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Chain Power : The furor over 'Satanic Verses' has revived debate on book publishing and distribution.

February 24, 1989|PAUL RICHTER | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The decision last week by the nation's two biggest bookstore chains to pull Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" from their shelves has brought a new outpouring of complaints about the chains' tremendous influence on how widely books are distributed and even which ones get published.

On Wednesday, the B. Dalton-Barnes & Noble chain reversed its position not to sell the novel, and Waldenbooks has promised to resume selling the book from its stockroom when new copies arrive from the publisher. But all the same, many in the book world say the incident again demonstrates how much power the chains have acquired since their explosive growth began in the mid-1970s. When the chief executives of the two top chains yanked the book, they blocked sales in about 2,200 of the country's roughly 7,000 general-interest bookstores, critics say.

The critics, who include writers, publishers and independent bookstore owners, say the chains' power is exerted quietly every day as they decide which books to carry. With the huge orders that they place with publishers, and with their enormous promotional budgets, the chains' decisions help assure that some works will be best sellers while others are consigned to obscurity.

And as the chains offer their mass-market inventory at discount prices, they can also force out of business the independent stores that try to make their way selling a broader selection of less popular works, as well as blockbusters, the critics say.

First Amendment Defenders

The chains, of course, have staunch defenders in the book industry, who see merit in their concern about their employees' safety and praise the big firms for bringing low-price works to neighborhoods that have never had book outlets.

Since the furor over "The Satanic Verses" began last week, booksellers have confronted questions of whether they have an obligation to bring books--even controversial ones--before the public. Some say that they do and that the chains have not lived up to that obligation, as the independents have.

"The chains are brilliant at marketing, and they've changed the face of the bookselling industry," said Mona Mangan, executive director of the Writers Guild of America East. "But they don't have that commitment to getting books before the public. It's the little neighborhood bookstore that's out there today defending the First Amendment."

The president of the booksellers' trade group that includes the Waldenbooks and B. Dalton-Barnes & Noble chains also said he found "some merit" in criticism of the chains' withdrawal of the book.

"Unfortunately, this illustrates the Achilles' heel of centralizing the industry," said Edward Morrow, president of the American Booksellers Assn. and owner of an independent store in Manchester, Vt. The chains' decisions meant that the book wouldn't be available at all in some communities, he noted.

As the chains pulled the book, Morrow said, independent bookstores continued to take orders for it, including several that had received bomb threats. "I've talked to a lot of independent stores in the last couple of days, and I haven't talked to one that said it didn't want to sell the book," Morrow said.

Will Remain in Stockroom

But Morrow and others in the book trade also saw the rationale behind the chains' decision. "They're extremely visible and extremely vulnerable because of their size and locations in so many shopping malls," Morrow said. "It's not as easy to ensure everybody's safety at these little outlets as it is if you just own one store."

"This is not an example of the venal corporate mentality taking over the book business," added William Kramer, president of the two-store Sidney Kramer Books in Washington. "There are legitimate concerns at stake."

The B. Dalton-Barnes & Noble chain announced Wednesday afternoon that it would begin selling the book again in about 10 days, when it receives its next supply. The chain said it reversed the decision after a poll of employees found "overwhelming" support for selling the book.

The Waldenbooks chain, which last week decided to take Rushdie's novel off its shelves and sell it only on request, said it would resume selling the book when it comes back in stock. The chain also said it would continue "to use discretion in displaying the book."

In an interview, a spokesman for Waldenbooks denied that the chains have excessive influence on the bookselling business. "We account for only 10% of the books sold in this country," the spokesman said. "There are thousands of other places books can be sold."

45% Market Share

The B. Dalton-Barnes & Noble chain did not respond to repeated requests for comment, nor did Crown Books.

Despite the comment of the Waldenbooks spokesman, the influence of the chains is enormous and growing, although at a slower rate than in the early 1980s.

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