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Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner

Posted: August 19, 2008 04:16 PM

Well, Obama's Challenge my book -- excerpted this week at the Huffington Post -- is stimulating a lot of press, but not exactly the sort I had in mind. It set off a huge controversy about what's fair play in the publishing industry.

What's fair? You decide.

Seeing the torrent of hostile Obama books, most notably the shameless and dishonest hatchet job by Jerome Corsi, my publisher decided to get Obama's Challenge out as fast as possible, in time for the Democratic National Convention. She is Margo Baldwin, president of the highly innovative independent publishing house, Chelsea Green Publishers. CGP began 24 years ago as a publisher specializing in environmental titles, and lately has had two original paperback general bestsellers, by George Lakoff and by Naomi Wolf. We're hoping Obama's Challenge will be a third.

Margo negotiated a highly creative deal with Amazon, to offer readers the benefits of its new print-on-demand service. You order it, they print, and you get it two days from the time of your order. An Amazon discount coupon will also be in the packets of DNC delegates, alternates, and media. In the meantime, Chelsea Green is rushing out its regular print edition, which will be in bookstores after Labor Day. Or maybe it won't.

When the Amazon agreement was announced, Amazon's retail competitors pushed back big time. Amazon is of course the 800 pound gorilla of bookselling. What was an independent publisher doing in bed with it?

Barnes and Noble canceled its initial order and has decided not to stock the book in any of its stores, making it available only on B&N.com and by special order. Only one independent bookseller did likewise. In an open letter to the bookseller community, Margo appealed for perspective, and argued that the Amazon launch strategy was designed to build interest in the book initially, creating the demand that would result in strong sales in all retail outlets. With an expanded pie, there would be more book sales for everyone. And the market would hardly be exhausted in two weeks.

As the author, I am hardly a neutral party. I'd like to see this book have real influence, as well as some nice sales. Whether Obama is a transformative president or another cautious incrementalist will determine whether we return to an economy of shared prosperity. And as a transforming figure who promises real improvement in the economy, he is more likely to get elected in the first place.

However, as an economic journalist who has written about publishing industry, I am intrigued by this controversy and its implications.

Chelsea Green is a small independent, in a publishing industry dominated by corporate giants. As an independent, it is lighter on its feet, and could turn this book around very fast. What was sacrificed was not editing quality, which was superb. Chelsea Green just gets rid of the stodgy production bureaucracy that still characterizes large corporate houses, which typically take nine months to produce a book that could be published in nine weeks.

Independent, light-on-their-feet houses like Chelsea Green threaten behemoth publishing conglomerates just as Amazon seems to threaten independent booksellers. But does it really? Or has Amazon helped stimulate an overall interest in reading books?

As Margo says,

"Chelsea Green, along with many other small publishers, could not have survived and thrived without the innovations that Amazon has brought to the book marketplace, including being able to showcase our entire 350 title backlist online where it can be found by our customers. I know it's de rigueur to consider Amazon enemy #1, but it just ain't so."

But as Chelsea Green has grown into more than a niche publisher of green books, things get more complicated. If I were an independent bookstore, I, too might be annoyed by the Amazon deal, but hopefully I'd see it as a short-term way of building interest in the book.

Going forward, there will be lots more print-on-demand options. With the release of this book, Margo Baldwin and Chelsea Green invented something new. This was as much a political emergency as a marketing strategy--one pro-Obama book in an ocean of hostile ones, needing to find its audience and fast.

All innovators take risks. For a small publishing house that depends on the goodwill of booksellers, this was a huge one. The book could have a shelf life of just eight weeks. If Obama loses, this book will be a historic curiosity, and we will have a bonfire of unsold books. If he wins, maybe it will make a difference.