On Barnes & Noble vs. DC Comics/Amazon

When I saw Neil Gaiman’s tweet, I was torn.

I did a wee bit of googling, and it is, indeed, true.  Here’s the reason they’re doing it:

DC Comics had given Amazon an exclusive four-month window during which they can sell 100 previously-unavailable digital editions of DC graphic novels.

Barnes and Noble’s policy is, essentially, that if an eBook edition is available and they’re not allowed to sell it, they won’t carry the print edition, either.  Do I think this is the best policy?

…I’m not sure.

However, I understand the point they’re trying to make.  Many people will walk into a bookstore to browse, then go home and order the books through Amazon because they can get them cheaper.  It’s not too much of a leap to think that people will wander into a B&N, page through a physical copy of a graphic novel to see if they like the art or the story, then surf on over to Amazon to buy it for their Kindle.  Or that Nook owners will, instead of waiting four months for it to be downloadable through B&N, install the Kindle app and download it in November.

As a reader, the deal between DC Comics and Amazon forces me to go to one particular retailer to purchase the electronic edition of their graphic novels if I wish to purchase them on their earliest release date.  In theory, I can simply wait until March to download them from the retailer of my choice.  But why am I being punished for preferring to support my local independent bookstore?  The indies’ loss in sales on that front might not concern DC all that much, but it certainly concerns me.

It’s funny, with all the hats I wear — reader, writer, former indie-bookseller, current sales rep for a publisher — the conflicting views I have on the topic of eBooks in general.

As a reader, I will always prefer the physical editions.  Am I likely to buy Watchmen and Sandman for my iPad?  Nope.  I already own them all in their dead-tree versions.  But boy-howdy am I far behind on, say, Fables, which is on the list.  I own most of the physical issues, but at some point I lost track of where I left off.  Having the e-graphic novels would be a pretty keen way for me to catch up.

As a writer, I want readers to be able to buy books in whichever format makes them happiest.  Sure, I’m biased towards the meatspace editions, but the point is getting the books to the readers, through the vendor of their choice, at the same time as all the other editions.  The frustrating thing here, with B&N pulling the books, is that those are lost sales not just for the bookstore, but for the authors.  Readers can go to another bookstore to buy them, or if they want them delivered directly to their house, B&N will special order the DC titles.  But there won’t be any browsing through the comics section and happening upon a DC title you weren’t planning to pick up that day.  I don’t know how royalties work with comics and graphic novels, but if those were regular old prose novels being removed from shelves, that’s money the author now won’t see, and poor sales can make a publisher turn down the next book.

Both my former-indie-bookseller brain and my current sells-to-indies brain also thinks dead-tree books are the best, but that is largely because for the longest time (in this online world, when months can be like centuries), the playing field was not level.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders pretty much commanded the market for eBooks, while it was nigh-on impossible for independent booksellers to get a piece of the digital pie.  Now that independent stores can partner with Google eBooks, they have the ability to sell anything the big kids can — provided the publishers make their content available across multiple platforms.

DC’s exclusive deal shuts out readers who would prefer their dollars go to non-Amazon booksellers.

It denies sales to Barnes & Noble and indie stores right around the holidays — not only locking them out of holiday sales (imagine getting a Nook or an iPad pre-loaded with your favorite comics!), but also out of post-holiday sales, as people fill up their shiny new devices with eBooks in early January.

Barnes & Noble’s move is extreme, certainly.  Whether it’s a case of cutting off their nose to spite their face, I don’t know — I have no idea how much of their revenue comes from DC graphic novels.  My guess is that it’s largely a symbolic gesture, and for that, I have to applaud them for taking a stand.

Barnes & Noble made news.  They called attention to the situation.

An indie bookstore doing the same might make the local papers, but certainly won’t get a mention on CNN.  It’s going to take someone bigger than the little guys to say “This is unfair” and be heard.  I know:  right now, the characterization seems to be that B&N is a bunch of crybabies, that they’re taking their ball and going home, but I disagree.  They’re letting people know that this will cost B&N money in lost sales.  DC Comics doesn’t seem ruffled; they’re still planning on giving Amazon the four-month exclusive.  In fact, their spokesperson’s response had the same hollow ring of a weaselly politician to me:

We are disappointed that Barnes & Noble has made the decision to remove these books off their shelves and make them unavailable to their customers.

I don’t know if it reads that way to you, but sweet zombie Jesus, that reeks of spin to me.  Huge turnoff there, DC.

But maybe Barnes & Noble’s decision to pull the dead-tree copies will make other people think.  We just lost Borders.  If publishers keep giving Amazon preferential treatment, how long until it’s the only game in town?

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