A hopeful update on union book sales from LabourStart

by Eric Lee

Eric Lee

Eric Lee

Steve Early’s article “Reading, Writing and Union Building” is an excellent overview of the state of union book sales and publishing. As he quotes from something I wrote four years ago,  I thought it might be useful to provide an update – and perhaps a glimmer of hope.

LabourStart was one of the very first trade union websites to attempt to sell books and we launched our Labour’s Online Bookstore way back in 1998. It was a partnership with Amazon.com.  We’d select books to sell, people would buy them from Amazon, and we’d get a small share of each sale. But within a couple of years, it became clear to us that Amazon was an anti-union company and that there was an alternative: Portland, Oregon’s Powells Books, which had just been unionized.   Working with Powells was the morally right thing to do, but — to be honest — was not very profitable. By the early part of this decade, many people already had accounts at Amazon and were not willing to try other online bookstores which were often more expensive.

Our partnership with Powells continues, but in recent years LabourStarthas worked much more closely with Union Communication Services, which for decades has been publishing and selling books aimedspecifically at trade unionists. Its owner, David Prosten, is the author of the best-selling Union Steward’s Guide.

Recently, inspired in part by Steve’s article and his forthcoming book,”Embedded with Organized Labor”, we’ve made a special effort to revive Labour’s Online Bookstore in a new format  We’ve created a dedicated blog which will feature a selected book of the week and, where possible,author interviews. We’ll tie in books where we can to events andholidays. And we’ll keep an easy-to-access archive of our books of the week.

We also launched a group on the new UnionBook social networking website  for people to suggest and discuss books for trade unionists. It is one of the largest groups on UnionBook, andthere’s been lively discussion of some of the books we’re promoting.

Our weekly book selection is featured on LabourStart’s front page, is mentioned in our weekly mass mailing which reaches over 60,000 trade unionists, and is even an automatic part of our daily Twitter feed.  When we choose a book, tens of thousands of trade unionists know about it within a few hours.

As a result of our efforts, book sales at Labour’s Online Bookstore havetaken off – in a modest way.  For example, we were able to sell several dozen copies of May Day: A Short History of the International Workers Holiday by Philip S. Foner in the last weeks of May. This is hardly a new book and one you won’t findstocked in your local Borders, but we managed to give it a real boost in sales simply by tying the promotion to the May Day holiday. Several unions ordered multiple copies.

More recently, we’re helping the launch of a brand-new title, Why Unions Matter.   This is the second edition of a book by Michael D. Yates and we decided to interview the author on subjects like the Employee Free Choice Act, the Democrats and the unions, and the split between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. Again,our readers reacted enthusiastically and there was a surge of sales forYates’ book through our shop.

We’re not limiting ourselves to U.S. authors or publishers either.

Early in the year, we were told by our friends in the Iraqi trade unions that there were many boxes of unsold copies of a wonderful book about their movement which had been published by the British Trades Union Congress (TUC). We approached the TUC, and working together with them were able to sell 100 copies of the book.

The book “Global Unions, Global Business”  was published earlier thisyear by a small university press in London and we worked together with them to sell dozens of copies of the book to a global trade union audience.

Authors frequently send us copies of books that LabourStart could help promote and one of the more interesting ones we’ve just received comes from Australia. It’s called “Worth Fighting For” and the author is Kathie Muir. In that country unions successfully campaigned to get rid of anti-union laws — and brought in a pro-union Labor Party government. A book describing how unions did this will be of interestto unions everywhere.

What we’re trying to do is create a culture of book buying inside thetrade union movement, reminding people that there are serious effortsbeing made to understand our problems and issues. Books like “WhyUnions Matter”, “Embedded with Organized Labor”, “Worth Fighting For”and “Global Unions, Global Business” deserve much larger audiences than they are likely to get — and we need to find ways to turn our Internet-based tools into effective marketing for those books.

I encourage all readers of this blog to visit Labour’s Online Bookstore,to join the UnionBooks group on UnionBook — and to spread the word!

Eric Lee is the founder of LabourStart, the global labor news and campaigning site.

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