing bookstores and buying at mass-market merchants, online retailers and specialty stores, says Albert Greco, a marketing professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business Administration.

In the last two years alone, sales of consumer books sold through such nontraditional outlets grew by more than $260 million, Greco said.

The presence of Costco, Amazon and Starbucks ensures “Seattle will keep making an impact on what we read,” he said.

When Kim Ricketts, founder of a Seattle book-promotion company, visited the big publishing houses in New York last month, she said she was repeatedly asked for advice on how to do business with the three Seattle heavyweights.

“Publishers want to find the golden ticket: how to get their title beloved by one of these companies,” Ricketts said.

Starbucks started offering books to enhance the coffee-house experience, thinking that customers would enjoy spending more time in the shop if they had a provocative read and conversation starter. They also hoped it would increase spending by each customer.

Eclectic choices

Starbucks sells just one title at a time, usually for two to three months. The selections bear little resemblance to one another.

Some have been almost unknown; others were already best-sellers. The latest title, “Beautiful Boy,” focuses on a father trying to help his drug-addicted son.

“We wanted to find extraordinary books that would encourage people to discuss compelling issues” like war, hope, faith and family, said Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment.

In contrast to Starbucks and its one-book-fits-all strategy, Amazon works on a microlevel, using editors’ picks and customers’ buying histories to influence one reading list at a time.

Much is going on behind the scenes when one of Amazon’s 72 million active customers logs on.

Jeff Bezos moved to Seattle to found Amazon in 1994 because the Pacific Northwest was a nerve center of the growing technology industry.

“Amazon is the personification of Seattle,” said Daphne Durham, an editor at the company whose background includes a master’s degree in literature and time behind the counter at a bookstore.

“It’s a big tech company built on the old-fashioned book.”

Amazon’s “editorial team,” four men and three women, most in their 30s, constantly reviews books and recommends its favorites. Computer programmers create suggestions based on algorithms of what people have bought in the past.

And, of course, publishers pay Amazon to promote their books through advertisements.

When customers log on to the Web site, “a personalized bookstore” appears, displaying ingredients from all three sources to help them find what they might like, says Tom Nissley, an Amazon editor.

Customers also flock to “best of” lists sorted by genre, subject matter and other categories like “beach reads” or “books on Iraq,” which rotate on and off the site.

When one editor came across a little cartoon book called “Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations” and put it on last summer’s “Best of the Year So Far” list, it went out of stock almost immediately.

The editors can also create a level of national excitement for previously unknown books and help propel them to best-seller lists.

When “The Savage Detectives” was chosen for Amazon’s monthly Significant Seven list in May 2007, sales skyrocketed; Amazon was responsible for more than 50 percent of the copies sold.

The author, Roberto Bolano, was well known to Spanish-speaking readers, but the Amazon editors introduced him to English-speaking ones.

Amazon’s computer programmers also influence what America reads by creating paths that lead readers from one book to another.

A buyer of “Harry Potter” books might receive a recommendation to read “A Wrinkle in Time” or “The Golden Compass.”

These suggestions become the virtual bookstore employee who “hand sells” or recommends a book to customers, based on what they have already read.

Costco means bulk

For its part, Costco offers a relatively small, hand-picked selection to its millions of cardholders. On the book tables in the middle of its 383 warehouses nationwide are just 250 titles. When a title makes it to Costco, however, it generally sells in vast quantities.

Jeff Rogart calls on Costco’s headquarters four times a year for HarperCollins. “Costco’s visibility in publishing has risen to the level of Barnes & Noble’s and the other big chains,”‘ he said, adding that much of that climb could be credited to Pennie Clark Ianniciello.

Costco’s book buyer since 1994, Clark Ianniciello stocks the latest best-sellers but also “has an uncanny knack for leading customers to buy books, for molding their taste,” Rogart said. “She seems to know what they’ll enjoy discovering.”

Recently, Clark Ianniciello chose the 2004 paperback “Mr. Lincoln’s Wars” as her Pennie’s Pick of the month. Sales at Costco were “phenomenal,” Rogart said, surpassing in one month the number sold nationally in the last three years. The company would not supply exact figures.

Clark Ianniciello, like buyers at other major book retailers, may weigh in on other aspects of a book before it is published.

“We have five seconds to grab the attention of the Costco member scanning the table,” Rogart said.

“If Pennie and her team say that a book won’t catch the customer’s attention, we will look at the cover design again.”

A book’s on-sale date may be adjusted based on their views as well.

Special touches

Along with best-sellers and paperbacks, Clark Ianniciello stocks cookbooks, children’s books, coffee-table books, reference titles and others ripe for an impulse buy. With these titles, she often works with publishers to add something special just for Costco, like packaging colored markers with a coloring book so it’s a one-stop pickup for a parent planning a road trip.

“It’s what Costco does,” she said. “The appliance department may ask for an extra-long cord to be included on a vacuum we sell. I do it for our books.”

The flip side of the success of the big Seattle booksellers is the gradual decrease in the number of small independent stores, which have struggled as a result of a variety of factors.

Book lovers as well as writers miss the corner bookstore.

But Americans are busy, and if they can pick up the latest book while they’re stocking their pantry, sitting at their computer or going out for coffee, it saves them valuable time, said Brian Jud, author of “Beyond the Bookstore: How to Sell More Books Profitably to Non-Bookstore Markets.”

They just may not realize that someone in Seattle helped them choose it.