Over the last couple of years, I've read many, many diatribes about Chapters and Indigo (Chindigo, for short.). As an independent bookseller -- admittedly, largely used, though I did carry select new titles, and was always willing to order in books for customers -- I instinctively shared this sense of collective distrust. I found Chindigo's overall selection of titles -- given the space, the potential -- woefully inadequate, the general competence and knowledge of their "associates" often rating close to illiterate. Before I got into publishing, I had no real idea how it was that such horrible titles ended up on endcaps and "power tables"; how so many shitty books ended up with Heather Reisman's little purple sticker. Now, of course, I realize that Heather's favours are not freely bestowed, that those power tables cost plenty, and that Chindigo buyers often determine what makes it onto power tables, and that many of these buyers have less knowledge, taste or passionate interest in literature that their minimum-wage floor-walkers.
Zach Wells has on more than one occasion ranted about all of the above, and much else besides. No self-respecting author (I paraphrase here), he's said more than once, who cares about their industry would shop at Chindigo. Their practices are loathsome; they're destructive. They are unnecessary. He's directed his readers to go to the independents, or to buy their books online from amazon and other such e-retailers.
I certainly would not defend Chindigo. I've my concerns about them as well, though I've had to modify my opinions quite a bit since dealing with them. In many ways, really, outside of their bureaucratic lurching, I've found them fairly decent to deal with. Since getting an account as an independently distributed publisher about a year ago -- when I was told by many, including my own sales force manager, that they would never deal with me (the myth of Chindigo's ruthless intractability dissolves as soon as you find a person to correspond with, and this did not prove that difficult) -- I've found that they've done just about all I could expect of them, with only a couple of exceptions. They've taken almost all of our books; their returns, thus far, have not been any higher than I expected; they have paid me in a timely fashion (compared to some independents who have accounts a year past due). They've put my books out where people can find them, and have kept them much longer than the 6 weeks to 3 months I'd been told was the average shelf-life for small press literary titles. (My only real complaint is their staunch determination to see Lorna Jackson's Cold-cocked as an exclusively regional title, refusing to order it for stores across the country, and refusing to let me purchase the necessary power-table space. We're still working on this, though with diminished expectations. An example of a short-sighted buyer, and the difficulty of being a small press publisher: if it was really worth the coverage, wouldn't a larger player be handling it?) Now that I am nationally distributed by LITDISTCO -- though this occasionally seems to bring some other problems -- I've the added benefit of having one of the best discount schedules of any publisher in the country.
No: the "bookseller" who has caused me the most frustration and stress is not Chindigo, but amazon.ca. Their bureaucracy makes Indigo's seem positively customer-oriented. Their bibliographic information is consistently messed up; we have to fight with them to get our books in stock. They regularly, and seemingly for no reason, list our books as out of print, or not currently available, or not yet available, even months after the book's release. One day the book is listed as available, with a couple of copies in stock; the next it is no longer in print. Twice in the last six months they have stopped listing our books as available the week immediately following a glowing Globe Review, the time when we are most likely to receive direct orders for our titles. I know for a fact that our distributor and sales force have repeatedly addressed this with amazon, with absolutely no success: go online today, the week after a positive Toronto Star review, 2 weeks after a rave of a Globe review, for John Metcalf's Shut Up He Explained, and you will find it unavailable for anything but pre-order, a month after it's official release, and after numerous bibliographic updates which should have remedied the problem. There is not a doubt in my mind that this has cost us at least several sales, and maybe more. And anyone who knows anything about small press publishing in Canada knows that every single sale counts.
But it's even worse than this. Amazon has regularly -- I've had several people email me about this over the last year -- canceled orders for our titles -- along with those of other literary presses -- that they had received from amazon customers; what makes it worse, they've then sent out messages informing these customers that the titles that they requested were out of print. This is again tied up to the company's fucked up bibliographic management, but it's effect is doubly serious: not only do we lose the sale of the book, they have informed the customer that the book is no longer available, which means many of these buyers will not bother looking elsewhere. People have been brainwashed into believing that if it isn't available on amazon, it isn't available.
I can also tell you that amazon's practices are at least as questionable and loathsome as Chindigo's, and likely more so. They ruthlessly squeeze publishers and distributors for a higher discount, charge exorbitant amounts for their promotions and advertisements, and, as a small independent publisher, make us jump through many more hoops that Chindigo. They also sell gift cards and candles, and a host of other shit that people often use to make fun of Chindigo (somehow, for some reason, it's okay for an online retailer to stock candles and coffee and dried soup mix, but not for a more traditional book retailer.)
Though it would require another post -- this one is already too rambling and too long -- amazon's propensity to sell almost all books between 15-50 percent below list is also seriously damaging to the industry in a whole other way (a couple of quick reasons: it trains the consumer to expect deep discounting, when books themselves are already quite often under priced; and it leads to further pressure on distributors and publishers who are already operating on razor thin margins (the increasing frequency of net-clauses in author contracts is caused to a large extent by the squeezing of publishers caused by deep discounting.)
So, in answer to George and Zach and others who seem to think that, in the battle between the two corporate book behemoths, amazon is the better alternative to Chindigo, I must respectfully disagree. Amazon.ca remains the worst option for purchasing books in the country, and I'd argue just as passionately as Zachariah that those who care about the industry should choose to shop ... just about anywhere else.