A Publisher’s Plan to Ride the Obama Wave Alienates Booksellers

By Neal Comment

It’s not every day a publisher manages to piss off both Barnes & Noble and the indie bookselling community, but Chelsea Green, a small political press in Vermont, figured out an easy way to do it: Last week, the press announced plans to distribute coupons for its big fall title, Robert Kuttner‘s Obama’s Challenge, at next week’s Democratic National Convention—coupons that will make the book exclusively available to Amazon.com customers, via print-on-demand technology, for three weeks before the official publication date.

margo-baldwin-headshot.jpg“This election is too important to wait around for traditional publishing lead times,” said Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin (right) when she unveiled the plan. Independent booksellers were not impressed, and several left sharp comments along the lines of “money-grubbing sellout” on the first PW article about the book. In response, Baldwin told her critics in an open letter posted at PW and on the Chelsea Green website that “a little perspective is in order” and warned that cancelled orders would mean “a really good and important book on [Barack] Obama will be effectively boycotted.” (Which hints at the rather blatant ‘don’t you realize what’s at stake here?’ tone struck throughout the message.)

Then B&N got into the act, cancelling a 10,000-copy order of Obama’s Challenge because, a spokeperson told the Associated Press, “our initial order was based on the book being available to all booksellers simultaneously.” To put that cancellation in perspective: Chelsea Green had planned a 75,000-copy first printing of the book—aiming for the biggest opening splash of its short history.

(photo: Seven Days)

In her open letter, Baldwin argues that “this is about a publisher’s commitment to its author to get one of a very few pro-Obama books out into the marketplace in the shortest amount of time,” and even predicts a trickle-down effect: “If we can successfully launch [Obama’s Challenge] with our special promotional coupon at the DNC, then your customers will be asking for the book by the time we ship the first printing.” Finally, she plays an ’embrace the future’ card: “The emerging digital technologies mean we can and should be publishing much faster and to the moment. Chelsea Green may be the first publisher to try this out but we won’t be the last.”

The first? Not really. Earlier this year, when billionaire George Soros decided he couldn’t wait on printing presses to get his message to the people, he authorized PublicAffairs to release The New Paradigm of Financial Markets as an e-book less than two weeks after he turned in the manuscript, and I don’t recall much outrage from the bookselling community over that, or any refusal to stock the printed book when it was finally ready.

As far as I can tell, there is no electronic edition of Obama’s Challenge available, only a free six-page excerpt available on Kuttner’s website for the book.