Booksellers, so used to always being the underdog, sometimes resort to whining, and it's not pretty—whenever I write a too-fond description of one reading series, say, I'll get a letter from another bookseller complaining that I'm unfairly ignoring them. Everybody's allowed their prima donna moments, of course—especially in a thankless job like bookselling—but occasionally, complaints of unfairness obscure more important issues. That's happened in the last week, as bookseller disgust over one minor controversy has stolen attention from a disturbing decision by another publisher.
Independent publisher Chelsea Green is publishing Robert Kuttner's newest book, Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, exclusively through Amazon.com's print-on-demand service for two weeks. On his blog, Kuttner claims that the exclusivity is because Chelsea Green "decided to get Obama's Challenge out as fast as possible, in time for the Democratic National Convention," and he's also promising that his publisher is "rushing out its regular print edition, which will be in bookstores after Labor Day."
Barnes & Noble seems to have gone batshitcrazy at the news of this deal, announcing that it won't ever stock Obama's Challenge on its shelves, and that its customers will have to special-order the book. An "outraged" independent bookseller from Vermont commented on the Publisher's Weekly story by calling the exclusive deal "a money-grubbing sellout" and "a slap in the face to independents," concluding by saying that "An trust [sic] has been violated and it won't be forgotten." Other independents joined in, vowing not to carry the book at all.
The sad thing about all this anger is that the book will have, at best, two months of play before it disappears into irrelevance forever. Meanwhile, Random House is making a decision with many worrisome ramifications for the publishing industry and nobody seems to care.
Random House imprint Ballantine Books paid $100,000 for the rights to The Jewel of Medina and a hypothetical sequel by Spokane author Sherry Jones. Medina is a novel written from the point of view of Muhammad's wife Aishah, and the book had all the signs of becoming a best seller with the book-club crowd. When Ballantine sent an advance copy of the book to Middle Eastern Studies professor Denise Spellberg in the hopes of a blurb, Spellberg contacted Muslim message boards and alerted them that the book "made fun of Muslims and their history." Soon, angry Muslims were calling for a boycott and demanding that Random House disassociate from the book.
In late May, presumably out of fear of retribution, Random House announced it would not publish The Jewel of Medina. This is unprecedented in publishing, which has a proud history of not backing down on controversial titles like The Satanic Verses. Barnes & Noble and other booksellers should be threatening to refuse to carry Random House titles to protest the publisher's cowardice. Instead, they're too busy huffing over the loss of sales caused by two weeks of exclusivity for a book that nobody will remember in four months.