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9.1.03

Steve Bates, in an e-mail to Body and Soul about corporate versus independent bookstores, argues:
It is also a matter of what books get published, and, indirectly, what books get written in the first place. Publishers, especially smaller ones, but even large ones to some extent, must publish works they can sell through Barnes and Noble, Borders, etc. If a book, however well-written and attractive to readers, has no chance of being sold to a large outlet, it may well not be published at all. Authors who make their living writing books are aware of this, and tailor their books accordingly. Of course there are myriad exceptions to this simplification, but in principle, the hegemony of large corporate bookstores actually reduces the range of content available to the reader through any bookstore whatsoever, no matter how physically large a store's shelf stock may be.

This argument doesn't seem to make sense. You can find a lot more different products at Wal-Mart than you could at a small independent general store, so it seems like the same should be true for books.

The argument seems to rest on the idea that a big bookstore is less likely to want to sell a given book than an independent store would be. Ceteris paribus, I think the opposite would be true. Let's assume we're talking about a book that's not obviously "well-written and attractive to readers," since one of the basic principles of capitalism is "if enough people want it, someone will sell it to them."* A small store has only its own inventory to work with would seem to be more risk-averse. The threshold at which they're willing to keep something in stock is lower. If one out of every ten thousand book purchases will be Coffee Mugs of the 1930s, and your store has room for five thousand books (I have no idea if those numbers resemble actual bookstore inventories, but the point remains the same), you probably won't take the chance of stocking it. But if your centralized warehouse serving thousands of stores has a couple million books' worth of shelves, you'll want to take 200 copies of Coffee Mugs. I don't know much about the book business, but I wouldn't be surprised if all the small independent stores are just buying from large wholesalers (as happens in the grocery business), so the effect of replacing a bunch of independent stores all getting their stock from Joe's Book Warehouse with a bunch of Barnes and Noble outlets isn't as big as you'd think.

At the risk of making unsubstantiated psychoanalyses of Mr. Bates, I think his comment on his book-buying habits -- he purchases "stridently liberal or antiwar political books" -- suggests why he may think that large corporations are less likely to publish the kind of literary variety he's interested in. I think, however, that the profit motive ("we don't care what it is, if people will pay for it, we'll sell it") trumps the book industry's political ideology or class interest every time. And I'm not convinced there ever was a heyday of non-corporate booksellers offering a wide anti-establishment selection. If anything, the growth of the radical movement in recent years (anti-WTO protests and all that) has created a visible market for such books, which the logic of capitalism would impel bookstores to try to fill.

*Of course, corporations don't always do the best job of figuring out what consumers want. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant -- one of the greatest modern fantasy novels -- was rejected by every fantasy publisher, and only got published because Stephen R. Donaldson heard that one of them had gotten a new editor, so he re-submitted. But I don't see any reason that big corporations would be better or worse at this than small stores. At most, a more fragmented market means you have more chances for at least one store to pick up a book.

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