Last spring, in an essay about why Amazon.com doesn't donate to local arts organizations the way that other large local businesses do, I suggested that if Amazon didn't want to give money to a preexisting cause it had no control over, it could instead bankroll a large Seattle book festival. I received anonymous e-mails from Amazon employees telling me to keep it up, but the piece was greeted by stony silence from the online retailer's publicity department.
But last week, when I was walking the floor at BookExpo America, someone I'd never met before who was walking in the other direction shouted my name and grabbed my arm. I turned to see a name badge that identified the person as an employee of Amazon.com, and I braced myself for a shiv in the ribs. It was Jon Fine, Amazon's new director of author and publisher relations.
Fine wanted to make sure that I'd heard of Amazon's new corporate-philanthropy initiative, which he had a hand in developing. The program, which is naturally focused on writing and publishing programs, currently donates to local worthies like Clarion West and 826 Seattle and great national programs like PEN American Center and Children's Book Week. It's a phenomenal start for Amazon.
Later that day in a presentation, Fine would announce something equally exciting: Amazon is partnering with BookTour.com to inform book buyers when their favorite authors are reading in a venue near them. This means that, in Seattle, Amazon will be sending a whole lot of people to Elliott Bay Book Company and University Book Store on a regular basis. This program makes great sense, and it fixes one of the biggest problems with an online book retailer: connecting authors with readers. It's also essentially free targeted advertising for independent booksellers.
But the show gossip suggested that Fine had a quieter motive for attending BEA this year: According to the rumor among Seattleites at the show, he was meeting with Mitch Kaplan, the founder of the very successful Miami Book Fair, and the heads of the up-and-coming Brooklyn Book Festival to talk about creating a new book festival here in Seattle. And he was also talking with local independent booksellers about selling books at that festival. If Amazon pulls this off, besides the fact that it would provide national attention for our vibrant and diverse literary scene, it could possibly be one of the greatest Scrooge-goes-good stories in Seattle's history. It might be time to start rooting for the big guys.