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.