Some independent booksellers express "consternation" over Nancy Pearl's new deal with Amazon.com
She’s the country’s most-beloved librarian, whose book recommendations are avidly sought by her fans.
Nancy Pearl is so famous that tens of thousands of her prim-looking action figures, wagging a shushing finger, have been sold by novelty-seller Archie McPhee.
And overnight, this 67-year-old Seattle grandmother has become … a greedy betrayer of the small, sometimes-struggling, bookshops that so supported her?
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“Yes,” says J.B. Dickey, owner of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop about such an assessment. “By aligning herself with Amazon, she’s turning her back on independents. Amazon is absolutely antithetical to independent bookselling, and, to many of us, truth, justice and the American way.”
If things sound like they’ve gotten a little heated over Pearl’s latest project, they have.
On Wednesday, Amazon.com announced it was issuing “Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries series, a line of Pearl’s favorite, presently out-of-print books to share with readers hungry for her expert recommendations.”
About six books a year would be published in versions that include print books and eBooks, says the Seattle-headquartered merchandising Goliath that in 2010 had sales of $34 billion, or about $1,077 per second.
One of the first books to be published will be Merle Miller’s “A Gay and Melancholy Sound,” that runs to 600 pages, “about a failure to love and be loved.” The books chosen didn’t exactly make the best-seller list when first issued.
Pearl, a former Seattle librarian who is a regular commentator on NPR, says she did consider the reaction from independent bookshops when signing up with Amazon.
She says she is sympathetic to independents, having managed one in Tulsa, Okla., for nine years, from 1979 to 1988.
“I had hoped, perhaps naively, that they’d see the benefits of this project,” Pearl says. “This has been a dream of mine for a decade or more, to have these books back in print. It seemed to make the project very worthwhile.”
The reaction from the brick-and-mortar bookshops — which have struggled first against competition from the big-box chains, and then the price-cutting Amazon — was immediate.
By Friday, some 50 store managers and owners had emailed Thom Chambliss, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association in Eugene, Ore.
That’s a sizable number, considering the group has 160 to 165 total members.
“Consternation,” is how Chambliss describes the content of the emails.
Before taking a position on Pearl’s alliance with Amazon, the group says it wants to talk to Pearl — whom in 2011 it gave its “Lifetime Achievement Award” for the “Book Lust” series containing her book recommendations.
“Some people are calling for action, and others are suggesting we mend our relationship with her as best as we can,” says Chambliss.
Something the independents have to consider is that Nancy Pearl helps move books.
“Are you kidding? She is known throughout the country. She’s one of the biggest names in the book world right now. Period,” says Chambliss.
In the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Dickey isn’t much for making peace with Pearl, and his shop will carry nothing issued by Amazon.
“She’s no longer going to be simply a librarian; she’s now a publisher and, as such, cannot be viewed as objective. No publisher is. And, by being affiliated with Amazon, she’s lending her ‘brand’ to them and can no longer be viewed as free agent. No matter what she recommends from now on, the appearance, suspicion or assumption will always be, fair or not, that Amazon is calling — or at least influencing — her shots.”
Pearls laughs when told of the accusation.
“I think that anyone who knows me knows that I have always spoken the truth to power. I have always been honest in everything I’ve done,” she says.
Dickey says his store won’t stock any print books published by Amazon, as he will have to buy them for the same price as customers ordering online.
He says his shop does sell eBooks through its website, but the Pearl series only will be available on Kindle, a proprietary reading device sold by Amazon.
“There is no way to win, so we don’t sit down at the table,” says Dickey.
Other Seattle independent bookshops have taken a different tone toward the controversy.
Third Place Books would not comment.
The Elliott Bay Book Co. says it doesn’t have “a fully formed opinion.”
At University Book Store, spokeswoman Stesha Brandon says, “Nancy has been very supportive of us throughout the years and we don’t anticipate that support wavering.”
Brandon says she understands the strong feelings on the part of someone such as Dickey: “It’s an emotional issue. Bookselling is considered an avocation by a lot of people. When you feel your livelihood is on the line, the stakes are higher.”
Victoria Sanders, Pearl’s New York City-based agent for the Amazon deal, says: “The fact that people are in such an uproar about this … I’m a little taken aback.”
She says that “every major publisher in New York,” and numerous midsize publishers were approached about Pearl’s idea of bringing back the out-of-print books.
Sanders says that inevitably, the publishers bowed out after deciding it wasn’t worth the effort, particularly because negotiating the rights to so many books was involved.
“But the people at Amazon, they got it. They love these books,” says Sanders.
She says nobody in the deal expects there’ll be much profit.
Sanders says her commission per book is “a couple of hundred” dollars, “enough to buy me and a guest lunch in Manhattan at a nice restaurant, and I mean lunch.”
Pearl says all she wants to do is give these lost books a new life.
She is donating a portion of the proceeds from the book sales to the Nancy Pearl Endowment for Public Librarianship at the University of Washington’s Information School.
“These are not going to be best-sellers. They’re not celebrity biographies. They’re not celebrity memoirs,” Pearl says.
“These are books that I read and cherished. I’m convinced that making these books available was the right thing to do.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Material from The Seattle Times archive is included in this report.