Robert Sindelar and Maria Semple pose with a copy of The Silkworm.
Yesterday was the publication date for The Silkworm, the newest thriller written by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Because of a contract dispute with the book's publisher, Hachette, The Silkworm was not available for preorder from Amazon.com. Another bookseller decided to pick up Amazon's slack: Third Place Books hand-delivered copies of The Silkworm yesterday around the Seattle metro area to 20 customers. (Dozens of other customers pre-ordered from Third Place and chose to pick up the books in the stores.) The lion's share of the books were delivered by Third Place managing partner Robert Sindelar, who drove from Everett to Shoreline, Woodinville, Ravenna, Ballard, and other Seattle locations all day long.
The last stop of the day was a home in Queen Anne, where a confused man named Craig was greeted by Sindelar, local author Maria Semple, a photographer, and a reporter from The Stranger. Craig's wife had ordered the book, and so he had no idea that company was coming. Sindelar handed him a tote bag full of The Silkworm, an advance copy of Laird Hunt's upcoming novel Neverhome, a Silkworm t-shirt, and a copy of Semple's novel Where'd You Go, Bernadette. Sindelar explained that Third Place was doing this as a way to have fun with the Amazon/Hachette duel—"yeah, I think I've heard something about that," Craig said—and to thank their customers for supporting independent bookstores. Semple explained that she came along because she's "an author whose book is not available on Amazon." Craig and his wife had already read Bernadette, so he asked Semple to inscribe the book to some friends of the family from California. "Please move here," Semple wrote on the title page, just above her signature. "Holy cow. This is so cool! This is awesome," Craig said. "What a strange thing to happen to you," Semple replied.
After dropping Semple off at home, I asked Sindelar if the folks who ordered delivery of The Silkworm from Third Place had anything in common. Not really, Sindelar says. There was "a youngish librarian in Everett," a couple of retirees, a young woman, a few families. They were all excited to have the book hand-delivered to them, and the extra goodies—which were donated to the bookstore by Hachette—were received warmly. (Besides the Semple guest-appearance, the coolest bonus had to have been the autographed book plate, hand-signed by Rowling with a hologram sticker proving its authenticity.) Why did Sindelar choose the Laird Hunt novel to accompany The Silkworm? Sindelar simply thinks it's one of the best books he's read this year. He calls Neverhome "a historical novel that doesn't feel like a historical novel," the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man and joins the Union Army in place of her husband during the Civil War. Sindelar says the writing is beautiful, the narrator is compelling, and throughout Neverhome, "you're faced with the question of why? Why did she go? She's presented with the opportunity to leave early and she doesn't take it. It's not a mystery, but that's the question that drives the book." He wants to get Seattleites excited about the book before its publication this fall, and the fact that it's not available for pre-order on Amazon was just the icing on the cake.
Sindelar says Third Place wanted to make a statement about Amazon, but they didn't want to do it from a place of negativity. Throughout the planning process, he says, he and his staff asked themselves, "What can we do without bitching and moaning? What can be a positive thing?" Ultimately, he says, the biggest sticking-point with the Amazon/Hachette dispute is a question of "why should a potential customer care? To me as a bookseller, it was very simple. This is the biggest bookseller in the world and they are actively withholding books from their customers. That's not what being a bookseller is." He says the Silkworm delivery is "a grand gesture" to demonstrate Third Place's commitment to books. "I think there are twenty people who are going to have a conversation with their friends about an unusual thing that happened to them today," Sindelar says. "Is it going to be a conversation about what's wrong with Amazon? Probably not. It's going to be about this neat thing that a great local bookstore did." He doesn't want the conversation to be about Amazon at all. "I think it's really important that we don't define ourselves in their shadow. I feel what we do has value. I see people coming into our store and they keep coming back." He says that a bookstore's duty is to focus on what they are, not what they're not. "Rather than say, 'these are things they don't do,' we say, 'these are the awesome things we do, these are the important things we do, these are the thoughtful things we do.'"