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People’s Books and Culture closes

13 Jun

Sadly, one of West Philly’s oldest bookstores has closed. People’s Books & Culture (formerly Penn Book Center) did not survive the pandemic, which hit just as the new owners were in the process of transitioning the store to a more community-oriented space (for many years it relied on textbooks to support its always eclectic offerings),

Barnes&Noble sold

9 Jun

The New York Times reports that an investment firm best known for buying up Argentine bonds after the country had defaulted and then pursuing the country in courts around the world until a new administration agreed to pay – Elliott Advisors made some $2 billion on the deal – has bought the U.S.’s largest book chain, Barnes & Noble.

Elliott will place B&N under the management of the CEO of British bookstore chain Waterstones, which it bought in June 2018. (Waterstones operate more than 280 stores; its annual total and per-store sales are dwarfed by B&N’s.)

Although it operates hundreds fewer stores than it did at its peak, B&N remains the country’s largest book chain, with 627 stores. #2 Books-A-Million operates some 260 stores, primarily in the South. #3 Half-Price Books (a Midwestern and Southern chain specializing in discounted titles) operates about 125 stores. B&N sales have been falling in recent years (and it lost many hundreds of millions on its online operation and its efforts to move into ebooks); now has higher book revenues.

Elliott is controlled by Paul Singer, a financier and major Republican donor who donated $1 million to the Trump inauguration.

Predatory Pricing & the Crisis in Bookselling

27 Apr

A new research paper confirms that Amazon has long been engaged in a predatory pricing scheme in order to drive out competitors and force ecommerce onto its platform, where it controls search results (and so what consumers are offered), and charges third party hefty fees, which it recently increased dramatically. Amazon built its book business on two strategies, refusing to carry books unless publishers offered them at prices well below those available to bookstores and using the proceeds from stock offerings to sustain hundreds of millions of dollars in losses each year. Once they drove competitors out of the marketplace, they raised prices substantially. Today Amazon claims to be profitable (although the research suggests they are manipulating their book-keeping), but those profits come from its web services division and from fees charged to third-party sellers on its ecommerce platform. It might take 100 years for them to recoup the losses from their first ten years through selling books and other merchandise at their current margins on ecommerce. But somehow, investors have been willing to subsidize this predatory scheme and make Jeff Bezos a billionaire, gambling that in the long run the rest of us will foot the bill.

Penn Book Center closing end of May

8 Apr

We are saddened to pass along this news. The Book Center is a community institution, a fine bookstore, and its closing will leave the U Penn area served only by House of Our Own (another fine bookstore, but more narrowly focused) and Last Word…

Dear Penn Book Center customers,

We are writing to you with great sadness to say that we are closing the Penn Book Center at the end of May.

As many of you know, the explosive growth of online book sales at cut-rate prices has made selling books in brick and mortar stores a difficult proposition.

In response to this challenging environment, two years ago we shifted our focus away from course sales, dramatically increasing our in-store events, running book clubs, changing the store layout to focus on trade sales, and extending our hours.

We’re really proud of the changes we’ve made. We’ve had an amazing roster of store readings, one that reflects the strength and diversity of literary culture in Philadelphia. We’ve also been able to attract amazing visiting readers, including Rebecca Traister, Eve Ewing, Carol Anderson, and Eileen Myles.

We are so grateful to our brilliant events coordinator Erik Beranek and to our events partners Blue Stoop and the All But True Reading Series for making this happen. We love our new store layout, which features an expanded children’s section and more tables for browsing.

As happy as we are with these changes, however, they have not generated the sales we need to stay open.

We feel so lucky to have been able to purchase the Penn Book Center in 2005 from Achilles and Olga Nickles, who founded the store with Peter Nickles in 1962.

We believed and still believe that the Penn Book Center is a very unusual place, a product of its location in the intellectual hub that is University City. We’ve been able to carry books that you won’t find in many bookstores, but which appeal to the students, professors, and researchers surrounding us. Being in the midst of all this intellectual ferment has shaped our inventory, and we have treasured the intellectual exchanges we’ve had with our wonderful customers. We have learned so much from you, and we are very grateful for your support over the years.

We can’t say enough about our booksellers, who have done such a fantastic job of welcoming customers to the store and placing just the right book in people’s hands. We are especially grateful to head bookseller James Gleeson for his incredible knowledge of books and his unfailingly cheerful presence behind the counter.

We’ll be having events through the end of May. Towards the end of April, we will begin marking down our stock so there will be lots of great deals. We hope you’ll take the opportunity to stop in and say goodbye in the next few months.

Ashley Montague and Michael Row

Best Children’s Books of 2018

2 Nov

The New York Times has just published its annual list; we have most of them in stock…

Amazon’s war on writers

13 Oct

The New York Times quotes one of our favorite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin, on how Amazon is manipulating its search results and fulfillment practices* as part of its campaign to force the publisher Hachette to offer it more profitable terms on ebooks. Says Le Guin, “We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author.”

Amazon’s minions have responded with a torrent of abuse. The Times report notes several instances where Amazon has made it difficult to impossible to find books (including one by the Republicans’ last vice presidential nominee) on its site as part of its effort to force publishers to submit to its terms, and others where it is offering up its authors’ ebooks as free alternatives to books by authors Amazon would rather not promote without getting a little extra on the side.

*Amazon continues to choke back deliveries of Hachette-published books by as much as three weeks. We can’t claim to have every Hachette book in stock, but we will special order any in-print book you’re looking for and can usually get it in within a week.

Who decides what books you can read?

2 Jun

It’s no secret that the book business is dominated by a handful of firms. A half-dozen or so publishers dominate book publishing, although thousands of independent publishers still find ways to get their books out, and one firm — — dominates retailing, accounting for about 40% of all new books sold in the United States, with Barnes & Noble well behind. Neither firm established its dominant position in book selling through its knowledge of books or its eagerness to help new authors reach their readers. Rather, they used their emerging market clout to demand special “promotional” payments, cheaper prices, and other special treatment.

We posted earlier about Amazon’s fight with Melville House, a mid-sized independent publisher which was ultimately forced to capitulate when Amazon refused to carry its books unless it gave them larger discounts and special payments than were available to other booksellers (including us). Having used its market clout to force the small publishers to meet its demands, Amazon has now turned to the Big Six publishers, which it is taking on one at a time.

Hachette, the smallest of the Big Six*, is the first to face Amazon’s demands, which apparently center on control of ebook terms and prices. (Both sides signed confidentiality agreements before entering negotiations, and so the future of the book business is being decided by corporate moguls in secret.) In retaliation for Hachette’s refusal to let Amazon dictate the terms on which it will purchase the right to issue its books as ebooks, Amazon has eliminated discounts (discounts paid for largely by the special payments they get from the publishers) on Hachette titles, has set Amazon’s site to recommend that people consider buying their books instead by a “similar,” “cheaper” book, and is making customers wait for as much as several weeks after ordering before it will ship their books. Many Hachette books no longer can be ordered through Amazon at all.

The New York Timeslatest article on the stand-off quotes Hachette’s brief statement:

“Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good… They are not.”

Hachette says that they are filling Amazon’s orders as soon as they are received; the problem is that Amazon is refusing to order their books, using its enormous market leverage to try to keep them from readers until Hachette surrenders. (Then they will go after the other major publishers, before returning to the independents for another round…) Hachette author James Patterson spoke bitterly about Amazon’s behavior at last week’s BookExpo convention:

“Amazon also, as you know, wants to control bookselling, book buying, and even book publishing, and that is a national tragedy…”

Bindlestiff is too small to keep all of Hachette’s many thousands of titles in stock. However, we will gladly accept special orders for books we don’t have, and ordinarily should be able to have them in the store for you to pick up within a week.

As Michael Wolff notes in USA Today,

“Amazon, evident to anyone paying the slightest attention, is a creeping totalitarian state. Its effort is to build a marketplace that will give it the most power to shape the behavior of its customers and suppliers…”


*You may have never heard of Hachette. They are a French-owned conglomerate which issues over 1,000 books a year through imprints including Little, Brown; Grand Central (formerly Warner Books), Hyperion, Yen Books, Orbit, and FaithWords. Wikipedia

Support your independent bookstore

10 Feb

The current New Yorker magazine features an article by George Packer, “Is Amazon bad for books?,” which discusses how the online bookseller bullies publishers into granting it special payments and larger discounts. (Independent publishers are forced to pay more than the Big Six publishers.) The government has helped Amazon by suing publishers who tried to break Amazon’s iron grip on ebooks, exempting it from sales taxes (even now that it has started collecting state sales tax, it still does not collect or pay Philadelphia’s sales tax), and ignoring its predatory pricing and other anticompetitive practices.

The owner of Cody’s Books (now defunct) once described Amazon as a giant warehouse backed up to the stock market. At the time, Amazon was losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year, even as its stock price climbed ever higher. Those losses went to deep discounting, which built market share, which the company used to force publishers into granting it ever-more-favorable terms, which finally allowed the company to become profitable (most of the time — but just barely; Amazon only recently earned back the huge losses of its opening years, and still loses money about as many quarters as its profitable). But this is not charity. The company is building market dominance. As it builds its power, it uses its  clout to extract ever-better terms from its suppliers (especially the most vulnerable) and raises prices to consumers. When/if it succeeds in eliminating the remaining competitors, its monopoly power will be unconstrained. That’s why the stock market keeps pouring money into a firm with steadily rising total sales, but also shrinking profit margins. They’re looking to cash in once Amazon has the field to itself.