Starbucks Selection Process Raises Eyebrows
by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 10/30/2006
Mitch Albom's novel For One More Day has been a big hit at Starbucks, selling 45,000 copies since it became available at the stores on October 3. The company also confirmed it is looking at extending sales of the book through the holiday season and is talking to several publishers about a second title to go on sale in early 2007. William Morris Agency is acting as a consultant to Starbucks to scout books and negotiate terms on the new deal.
But William Morris's relationship with Starbucks, and the entire selection process, has caused some grumbling among rival agencies as well as at some retailers. Several agents who spoke with PW questioned William Morris's role in scouting books, suggesting a "conflict of interest" existed in having WMA representing both authors and a retailer simultaneously.
"If Starbucks wanted a scout, why didn't they hire one?" asked one agent. "They are having an opportunity to see manuscripts early, which gives them leverage in the long run. As of now, Starbucks hasn't picked a William Morris author to sell, but who is to say they won't favor their own clients in the future?"
Another agent, who claims familiarity with an ongoing negotiation with Starbucks, expressed concern about the terms WMA was requesting for a particular title, going so far as to call the deal "abusive." According to this agent, WMA asked for deeper-than-industry-standard discounts and a two-week window of exclusivity in which to be the sole retailer for a new title. Through a spokesperson, Starbucks strenuously denied asking for a special discount, but did acknowledge requesting two-week exclusivity, a request the company evenually dropped.
Bob Miller, president of Hyperion, said that his company had dealt directly with Ken Lombard, head of Starbucks's entertainment division, when negotiating terms for Albom's For One More Day and that WMA was not involved.
Starbucks said that everything WMA does on Starbucks's behalf is done with the coffee company's approval. The spokesperson expressed satisfaction with the work the agency is doing on the chain's behalf, and in particular, praised the "passion and intelligence" of agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, who is working on the project. Lombard called Starbucks's relationship with WMA "very much a collaborative effort," in which all books under consideration are also vetted by many of his division's 65 partners (Starbucks's preferred term for its employees).
Mostly, agents seemed concerned about their authors developing any kind of relationship with WMA. "Knowledge is power, and the more they know about my authors, the more it worries me," said one.
On the other hand, Starbucks appears willing to take risks and is asking publishers to follow its lead. The company has confirmed that the second book it will sell in its stores is likely to be a debut novel by an unknown writer—a far cry from the near sure-thing Albom's novel represents. This would likely require a publisher to commit to a far larger initial print run on a debut novel than usual. With Starbucks's thousands of locations, it is likely a publisher would need to commit to a print run in the tens of thousands to satisfy demand and maintain a reasonable level of stock in each store. It's a heady risk to take on a first-time novelist, albeit one who will be exposed to 40 million Starbucks caffeinated customers each week.