Barnes & Noble Furtively Slips Between the Covers

Over the next month or so, something unprecedented will happen in the publishing world. A book published by Barnes & Noble Inc., the restless giant of book retailing, will be reviewed in the stalwart pages of the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post Book World . Granted, Barnes & Noble isn’t publishing a book from scratch; it bought the U.S. rights for the British nonfiction title Nansen: The Explorer as Hero , written by Roland Huntford and published by Gerald Duckworth & Company Ltd. But because of the bookseller’s unique position in the industry, this happenstance might feel passive-aggressive to the competition. Here’s a company with more than 1,000 stores, as well as a furry hand in distribution, on-line bookselling, backlist publishing and, with shock jock Don Imus, the book award circuit. Now it looks like it’s getting a bit too familiar with the product itself. While Barnes & Noble has been quietly publishing books, such as an edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and 365 Exercises for the Mind by Pierre Berloquin, since 1978, its titles have never laid claim to choice review slots that could otherwise be occupied by a bona fide front-list publisher.

“I think it’s a portent rather than a fluke,” said Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University who follows the book publishing industry. “Barnes & Noble has an immense competitive advantage. Why wouldn’t they use it?”

Thing is, it doesn’t sound like Barnes & Noble actively did much of anything. When the company’s publishing division, Barnes & Noble Books, put out Nansen in December 1998, according to the division’s vice president of publishing, John Kelly, it asked the author for a list of people who might enjoy the book. On the list was Robert B. Harris, an editor at The New York Times Book Review , who by his own lights had already gotten a hardcover copy of the English edition that fall, and had included it in a year-end roundup of exploration books in The Book Review . Mr. Harris noted then that the book “does not yet seem to have an American publisher.” Just over a month later, The Book Review ran a correction about the “United States availability” of the book: “In a telephone call in mid-January, the author said it is indeed published in the United States, by Barnes & Noble Books. It is a $19.95 paperback, available only in Barnes & Noble’s stores and through its catalogues and Web site, http://www.barnesandnoble.com.”;

“It’s unusual that it’s being reviewed,” said Mr. Kelly. “We don’t have a publicity department. In this case, the author had a list of people who wanted to see the book, and we said ‘Great,’ and sent the book to those people.”

Is Barnes & Noble pleased that it’s being reviewed? Hard to say. In a conference call with Mr. Kelly and corporate communications director Mary Ellen Keating, Mr. Kelly said, “Sure.”

Ms. Keating said, “We have no opinion.”

“Most of our books are workaday,” said Mr. Kelly. “The whole key of our publishing program is generic fiction and nonfiction that, given good placement in the store, tends to compensate for the fact that the titles aren’t reviewed. We don’t do books that tie into a particular current event.”

Yet even someone who’s never donned a parka can tell that Nansen fits quite naturally with all those cold-weather chronicles that began appearing in the wake of Jon Krakauer’s Mount Everest blockbuster, Into Thin Air .

“These polar expedition books have been a hot item in the last year or so,” said Ed Knappman, Mr. Huntford’s agent at New England Publishing Associates. It’s the sort of heat that causes sales of, say, independent publisher Carroll & Graf’s 1986 paperback reissue of Alfred Lansing’s 1959 classic, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage , to sell 150,000 copies over the last two years alone and soar onto the Times best-seller list, which it will hit on May 2. So far, Nansen has sold some 4,000 copies in England.

And Barnes & Noble knew that it was acquiring a book that received glowing reviews in England. Words like “magisterial,” “exemplary” and “magnificent” popped up in papers such as the Guardian , the Daily Telegraph , the Sunday Telegraph and the Evening Standard . The Sunday Times of London included it in its books-of-the-year roundup. Barnes & Noble included blurbs from those reviews on Nansen ‘s back cover.

American sales of the book are likely to increase after the New York Times and Washington Post audiences see the reviews. Nansen ‘s original print run for Barnes & Noble was a minuscule 3,000 to 5,000, but then the company ordered a second printing. And here’s where things get a little weird. The second run was to stock the American wholesaler Bookazine, so that other booksellers could order the book. But why didn’t Barnes & Noble turn first to the country’s largest and most efficient wholesale distributor, Ingram Book Group? Could this have anything to do with Barnes & Noble’s pending $600 million acquisition of Ingram, announced last November, but still awaiting approval by the Federal Trade Commission? Was Barnes & Noble, by not placing the book with Ingram, trying to avoid giving ammunition to those who have been screaming “unfair trade practices” about the anticipated Barnes & Noble-Ingram alliance?

“I called Bookazine first,” said Richard Campbell, vice president of trade publishing at Barnes & Noble Books. “I never called Ingram.” Did the pending acquisition have anything to do with his decision? Mr. Campbell, noting that Ingram has 11 warehouses, said that the book “was easier to put at Bookazine.”

But maybe the more important question is what independent bookstores, no fans of the behemoth bookseller, think of all this. If customers want Nansen , what will they do? Perry Haberman, manager of Madison Avenue Book Shop on the Upper East Side, found it strange that he couldn’t find Nansen in Books in Print . “It looks like Barnes & Noble is controlling the distribution, which is part of the anxiety on the whole Ingram thing,” he said. “The unusual nature of the way this book is being published and distributed is consistent with everything I know about Barnes & Noble, which is very little. I think they make it a point to make their inner workings very vague. I would probably order the book on a per-request basis but not carry it in stock.”

Charles Mullen, a buyer at the Biography Bookshop in Greenwich Village, figured he’d do the same. “I’d probably special-order it but wouldn’t necessarily stock it. I’d want to take a look at the promotional materials.”

At Square Books in Oxford, Miss., owner and American Booksellers Association president Richard Howorth was less sanguine. “I resent the fact that I have to make the choice between serving my customers and doing business with a company that I know is trying to put independent bookstores out of business. If I know of a book that deserves reissue attention, I call a publisher and tell them. Barnes & Noble is not a publisher. It wants to be a publisher because it means more margin, and more margin for them will come at the expense of other publishers, retailers, and writers.” So will he order the Nansen ? “To be honest, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Andy Ross of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, Calif., was also none too pleased. “We are extremely disturbed by the tendency of large corporations to create monopoly power vertically, and think this whole monopoly of the book business by a couple of corporations is dangerous,” said the owner of the 42-year-old store. “It’s unsettling to me that independent booksellers would have to choose between supplying books that customers want and at the same time become a vassal of their most implacable competitor.” (Cody’s is one of 26 Northern California Booksellers represented by the American Booksellers Association bringing a lawsuit against Barnes & Noble and Borders Group Inc., alleging widespread price discrimination and anticompetitive acts. A Federal jury trial in San Francisco is scheduled for May 2000.)

And what about Amazon.com Inc., which currently doesn’t even offer the book on its Web site? “We would carry the book,” said media relations director Kay Dangaard.

Borders has “no position at this time, and will certainly be discussing it,” said Phil Ollila, its vice president of merchandising.

“If a book is worth reviewing, you can’t penalize it because of its provenance,” said New York Times Book Review editor Chip McGrath. “Do you not review something just because Barnes & Noble has done it? It’s complicated, and I suppose it’s particularly complicated for us in that we have this relationship with Barnes & Noble.” (The Times Web site has an exclusive agreement with BarnesandNoble.com.) “But if the book is worth calling attention to, it’s worth calling attention to. People who are students of this stuff think that this is a crucial piece of the puzzle. It’s not some fly-by-night book that somebody printed in his garage.”

The Publishing column can be reached at emanus@observer.com.