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In many ways, Ms. Pearl’s [author of Book Lust] rise in the book world parallels Seattle’s rise in the publishing world. Though the big publishing houses are still ensconced in New York, the Seattle area is the home of Amazon, Starbucks and Costco, three companies that increasingly influence what America reads.

Books by relatively unknown or foreign authors become best sellers by dint of their anointment at the hands of Amazon editors. A forgotten older paperback, recommended and featured by the book buyer at Costco, can sell more copies in six weeks than it did in the last few years combined. Almost every book Starbucks stocks in its coffee shops sells more than 100,000 copies in its outlets alone. That pushes most Starbucks selections into the top 1 percent of all books sold that year, without counting sales in other types of stores.

The three companies settled in Seattle for different reasons, and each had its own motivation for choosing to sell books. Together, though, their combined power in the book industry has put the city in the position of tastemaker.

Each company, in its own way, “guides their customers, by selecting the books they will see,” Ms. Pearl said. “New York may publish the books, but Seattle significantly defines America’s reading list.”

Industry trends suggest Seattle’s influence will keep growing. More people are bypassing bookstores and buying at mass-market merchants, online retailers and specialty stores, says Albert N. Greco, a marketing professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business Administration.

In the last two years alone, sales of consumer books sold through such nontraditional outlets grew by more than $260 million, Professor Greco said. The presence of Costco, Amazon and Starbucks ensures that “Seattle will keep making an impact on what we read,” he said.

When Kim Ricketts, founder of a book promotion company in Seattle, visited the big publishing houses in New York last month, she said she was repeatedly asked for advice on how to do business with the three Seattle heavyweights: “Publishers want to find the golden ticket — how to get their title beloved by one of these companies.”

Seattle’s literary seeds have been here for decades, with local authors, abundant writing courses and robust independent bookstores, according to J. A. Jance, the Seattle mystery author whose books have sold 15 million copies over the last 20 years. “Maybe it’s the rain, but Seattle has always been a reading town,” she said.

Over the last 10 years, the city has spent nearly $200 million to improve its libraries, including the new downtown showpiece designed by Rem Koolhaas and completed in 2004.

This love of books even seeps into the town’s corporate cultures, says Ms. Ricketts, who 10 years ago started organizing author visits for employees at Microsoft, Starbucks and other companies in the area. “The authors were always shocked at how big the crowds were and how many books they sold,“ Ms. Ricketts remembers.

The town’s enthusiasm for books may have made it easy to find well-qualified employees, but Amazon, Starbucks and Costco each occupy a different niche in the book world.

Starbucks started offering books to enhance the coffee-house experience, thinking that customers would enjoy spending more time in the shop if they had a provocative read and conversation starter to go along with their coffees and scones. They also hoped it would increase spending by each customer.

Starbucks sells just one title at a time, usually for a period of two to three months. The selections bear little resemblance to one another. Some have been almost unknown; others were already best sellers. The latest title, “Beautiful Boy,” focuses on a father trying to help his drug-addicted son.

“We wanted to find extraordinary books that would encourage people to discuss compelling issues” like war, hope, faith and family, said Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment…

Costco has become so successful at selling books that it has become a hot spot on the author book promotion circuit. Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, and Bill Clinton have signed books in Costco warehouses.

The flip side of the success of the big Seattle booksellers is the gradual decrease in the number of small independent stores, which have struggled as a result of a variety of factors…

Book lovers as well as writers miss the corner bookstore. But Americans are busy, and if they can pick up the latest book while they’re stocking their pantry, sitting at their computer or going out for coffee, it saves them valuable time, said Brian Jud, author of “Beyond the Bookstore: How to Sell More Books Profitably to Non-Bookstore Markets.”

They just may not realize that someone in Seattle helped them choose it.

Julie Bick
New York Times