There was an interview recently in New York Magazine with the author of a new book: The Last Testament, A Memoir Of God. It’s a spoof on religion written by David Javerbaum, former exec for The Daily Show. I’m not generally that interested in interviews but the lead on the story was very interesting indeed: Wal-Mart has decided not to put The Last Testament on its shelves.
Now, that’s interesting in itself, though not exactly unexpected. Wal-Mart’s shoppers tend to skew older, more conservative, and poorer than other similar stores like Target. I would imagine their purchasing department thought the book wasn’t risk-to-payout effective; people weren’t going to buy this book, but more than that they were going to be overtly offended by it. So I might not like Wal-Mart, I might not like what this move says about this country’s beliefs when it comes to having a sense of humor about religion, but in an economic sense I get where they’re coming from.
What really interested me were some of the comments to the article, like “Wait, Wal-Mart sells books?” and “Do Wal-Mart shoppers read?”
Yes, Wal-Mart shoppers read. In fact, Wal-Mart and Target are two of Amazon.com’s biggest competitors. Earlier this year, Wal-Mart was fourth in sales as a distribution channel behind Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon.com. Their sales stats have been dropping steadily (in 2004 they could account for as much as 20% of a book’s sales) but they’re still right up there. Wal-Mart outsells all independent bookstores in the US collectively.
As of April this year, Wal-Mart was the fourth-largest distributor of books in the United States.
And that means that when Wal-Mart refuses to sell a book, it’s a pretty big deal. What stores like Wal-Mart and Target (and Sainsbury’s and Tesco across the pond) stock alters the reading habits of casual readers and defines the reading selections of avid readers. Moreover, as a major sales outlet, its purchasing demands define what books publishers are willing to print. If large sales outlets won’t sell a certain kind of book, or a book about a certain topic, then publishers aren’t going to publish it.
These stores have an enormous cultural impact, an impact that pretty much nobody sees because it is assumed that the kind of people who shop at Wal-Mart or who buy books in grocery stores don’t matter, that they don’t impact or help to define our culture. Until recently, the New York Times bestsellers list didn’t even factor in sales at “stores like Wal-Mart and Target”.
Oops. It does now.
I’m not necessarily rallying a call to arms against Wal-Mart or a protest against what books they choose to sell or not to sell. But I do think that people who are interested in books, people who read and people who want a diversity of books on their shelves, should be aware that supermarkets and chain retailers have clout — even if they sell novels next to ammunition.
At the moment, Wal-Mart’s clout has possibly cut sales of what looks like a pretty funny book by a significant amount — which doesn’t just mean less money for the publisher and author, but fewer people who will get to experience it.