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Award-winning Barrow author caught in squeeze between bookstores, Amazon

  • Author: Hannah Heimbuch
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published March 18, 2012

Barrow author Debby Dahl Edwardson joined an elite group last year when her youth novel, "My Name Is Not Easy," was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Just a few short months afterwards, she finds herself a bystander as her book is caught in the push-pull of corporate competition.

Barnes & Noble announced recently it would no longer stock the book in its stores, including the Anchorage location on Northern Lights Boulevard.

This development, originating in the murky area of business politics, leaves many Alaskans wondering why a store would one day host author signings and advertise a novel and not long afterwards shuffle it from the shelf.

The decision came about after Alaska publisher Marshall Cavendish sold the rights to its titles, including "My Name Is Not Easy", to Edwardson, who had no warning about the sale, got an email saying: "We're really excited about this, we hope you are too," she said.

She's not. "I'm upset. I'm really upset," Edwardson said.

The online sales behemoth Amazon is a notorious thorn in the side to smaller retailers, namely independent bookstores that struggle to compete with the large supplier's prices and quick shipping.

Barnes & Nobles' beef with Amazon is over the exclusivity of the titles the company owns. Booksellers wanting to display Amazon-owned titles must order them from Amazon instead of the major distributors commonly used, thus paying its primary competitor in order to stock books.

"Our decision is based on Amazon's continued push for exclusivity with publishers, agents and the authors they represent," said Barnes & Noble Chief Merchandising Officer Jaime Carey in an email. "Their actions have undermined the industry as a whole and have prevented millions of customers from having access to content."

While the superstore has taken an official stand at this point, independent bookstores across Alaska, and across the nation, are faced with the same choice. And it's not a new issue.

"I'm in a conundrum," said David Cheezem, owner of Palmer's independent bookstore Fireside Books. "The book is just an essential book. It's an important book, and we're really proud of the writing. And yet this continued power grab by Amazon is really disappointing."

For Cheezem, and many independent booksellers, from the Homer Bookstore to Gulliver's in Fairbanks, not ordering from Amazon is a no-brainer. Buying from your competitor is just not smart business.

But where do you draw the line, Cheezum wonders, when all parties seem pitted against one another at the expense of all.

"Good writing has to be the most important thing. We're here to sell books, but we're also here to support writers," he said. "(Independent bookstores) survive and we thrive because we have that personal connection with people. And people come to us because they know we're committed to good writing and to connecting writers and readers."

The struggle between small business and corporate enterprise is not a new discussion, and neither is corporation competition. It's also hard to miss the irony of Barnes & Noble being seemingly allied with the plight of the small bookseller — the two are usually in stiff competition. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks made a romantic comedy on just that topic in the movie "You've Got Mail".

Edwardson's ire over the debate boils down to who is really missing out when everything shakes down.

"They're both super giants, and they're both fighting," Edwardson said. "I think it's really unfortunate that writers and books have to get caught in the middle of it."

Edwardson noted she's a lifelong supporter of independent bookstores. And she pointed out that Barnes and Nobles in Anchorage was very supportive when her book first came out. The decision to discontinue it came from corporate Barnes & Noble, not a specific location like the Anchorage store.

She said whether it's a chain store or an independent, it's difficult to hear anyone say they won't carry her book based on the Amazon purchase.

"For them to say we will no longer carry that book, it's a disservice to me as a writer, but it's a disservice to the readers too. It goes beyond business. It's now something that's affecting the public and the readers."

This is one of the reasons the Author's Guild, based in New York City, has become involved in the debate, advocating on behalf of making the book as available as possible.

The conversation between the guild and Barnes and Noble is ongoing — as are the decisions that bookstores and consumers continue to make every day.