MONDAY'S FRONT-PAGE STORY in The New York Times exposing Amazon.com's practice of selling prominent positions on its Web site may have dismayed Amazon's customers, but it hardly shocked others in the publishing industry. "I'm not surprised," said Miriam Spontz, general manager of Powell's Books in Portland and a board member of the American Booksellers Association. "I think some customers may have thought that because it was on the Web, Amazon was different than bricks-and-mortar chains, but there's no difference. People think that chains and large bookstores do things that are purely motivated by love of the book, when really it's a more compromised position."
The compromised position Spontz refers to is the bookselling gray area known as "co-op," or cooperative advertising. Co-op ranges from a publisher chipping in to feature a certain title within a bookstore's print ad (co-op dollars are often behind the ads in Seattle Weekly, for instance) to outright purchase of feature space within the store. Most national chains and some independents offer publishers the chance to include their titles on front-of-the-store feature tables or on a highly visible perch at the end of a bookshelf—for a price. A publisher can reserve one of the latter spots, known as an "end cap," for a month at every regional outlet of a national chain for about $300. Publishers may also free up co-op dollars for the mention of a book in a bookstore's newsletter. Sometimes a chain will mix contest with commerce; publishers whose books are chosen for Barnes & Noble's "Discover New Writers" series are encouraged to kick in substantial co-op funds (although the chain store doesn't absolutely require it).
So the news that Amazon has extended the practice to online bookselling begs the question: Is Amazon a book retailer or a book review? Inside Amazon, there's no question: Its job is to sell books. What's being offered to publishers, from the company's point of view, is "placement," not a book reviewer's opinion—although it's hard for consumers to tell the difference. When Amazon labels a book "Destined for Greatness," is that an Amazon editor's opinion or the result of cash trading hands? (Answer: cash trading hands.)
The real jaw dropper in Doreen Carvajal's Times piece, though, was the price: $10,000 for a "premium package" that includes top billing on a genre home page, an author profile, and a review. For publishers smaller than the Random Houses of the industry, $10,000 is often more than they paid the author for the entire book. So the Web site's featured books tend to be those given a high marketing budget by the publisher. Which is . . . how it works in most bricks-and-mortar bookstores.