Shipping Mainfest Destiny

How Barnes & Noble wants to dominate an industry,
and why you should care

by Robert Wynne

We've got trouble my friends. Trouble right here in River City.

Our very way of life is being threatened by an insidious cancer which will if left unchecked, unravel the very fabric of our society. While we were out battling the censors, we didn't notice the slow and steady decay of choice in the free market itself.

What am I raving about now, you ask? Consider this tasty little news item.

Barnes and Noble, currently the largest bookseller in the US, has agreed to acquire Ingrams for about $600 million dollars and change. Now, Ingrams is currently the largest book distributer in the United States, and provides a pathway for books from the publisher to retailers, from the largest superstore down to the most rustic independent.

As a result of this merger, every small chain bookstore and independent bookstore will be placed in the curious position of possibly having to pay their competition every single time they place an order. This could (and probably will) lead to more and more booksellers going out of business, restricting even further our ability to choose the provider of our reading.

I don't suppose I need to remind you how dangerous it will be when there's only ONE bookstore?

Independant bookstores have been on the decline for years, thanks in large part to the proliferation of huge megachains. If we allow the largest of these chains to control the largest distributor in the market, we will allow a serious competative advantage to a player already enjoying an serious market advantage due to it's own size. Stephen Games wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

Chain bookstores endanger choice as an operational necessity. Group purchasing prevents them from selecting stock with the same sensitivity as local stores that buy on their own. Profit maximization prevents them from supporting books or areas of interest that may not sell well but expose readers to new ideas. Corporatism prevents them from expressing any kind of passion (whose passion would a Barnes & Noble store manager represent?) or taking risks or engaging with their neighborhoods.1
Or, consider this report, from National Public Radio's Mark Stueky:
In May of last year, the oldest continuously operating independent bookstore in the country closed. Huntington's, in Hartford, Connecticut, blamed super store competition. Since the beginning of the year, at least 28 independent bookstores have closed in the United States. Nine of those cited super store competition as a key factor, according to a survey in Publisher's Weekly magazine.2

So what can we do? Well, plenty (here's that call to civic action again):

First of all, make sure the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commmision, as well as your local congressman, know how you stand on this matter. Just send at least a two sentence letter (via real snail-mail) to each of them, stating that you support the America Booksellers Association's proposal on the buyout of Ingram's by Barnes and Noble3, and that you urge an anti-trust action to be filed.

The relevant address are:

Attorney General Janet Reno
Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530

Robert Pitofsky
Federal Trade Commission
Pennsylvania Avenue & 6th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20580

To find the address of your local congressmen, check the House and Senate directories.

The ABA would like to receive courtesy copies of all letters sent regarding this matter. Their fax number is 1-914-591-2720.

Their mailing address is:

American Booksellers Association
828 South Broadway
Tarrytown, NY 10591

Ok, you've sent your letters, what else can you do? Well, you can choose not to patronize large chain bookstores, for a start. When you buy from an independent bookstore, you are investing in your local community, supporting enterpraneurs, and helping to foster an environment where books are made more easily availible to everyone in a variety of establishments. You cannot help these stores to prosper if you don't buy from them!

Paul Riddell summed this up neatly in a recent column:

The people who yell loudest about the death of the indies are usually part of the problem. They're the idiots who demand cutting-edge fiction or zines in their bookstores but don't buy any of it: what sort of inducement are they giving stores to carry what they have? The criers are usually the twits who throw temper tantrums when they ask to special order a book and are told that they have to pay for it in advance: the small store owner can't afford to order every book someone wants, especially when an ungodly number then change their minds or just don't bother to return phone calls.

You want to kill off the chains, or at least keep them from getting your cash? Simple: DON'T BUY FROM THEM. Otherwise, you're like the twerps who constantly complain about television but keep watching because "it might get better". Go visit Mark Ziesing's site or the Alternative Books Consortium or anyone else who offers the books you want, and buy them. That's the trick: if you don't buy from them, then they go out of business, and the chains win. Buy lots and lots, and tell your friends about their great service and better selection and encourage them to buy lots and lots, and maybe the chains won't get your dollar, pound note, or yen after all.4

It is ultimately with our dollar that we vote to keep the independent bookstore alive. And we must vote wisely with our dollar, let we lose our most valuable freedom in the process: the freedom to choose for ourselves what we read, hear, and view.


1 Superstores, Narrowed Choices, by Stephen Games, Los Angeles Times

2 Mega Bookstore Chains Hurt Small Independant Sellers, Mark Stueky, National Public Radio

3 B&N/Ingram Action Packet On Its Way To ABA Members, American Booksellers Association

4 Unable To See the Forest for the Crocodile Tears, Paul Riddell, Hell's Half-Acre Herald

© 1998 Robert T. Wynne

Robert Wynne ("Doc") is a gentleman rogue and a scholar of truth. He has been, at alternate times, a writer, an editor, a salesman, a teacher, a freelance computer consultant and a charming vagrant. You can reach him via e-mail at

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