Are Indie Booksellers (& Liberals) Martyring Chelsea Green?

By Neal Comment

obamas-challenge-cover.jpgAs news spread yesterday about the bookselling industry’s outrage at Chelsea Green, the independent publisher that decided to give a two-week window of exclusivity on Obama’s Challenge, its attempt to define the agenda for an Obama presidency before the man even accepts his party’s nomination, the company did manage to find some defenders. Former employee Jennifer Nix used her new Huffington Post bully pulpit to suggest liberals need to get their act together: “The left seems unable or unwilling to absorb the important lesson about supporting progressive books,” she says, “so they, too, will debut on bestseller lists [and] monopolize media coverage…”

“Once again, a meticulously-reported and intelligent progressive book may die on the vine, from lack of progressive support, before word of it reaches the American public. On our side, we have no wingnut-welfare type support for our writers, who take the time to write and promote their work tirelessly in an effort to advance the progressive cause. Despite the odds, a precious few scratch and claw their way onto bestseller lists post-pub date, after tortuous weeks of book-touring and self-promotion, in the face of giant collective yawns from the progressive community. Most go to all this trouble, and still don’t make the lists.”

Also, she says, it’s wrong for independent booksellers to dogpile on Chelsea Green for having the courage to break free of the old way of doing things: “This isn’t just about business. It’s about activism and defeating the right, and getting our messages and ideas out in the most effective ways possible,” she writes. “A few thousand POD copies of Obama’s Challenge will lead to more people walking through your doors and asking for the book before the election. Boycotting this book is a mistake, and you know it.”

This assumes, of course, that independent booksellers are as interested in seeing Barack Obama as our next president as Nix and Chelsea Green are—an assumption that seems not quite fully tested or proven. And, this is just thinking aloud here, but “come on, it’s for the election, guys” isn’t necessarily the most compelling (or universally acceptable) motivation one could offer one half of a industry (booksellers) for changing the nature of its relationship with the other half (book publishers). Transforming any industry requires a real vision for how that industry will be transformed for the better, not an exhortation towards a result in a totally different arena.

(Nix’s appeal to consumers is a different subject, to the extent that the overwhelming majority of book buyers do not make their purchases with the explicit goal of keeping the publishing and bookselling industries afloat, but with specific end-user goals in mind. So “buy this book and you’ll help change the world” can be an easier argument to make than “sell this book and you’ll help change the world,” and infinitely easier than “sell this book under these terms and conditions and you’ll help change the world.”)

The more typical response to Chelsea Green’s actions and subsequent defense of same? For the sake of a big splash at next week’s Democratic National Convention, say many observers, the small publisher has jeopardized the long-term viability of what was on track to become its biggest book ever. As Kassia Krozser puts it, “You don’t mess around with initial distribution.”