Three independent bookstores are taking Amazon and the so-called Big Six publishers (Random House, Penguin, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan) to court in an attempt to level the playing field for book retailers. If successful, the lawsuit could completely change how ebooks are sold.
The class-action complaint, filed in New York on Feb 15., claims that by entering into confidential agreements with the Big Six publishers, who control approximately 60 percent of print book revenue in the U.S., Amazon has created a monopoly in the marketplace that is designed to control prices and destroy independent booksellers.
The complaint centers on digital rights management, or DRM, the technological lock that prevents consumers from transferring any ebook they buy on an Amazon Kindle onto, say, a Nook or Kobo ereader.
DRM comes with all ebooks sold by the major publishers, with the exception of Macmillian's Tor and Forge imprints, and it means that if a consumer decides to switch to another company's ereading device, he or she would lose access to any already purchased ebooks. DRM used to be a feature of digital music sold on iTunes, until Apple abandoned the practice in 2009.
The bookstores making the complaint are the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, based in Albany, N.Y., Fiction Addiction in Greenville, S.C., and Posman Books of New York City, though the suit states that these stores are suing on behalf of "all independent brick-and-mortar bookstores who sell e-books."
Alyson Decker of Blecher & Collins PC, lead counsel acting for the bookstores, described DRM as "a problem that affects many independent bookstores." She said the complaint is still in the process of being served to Amazon and the publishers and declined to state how it came about or whether other bookstores had been approached to be party to the suit.
"We are seeking relief for independent brick-and-mortar bookstores so that they would be able to sell open-source and DRM-free books that could be used on the Kindle or other electronic ereaders," Decker explained to The Huffington Post by telephone.
Such a move would lead to a reduction in Amazon's dominant market position, and completely reshape the ebook marketplace.
A spokesman for Fiction Addiction declined to comment as legal proceedings are ongoing. The other plaintiffs and Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. Update: A spokesman for Amazon said that they do not comment on active litigation.
The case comes against a backdrop of a Department of Justice lawsuit against Apple and five of the Big Six publishers over ebook price-fixing, a move that was widely seen as benefiting Amazon's dominant position among ebook retailers. Four of the publishers in that case have since settled with the Justice Department.
Though the independent booksellers' complaint is likely to be popular among many who follow the book industry, the three plaintiffs face a huge battle against such major players. Still, Decker said, "We wouldn't have filed it if we weren't hopeful [of winning]."
UPDATE: Cory Doctorow points out that the complainants' use of DRM terms is somewhat confused.
A copy of the class-action complaint is embedded below:
Related on HuffPost:
By focusing on a particular theme and not straying from it, the<a href="http://web.mit.edu/bookstore/www/" target="_hplink"> MIT Press Bookstore</a> has a fanatical following. "I spent a few hours here and I was amazed. Literally, every book here is an idea. I found so many interesting books that I had to write down all the titles. They have books published by the MIT Press, but also titles from other academic publishers. Whoever curates the selection is outstanding." -- Yelp review by Terri Y.
Have a beautiful space
Not everyone can be the Ateneo bookstore <a href="http://argentinastravel.com/268/el-ateneo-in-buenos-aires-a-bookstore-to-end-all-bookstores/" target="_hplink">in a former theater in Buenos Aires</a>, (though Tattered Cover in Colorado <a href="http://www.tatteredcover.com/colfax-avenue-theater-ideas" target="_hplink">has its own take</a> on the former-theater vibe) but the more you create a space that people want to see inside, and stay inside, the more custom you'll have.
Membership clubs, <a href="http://www.skylightbooks.com/friends-benefits-membership-club" target="_hplink">such as that of Skylight Books</a>, make people feel connected, engages them more with what you're doing, and provides some much-needed cash up front. Member discounts also encourage local shopping, not super shipping.
Have an entertaining social media presence
Social media can engage people from around the world - and get them visiting when they're in town.
Offer more than basic coffee
If you have a coffee shop, make it more than another generic chain, but a destination in itself. <a href="http://www.colophoncafe.com/" target="_hplink">Colophon Cafe</a> inside <a href="http://villagebooks.com/" target="_hplink">Village Books</a> in Fairhaven, WA is a local favorite for people who want a great, healthy meal. That it's within and overlapping with the bookstore is a win-win for everyone.
Host unusual events
Readings? How staid. Why not host weird parties, music, celebrations, costume competitions, fan nights centered around books? That's what <a href="http://www.brooklinebooksmith.com/" target="_hplink">Brookline Booksmith</a> did for <a href="http://huff.to/Nck7I7" target="_hplink">the paperback launch of "The Night Circus,"</a> with themed food, decorations, costumes, a tarot card reader, a live band and dancers, and a fun and lively author Q+A. Readers who were there won't forget it in a hurry (and neither will we).
Show what good value print can be
Witness what <a href="http://www.strandbooks.com/" target="_hplink">Strand Bookstore</a> puts on its remaindered titles. Print, it's time to fight back.
Sell old books alongside new ones
The Travel Bookshop in London became famous for putting really old books about travel destinations alongside new ones - you go in for a Lonely Planet, you come out with a first edition of TE Lawrence's thoughts on the Middle East.
Feature other printed media alongside books
St Mark's Bookshop in New York has an unrivaled collection of incredible independent magazines alongside its book selection, creating a great cross pollination of print.
Don't ban cell phones
Some bookstores have a 'no smartphone usage' policy. 'No rude talking on cell phones' is one thing, but 'no looking things up on Amazon' will only succeed in making people feel badly about the store. If they really want to buy a book on Amazon that they've looked at in your store, you won't stop them. Giving them a negative association with your store means they'll not only do it again - but probably not come back.
Bundle books, movies and music together
The new Hunger Games movie DVD comes in a variety of special-edition box sets with free pendants, backpacks, jewelry - but not the book. Yet as <a href="http://www.smalldemons.com" target="_hplink">Small Demons</a> demonstrates, books are connected to other cultural objects in myriad ways. Why not make those visible and offer special themed bundles?
Establish an ongoing relationship with well-known local creatives
You don't have to wait until local names have a book out, so you can organize a signing. Identify peoples' favorite local authors, designers, creatives with cult audiences, and work with them to make special book jackets, bookmarks, posters, or other exclusive book-themed items. They could run bimonthly events or a one-off class. They'll love supporting their local store, and you'll get new products and increased local interest from another fan base.
Curate a themed noticeboard
We don't know if it's still there, but the travel bookstore Altair in Barcelona used to have an incredible feature: a noticeboard for people looking for travel partners. People would pass by and read to see where people were going, what adventures they could dream about joining - and maybe which journeys they might just make their own.
Bookstore, Library partnerships
<a href="http://articles.boston.com/2012-02-28/arts/31103366_1_picture-books-latest-book-bookstores" target="_hplink">Bookstores are opening inside libraries</a>. Why shouldn't both team up and find ways to celebrate reading together?
It sounds ridiculous, but if people have your name on their keychain, they'll see it and touch it every day, and remember you're there. Make them free with memberships or sell them at cost - consider it a piece of effective guerrilla marketing. But you have to make them good enough (and small enough) for people to want to use! <em>Image from <a href="http://www.cafepress.com/+i_like_books_aluminum_photo_keychain,641892299" target="_hplink">LabelMakers on Cafepress.com</a></em>
Make a nonprofit
<a href="http://www.keplers2020.com/" target="_hplink">Kepler's</a> is hiving off its community features into a new non-profit, giving it greater flexibility and financial advantages.
Host other events
Bookstores have already been the venue for <a href="http://www.chelseagreen.com/content/our-green-partner-matter-bookstore-screening-collapse/" target="_hplink">screenings</a>, private parties, <a href="http://www.bookpatrol.net/2012/06/bookstore-wedding.html#.UCRJ-GOe7DU" target="_hplink">weddings</a>, <a href="http://revolutionbooksla.blogspot.com/2011/04/join-us-volunteers-mtg-damian-garcia_16.html" target="_hplink">commemorations</a>. Why not host read ins, book speed dating, geekouts and more? It certainly helps if you have a space <a href="http://www.powerhousearena.com/about/" target="_hplink">like Powerhouse Books</a>...
Book Clubs are all well and good, but why not further people's reading and knowledge in other ways? Politics & Prose in Washington, DC offers <a href="http://www.politics-prose.com/classes/classes" target="_hplink">a fantastic series of classes</a> to its patrons.
Create a group of small, non-competing booksellers around the country, and together pool resources to make something amazing that can only be sold in your stores (and not on your websites). For instance, what would happen if 15 booksellers all put in $1,000, and paid Neil Gaiman or Gillian Flynn or E.L. James to write an exclusive short story, printed on an Espresso Machine in one of the network's stores, and distributed between them? <em>Image from <a href="http://ibooknet.com" target="_hplink">ibooknet.com</a></em>
Do literary-themed stunts
Book Soup has <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_Soup" target="_hplink">gained a reputation</a> for unexpected yet intelligent headline-grabbing stunts, including against Paris Hilton and Margaret Thatcher. The resultant sales and publicity did them no harm whatsoever.
Sell other, high-quality book-themed products
Take a leaf from<a href="http://www.stlbooks.com/shirts.php" target="_hplink"> STL Books</a>, erm, book, and track down decent literary-themed suppliers such as Out of Print Clothing.
Increase your presence and help get cutting-edge work out into the world, while potentially creating a new revenue stream. City Lights in San Francisco <a href="http://www.citylights.com/publishing/" target="_hplink">has been doing that since 1955.</a> Or you can save out-of-print titles, <a href="http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/singularityco/singularity-and-co" target="_hplink">as Singularity & Co is working to do.</a>
<a href="http://www.ondemandbooks.com/" target="_hplink">Espresso Book Machines</a> are starting to appear in bookstores - such as<a href="http://www.harvard.com/clubs_services/books_on_demand/" target="_hplink"> this one in Harvard's bookstore</a> - offering print-on-demand titles from a vast database. But the machine isn't enough - you also need to help people understand how and why they should use it, such as making short story-compilations for the beach or for flights.
Encourage local self publishing
It's one thing to have a printer, but with great expertise in reading and local affairs, why not help local writers self publish, and then sell their books in a section of the store? McNally Jackson in New York offers <a href="http://www.mcnallyjackson.com/self-publishing" target="_hplink">a range of self-publishing services</a> to its clientele, who then get the added thrill of printing off and selling copies in their favorite local bookstore.
Invite guest community curators
Having art on the walls is one thing, as <a href="http://www.fantagraphics.com/" target="_hplink">Fantagraphics</a> does extremely effectively, but why not invite local guest curators from your community to fill a corner of your store with different objects, books from the store, artwork and personal possessions to tell a story they think is important? Each time, they'll bring in friends and family, expanding your audience and adding something new to the local atmosphere.
Team up with other local brands
For a local bookstore to thrive, it needs to be an essential part of the community - and that includes the community of vendors as well as consumers. So why not team up with local brewers, like <a href="http://www.thespottydog.com/blog/?page_id=19" target="_hplink">The Spotty Dog in Hudson, NY</a>? You could offer poetry for their beer labels, introduce literary-themed screenings at the local arthouse cinema, donate books to your local coffee shop's reading corner... and encourage them to come into the store and recommend books as well.
Make your staff a feature of the store
Staff recommendations - like this nicely designed example from <a href="http://www.politics-prose.com/" target="_hplink">Politics & Prose</a> - are great, but why stop there? Why not let each staff member make a small booklet of their top books, or include special "Jane recommended this. Here's others she thinks you might like" bookmarks inside certain purchases? Knowledgeable and friendly bookstore employees are one of the key benefits of real-world bookstores. Use them wisely.
Amazon isn't the only company who can sell online. The website <a href="http://www.indiebound.org/google-ebooks" target="_hplink">IndieBound</a> can help you find books sold digitally in a way that your local indie bookstore will get a cut from the sale; they also have <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/indiebound-reader/id487304338?mt=8" target="_hplink">their own iOS reading app. </a> And why not offer value Amazon can't? Signed copies, extra presents, surprise packages, reading guides... enhance the reading experience and customers will love you for it.