ABA President Writes to NPR Regarding Affiliate Online Book Sales

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The American Booksellers Association's members have recently expressed renewed concerns about National Public Radio's continued use of Amazon.com as their sole retail partner for books mentioned on the air and posted on the NPR website. ABA has been in discussion with NPR for some time in an attempt to provide NPR listeners with the option of supporting their local independent bookstore. Here is the latest response to NPR from ABA President Russ Lawrence of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Montana.

July 26, 2007

Maria Thomas
Vice President and General Manager
NPR Digital Media

Greetings Ms. Thomas:

Thank you for your response to my letter on the matter of National Public Radio featuring Amazon.com, non-exclusively but as your sole online retail partner for books. I wanted to take a moment to correct a few misimpressions you might have about the BookSense.com website, explain some of the rationale for its functionality, address our process of evaluating that website, and lay the groundwork for a possible solution that will benefit everyone involved.

First, you note that BookSense.com does not enable purchasing options for all independents, including some large independents such as Powell's and Politics & Prose. This is true. The American Booksellers Association makes an e-commerce product available to its independent bookstore members. Among those using the product are large independents such as Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver (www.tatteredcover.com), Books & Books in Miami (www.booksandbooks.com), and many, many more. Approximately 230 members (roughly 20 percent of the thousand or so stores participating in the Book Sense marketing program) use our e-commerce engine as their primary website. Of course, there are still hundreds of booksellers (Powell's and Politics & Prose, included) that have chosen to use solutions other than the one provided by ABA for their presence online.

Consumers can search for any ABA member bookseller, regardless of the Web hosting solution, and link to his or her website by visiting the BookSense.com hub site:


For several years, this website has included a link to any ABA member website provided the association is aware that the website exists. (To test this, enter your zip code where prompted or click on "Advanced Search.")

It is true that our affiliate program links to product pages only for those 230 or so stores that participate in the e-commerce program. So, yes, a customer linking from a specific title on the NPR site will be prompted for a zip code and redirected to the product page on the website of that customer's closest participating store. We understand why this may be less than a satisfactory experience.

The affiliate program is designed this way for several reasons.

  1. ABA doesn't want to compete with our own members. Even assuming ABA could negotiate its way through myriad antitrust laws and create a central website for the purpose of selling books to consumers, our members have made it clear to us that they don't want their association to be in the business of selling books. We concur and have avoided doing so.

  1. Supporting local communities. Part of ABA's mission is to support local communities. Driving Web traffic to booksellers in those communities is an important part of that strategy.

  1. Bad consumer experience. If the affiliate program were to direct consumers to title-specific pages on websites other than those that participate in BookSense.com, the consumer experience would be wildly uneven. Some stores would have no online catalog of books; others would have a catalog, but no shopping cart; some would be robust. From the very tenor of your objection to what you perceive as a confusing experience now, I imagine that such an uneven consumer experience would fall far short of meeting the standards of NPR as well as of our other partners.

  1. Limited resources. To create product page-level links to store websites not in our e-commerce program would incur additional development work. As there are many different online solutions (and more to come) being used by our members, we would be required to re-allocate resources from other priorities -- priorities our members have enunciated to us clearly.

We are constantly re-evaluating the efficacy of all ABA programs and services, including the BookSense.com hub site. In fact, the association is in the midst of an audit of the entire Book Sense marketing program, including the BookSense.com hub site. Pending the result of that audit, and feedback we get from members and other stakeholders (such as yourself), we will reconsider the proper role this website should play, and may very well change it. For now, we acknowledge that it's an imperfect solution to a complex situation.

In your letter you also state: "...we have encountered periodic technical problems when visiting the site, including selling functions not operating and searches that were incomplete or took too long by market standards."

While the product was buggy when it hit the market in 2000, we're confident that it performs very well today and has for the last several years. But if users are having problems, we'd certainly like to be aware of them. Your note suggests that the problems you encountered were at the level of the individual store, as you're describing issues with search and commerce. We are eager to learn of specific issues on specific sites so we might investigate them.

You also say: "Ultimately, we determined that BookSense.com did not meet the basic standards we require of an online partner. I apologize if our decision was not communicated to you."

Again, thank you for communicating this now. I hope we can begin a discussion about those "basic standards," and how we can meet them.

I am also aware that members of a regional bookseller association have been communicating with NPR about this issue, so I understand why you felt a need to respond to those booksellers directly about NPR's relationship with ABA on the matter of an ABA program. Unfortunately, an unintended side effect of casting your response in such broad language to disparate audiences has been to foster confusion, misimpressions of the program, and bad feelings. (For example, one bookseller, not even a member of ABA, in reacting to NPR's written response, posted an outrageous note to a listserv asserting that BookSense.com "seems like just an ABA boondoggle which loses millions of dollars every year and does very little to help the vast majority of independent booksellers." For the record, this program is closely monitored by our Board of Directors and operates very close to break even every year, and most of the 230 booksellers that use the product are very satisfied.)

Finally, you state that "NPR remains committed to finding additional ways to offer service to our book-buying audience and to support independent booksellers, and we are actively considering several alternatives," and that you welcome our involvement.

This is great news, and in the spirit of cooperation, I offer a very simple solution. On your website, anywhere an Amazon.com link appears, simply add:

"You can support your local communities by supporting your locally owned bookstore. You can find many of the books discussed on NPR at your local bookstore, and you can find your local bookstore by clicking here: http://www.bookweb.org/aba/booksense/storeSearch.do."

We'd even be happy to create a special, co-branded NPR-independent bookstore landing page for your users to see. This will not lead users to a specific product page, but it will give them the choice to shop local or to shop national.

Thanks again for your time. I look forward to your response.

--Russ Lawrence
President, American Booksellers Association