Not Seen in Bookstores by Noah Baird

I recently read an article on the plight of the independent bookstore. The point of this particular article, similar to other articles I’ve read, was independent bookstores were having difficulty competing with Amazon.com. Our local bookstores are turning into Amazon showrooms. People (I’m not referring to them as ‘customers’ on purpose) are going into bookstores, browsing books, and then buying the books off of Amazon at a lower price.

I have to admit I am guilty of this also. However, I usually make a point to buy a book in the store; partly because I feel guilty, but mostly because I won’t get the book from Amazon for another week and Daddy needs his fix.

As a first time author, a counterpoint to the fall of the independent bookstore is it is often difficult for new writers to get their book on the shelves of an independent bookstore. The explanation I’m given usually covers one of the following reasons:

  • There is not enough shelf space for every new author. Translation: “We are only going to carry books we think are going to sell.” Which means they are going to carry the same books Barnes and Noble sells, but don’t have a Starbucks.
  • New authors don’t have a large enough fan base to warrant carrying the book or hosting an author event. This is a b.s. excuse. People pick up books from authors they’ve never heard of. Most people don’t care if it’s the writer’s first book or fifteenth; if the book looks interesting, then they will buy it. Secondly, I realize a very small percentage of a bookstore’s customers are writers. But there is a larger percentage of customers who want to be writers. People who are interested in writing will go and listen to writers, regardless of genre or popularity.
  • They won’t carry books from a particular publishing company because of return policies. I don’t know enough about return policies between booksellers and publishers to write anything intelligent. However, it seems like the bookseller knows which publishers have return policies they like. Usually, if your book wasn’t published by one of them, then you are out of luck. In my experience, they won’t investigate what your publisher’s return policy is; they just deal with the one they know about. I am not a publisher nor a bookstore owner, but this seems like a navigable obstacle. Both parties are in the business of selling books. It seems logical that a compromise could be made to aid in that goal.
  • Sometimes they are willing to take the books on consignment in return for a larger percentage of the purchase price. Translation: “I want you to write the book, get it published, haul it over to my store, and give me a larger portion of your royalties for your work.” This is always my favorite.

I have to admit, I was surprised by the responses I was getting from my local, independent bookstores. I wasn’t deluded enough to think they were waiting for me, but I assumed there was more of a symbiotic relationship between the stores and the writers. In hindsight, I was under the impression bookstores liked writers. And I think most of them do, but they are more interested in making a profit than establishing relationships with local writers.

I realized my impression that independent bookstores were kindred spirits to independent writers and musicians was wrong. I’ve been to countless indy music stores, and they were full of music by artists you’ve never heard on the radio. This is an interesting parallel; discovering an indy musician not heard on the radio, or before they became big (aka – sold out) is considered a testament to your taste. The same is not true for indy or small press writers. If a writer is not carried by one of the big publishers, then you aren’t truly vetted, and therefor aren’t worth reading. Regardless of the fact that there are countless books by independent writers which are excellent, as well as some really crap books published by the large presses. The reality of it is, some independent bookstores have become arbitrary gatekeepers; Saint Peters of Nightstands. My issue with this attitude is our work isn’t measured for quality, but weighed for the popularity of the writer and the size of the publisher.

The irony of this attitude is studies indicate the reason potential customers pick up a book is the cover. Most people decide if they are interested in a book within 10 seconds of picking up the book. Within those 10 seconds, a customer decides to make a purchase based on two pieces of information: the cover and the synopsis. Reviews and blurbs are also influential, but really confirm the customer’s impulse to buy the book. The price of the book is a distant 4th. The author’s name does influence the decision if the author is well-known; a Stephen King fan will pick up a new Stephen King book. Otherwise, an author’s popularity or the publishing company are not considered. Interestingly, when asked after making a purchase, a customer often does not know the name of the author of the book they just purchased. It isn’t until they have read the book that they commit the author to memory. Yet bookstores behaving like high school girls ordaining popularity based on factors transparent to the customer remains pervasive.

I think this the wrong attitude for bookstores to have. Several years ago, I went to Florida for a business trip. My flight had a long delay in Philadelphia, so I finished the book I brought with me faster than I anticipated. After I checked into my hotel, I wandered out to grab a bite to eat and pick up a new book. The hotel was in a funky beach town with several shops across the street. As I cruised around enjoying the sights, I noticed one street had two little bookstores. One bookstore was hosting an event for a local writer I’d never heard of. I went into the bookstore hosting the author event only because it had something more interesting going on than the other store. I bought three books- two by the author the event was being held for.

I was going to buy a book that day. I bought more books than I planned (which isn’t unusual), but I bought them from the store that had something going on that day. All things being equal, one of those stores was going to make a profit that day. The store with the author event got it. I would like to reiterate I had not heard of the author before that day. He was local author with a regional following. Since then, I have bought every book that writer has published to date, several from a small bookstore that will order books for me. A sale, is a sale, is a sale. A win for the writer translated to a win for the bookstore. That win transferred to another bookstore who made sales on books it didn’t carry.

I’m a bibliophile: I love books, I love bookstores, and I love writers. As a reader, I am concerned with what is happening to local bookstores. As a writer, I’ve embraced Amazon. I may be just a number at Amazon, but at least I’m acknowledged there. And for a first time author, that gives me a fighting chance.

By the way, the author in Florida was Tim Dorsey. If you’ve never heard of Tim Dorsey; mix Carl Hiaassen with the TV show Dexter and give it a bunch of Red Bulls and vodka.

Noah Baird is the author of Donations to Clarity, which often is not found in an independent bookstore.

Donations to Clarity

Donations to Clarity

32 Comments

Filed under blogging, books, fiction, fun, Humor, marketing, musings, writing

32 responses to “Not Seen in Bookstores by Noah Baird

  1. Very good summation of the problem, Noah. There are so many books flooding the market since self-publishing has become easy and prevalent, that books bookstore owners seem determined to shut their gates against the onslaught. I would have thought they’d be especially welcoming to those of us published by a small independent press since our books have already been vetted, but bookstores seem reluctant to take a chance, even when the publisher has the same return policy as the big publisher and the distributors.

    • Pat, I was curious what you would have to say on this blog. It seems like the independent bookstores are following the Borders/B&N model, which is already failing. I wanted to call this blog ‘The Lemmings of Independence’, but I didn’t think the title would attract readers.

      • The Lemmings of Independence is a great title! And true. You’d think that now since the whole book business has cracked wide open, independents would be independent and try to come up with a more workable model than the one currently destroying bookstores, but as MIckey said, the major book publishers with their lists of hugely selling authors still control the business.

  2. Some really interesting points here, all of which are very relevant for bookstores over here in Australia. Because we have a low population and are rather cut off from most of the world, our bookstores are closing incredibly fast over here. But when it’s less than half the price to buy the books online from another country, you know something isn’t right.
    I agree about the events in stores and the type of books stores actually stock too – I think a lot are getting this wrong.
    The future of the bookstore is looking interesting, to say the least…

    • Thank you for the comment. To be honest, I half expected replies to this blog to be ‘What the hell are you talking about?’. The problem seems to be larger than I realized.

      Where in Australia are you? I’ve been to Adelaide and Darwin. I love it there; absolutely fantastic country.

  3. My local independent stores are run by unfriendly, uptight people. In my experience what you said about those stores is true. What’s really low in my opinion is that even if they condescend to take a book on consignment, they may not put it on display! The big publishers still run the entire trade with their “lists” of books.

    • I know exactly the type you are referring to. I had an analogy about them, but I can’t think of it now. The typical reader/fan is great. These folks are a different animal.

  4. Very well said, Noah. As for the return policy of bookstores, the bookstores buy the books at a steep discount, mark them back up, sell what they can within a timeframe, then return shelf worn books back to the publisher and get their money back. The books returned to the publisher typically are unable to be resold because they are no longer in perfect condition. For a mass market publisher who has print runs of thousands of books, the extra books are pulped and the publisher writes them off. The cost is very little per copy for the large publishers. Since smaller publishers print very small quantities at a time, they don’t have the margins the big publishers do and they can’t afford to pay to print and ship a large number of books only to have most of those books come back to the publisher.

    Have you ever seen the inside front of a mass market paperback that says something about the book being illegal if sold without a cover? That’s because those books have technically been returned to the publisher as unsold, the publisher has refunded money back to the bookstore, and the copy was supposed to be destroyed. The bookstore only sends the cover back to the publisher as proof that the book is unsold. The rest of the book is pulped.

    • Thanks for the clarification, Tracy. This makes sense to me. Many of the books I’ve purchased from Amazon were not the new books directly from Amazon, but ‘new’ or ‘like new’ from a 3rd party. Often, the 3rd party is an indy bookstore. The books from the 3rd party seem to be the books which have been pawed through in a bookstore, but otherwise perfect. Personally, I don’t care because I’ve picked up new hardbacks at an extremely low price. Often, I pay more for shipping than the book. I thought this was a great move for the indy bookstore. Essentially, they are piggy-backing on Amazon (who already have the page set-up, etc), and providing a competitive price while selling stock outside of their store.

    • One reason I was so pleased to sign on with Second Wind is that Second Wind will never pulp books. I was truly disheartened when I discovered that 25% of all books published by the majors are pulped, You can’t burn a book, but you can pulp them? What kind of logic is that?

      • Good post. I didn’t know the ‘pulp policy’ at Second Wind.

        When I was first getting rejected by indy bookstores, I initially thought it was the publisher that was the problem. I began to have doubts with my decision to sign with them. I’ve never had a problem with Second Wind, and they’ve always treated me well. It wasn’t until I did some research did I learn it wasn’t the publishers at all, but the bookstores.

  5. Reading is about the least expensive, yet most worthwhile, pastime available. How is it then that bookstores and and publishers don’t get together, not to promote a particular book or author, but to promote READING?

    • Great reply. I don’t have a good answer for you. I think there are too many small bookstores (although less everyday) for a small press to chase. It would seem easier for the bookstores to approach the publishers. In fact, many bookstores has marketplace guides listing most of the presses. There needs to be a public demand for any real change to occur.

  6. Depressing. My only book is not published, and I’m trying hard to build a platform with my blog. I feel like I don’t stand a chance if small book stores don’t look my way. Amazon it is I guess.

    • Don’t lose faith. This may not be the case in your area.

      Also, don’t poo-poo Amazon. We love to hate the top dog, but that’s where most of my sales come from. Amazon can be dealt with. It’s a completely impersonal landscape. Amazon has algorithms which determine your ranking based on searches and performance. You can succeed with an algorithm.

  7. Noah, I really enjoyed your commentary. Your point about an author not really being vetted unless carried by a big publishing house is, sadly, well taken. Thanks for this post which I’ll share with my local crit group (many of whom are indie-published writers).

    Candice Coghill

  8. Naive and lucky, I tucked two copies of my self-published first novel under my arm and visited a couple of carefully chosen independent international bookstores last week in Berlin. At St. George’s Bookstore in the Greenwich Village-like neighborhood of Prenzlauer-Berg, the owner kindly took my book on commission and helped me understand the distribution system in Europe, different than in the US. The children’s bookstore, Mundo Azul, no longer stocked chapter books, concentrating on picture books, however, the extremely friendly owner agreed to get me a couple of reviews from some of her readers. Was my success rate a fluke?

  9. Noah Baird’s book, Donations to Clarity, which definitively answers the questions 1. is that a Bigfoot & 2. did Elvis really die, can be find in the independent bookstore Barnhill’s in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

    • Thank you, Mike! What’s sad is I submitted this blog as a “Letters to the Editor” of my local paper. I didn’t have one indy bookstore in my area to add as the exception to this blog.

  10. You’ve raised some excellent points here. Indie bookstores and writers should really work more together for the benefit of both. Stores can’t complain that writers only link to amazon as their purchasing link if they themselves are showing limited support by only stocking the big names players. It works both ways.

    P.S. The Lemmings of Independence is a great title!

    • Absolutely! That’s a great point. I’ve noticed many of the indy bookstores’ online search engine is through Goodreads. I don’t know if they’re getting a better deal through Goodreads, but it doesn’t seem too different than Amazon’s book section.

      I should’ve used that title. I should go with my first instinct.

  11. More “Donations to Clarity,” in this case, clarity about indie bookstores as they really are, unvarnished by author expectations. It’s a hard truth. The other h.t. is that Amazon is the only game in town for writers like us. Having been around for the original e-reader debacle, I believe the Kindle has got a lot of the old problems licked. Indie Brick & Mortar has changed, too, in order to survive. The folks who just loved books have been mostly removed from the equation.

  12. Depressing but informative. I’m told indie bookstores are still popular in Portland, but I guess I’ll find out how they treat local writers when Divide by Zero comes out.

    • Pat Bertram was nice enough to repost this blog on her Facebook page. A writer made a comment indicating she had better luck in Portland. Hopefully it will work out for you.

  13. A wonderful response by Robert Gray, contributing editor of Shelf Awareness.

    Thank you for sending the link. I’ve written about this issue in Shelf Awareness a few times, and have been on panels in various parts of the country where the panelists and audience included writers, publishers and booksellers representing every side of the issue. It can, and often does, get contentious because it is really hard to be objective. And the answers aren’t simple, as you know, because all of the people involved are individuals and independent–sometimes crankily so–in their own ways. I don’t have any answers, but I’ll share some of my thoughts with you.

    Basically, if you’re an author, you want to reach readers. If you’re a publisher, you want to reach readers. If you’re a bookseller, you want to reach readers. While this seems to be a consensus that would lead to unanimity of purpose and execution, it often doesn’t, as you point out so well.

    I worked for a large indie bookstore for almost 15 years, beginning in 1992. Shelf space was not as much of an issue there, particularly after they expanded to 13,000 square feet in 2003. Carrying a good selection of small press books and select self-published titles was not a problem, again because they had space. With the addition of an Espresso Book machine a few years ago, they even started publishing and carrying books generated in-house. Many of the best frontline booksellers there often championed books by authors who were published by small and independent presses, along with titles by the Big Six.

    That being said, very few days passed without a writer being frustrated (genuinely pissed off, in fact) when his or her book was not added to the inventory. You eloquently detail the frustrations of the writer upon hitting that wall of indifference when trying to place a book in an era when everyone is trumpeting the importance of indies and the connection between indie businesses of all descriptions.

    I can offer a few reasons why the wall seems just as high from one frontline bookseller’s perspective. I did some buying, tool, for what it’s worth.

    Writers (and sometimes even independent publishers) often appeared at the checkout counter and pitched their book(s) to cashiers, or asked to speak to the book buyer or owner without having made any prior arrangements (an e-mail or phone call to set up an appointment) or on a busy Saturday when no one from the buying office would be working.

    They did not do their homework regarding the specific store or its floor booksellers. Some of the most successful books in terms of handselling that I shepherded into the inventory and promoted came to me because the author took the time to look at Staff Pick cards and talk to me about books in general from a reader’s perspective before ever pitching their own work. Booksellers have fragile egos, just like writers, and those egos can be just as effectively stroked.

    They assumed that the owner or buyer was the key person in the store to sell to. In many bookstores, the section head for the department in which your book would be shelved (fiction or poetry, for ex.) has plenty of influence over what goes there, especially when it comes to taking a chance on a particular title.The owner of our store probably received a hundred times more sales pitches, ARCs and comp. copies than most of us on the floor, and he hadn’t actually handsold a book or made a significant buy in a decade.

    There is also the matter of history and the current market reality. Anyone who was working in a bookstore more than 15 years ago could be fairly certain that a writer who came in cold and pitched a book to the first person they saw was probably self-published and possibly delusional. That has changed rapidly during the past decade, with the rise of really good indie presses and POD technology. At the same time, however, even more books are being published.

    Even with the best of intentions, the job of every book buyer is to say no, not just to indie press writers, but to the majority of titles in the catalogues from the Big Six, too. It would be an easy job if all you had to do was buy everything you saw and liked. But that buyer has to think first about whether the title is irresistible. If they can resist, they do.

    The sales rep’s job–whether he works for Harper Collins or is the author presenting his or her own work in person–is to make it as irresistible as possible. That also happens to be a frontline bookseller’s job when he’s handselling a book to a potential reader. There’s a little magic involved here. If you’re one of the Big Six pubs, you can sweeten the deal with co-op, shipping deals, etc. If you’re an individual author a small indie publisher, you have to find other ways to make the magic happen.

    The best indies I know are as open to great indie work as they are any other. Big Six titles pay the bills (and, of course, there is some great work there, too), but the best frontline booksellers want to put their own personal stamp on many of the books they champion. And nothing is more fun than discovering a new author you can share.

    Ultimately, it’s as dangerous to say all indies have closed their doors to small press authors as it is to say all indie bookstores are faultless and should be supported whether they earn it or not. Bookstores have to make themselves irresistible, too.

    I like the complications.

    Anyway, I’ve droned on long enough. This is a discussion that will never go away, and will continue to generate significant heat on all sides. Sometimes heat is good.Thanks for firing me up.

    Best,

    Robert Gray
    Contributing Editor
    Shelf Awareness

  14. Noah, you voiced insights that bother many of us.

    I live in a relatively small town–15,000–but am very fortunate that the 2 bookstores here are very supportive of my work. One pays me 80% of the cover price as my take. The other about 70%. And the Dunn Brothers here supports local authors and has a shelf with books for sale. They take no commission.

    But the stores in Minneapolis and St Paul are different animals. I got into one through consignment, and the other because I established a relationship with the owners. Our Sisters in Crime meets there, and I went to a few book signings and bought books, so they got to know me, and for some reason, liked me.

    It makes sense that independent/small bookstores would support authors who do quality work, and authors and their readers would support those bookstores. But not everything in life makes sense. Keep selling, and your bookstores will want your books.

  15. I’m glad and sorry that I’m not the only one struggling with getting my books in stores without being ripped off.

    I did have great success with a used local bookstore who’s owners are fantastic and take very little percentage as well as help with signings and promotion. I’ve also had a magazine store carry my books for over a year with a few sales at low percentage but found them harder to deal with as their priority was magazines, not books.

    And yes, as sad as it is to see so many actual book stores closing I’m more apt to save a few bucks and order online than I am to spend almost double for one book at my local store (for new books). I end up with more books buying online at the same price I would spend for one locally and I get free shipping online, and seem to pay for the major retailers costs of everything!

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