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[I try to keep this as personal blog, but by trade I am a book promoter. As most of the people I engage with both in real life and online are writers and book people, I thought I should share a few observations about the trade. This is the first in an occasional series of posts.]
Local Bookstores vs. “Local” Authors.
One thing that comes up over and over again when self-published or small press authors responsible for their own publicity/marketing discuss bookstores is a level of anger that it’s often difficult to get their books into indie bookstores (either on the shelves or for an event). I often see writers comment online (and hear it at festivals) that “even” their local stores “make it hard” for them and that local stores should want to work with local authors, and somewhere along the way I’ve realized there’s a disconnect between many fledgling writers and bookstores about what exactly a local author is. Newsflash: it’s about a lot more than your ZIP code.
Let’s start with the obvious factor: physical proximity. Do you live a short drive or walk from the bookstore? This is an essential part of the equation, but it’s not the only relevant consideration. Another question is even more vital: do you shop at this bookstore regularly? The key difference is between someplace being a local bookstore and it being your local bookstore.
From there the questions go on: How many booksellers do you know on a first name basis? Do they smile or grimace when you walk in? How many events have you attended there? Have you ever ended up in a bar, after hours, boozing it up with a touring author friend, a couple of booksellers from the store, and a sales rep for a publishing company who you still can’t see at a party without blushing? How many times has the manager pulled a book from under the counter and said, “You’re gonna love this!” the moment you crossed the threshold?
I’m not saying you have to be best friends with the owner and blow your kids’ college savings at the bookstore, but you have to use it. You should be a known face — not necessarily a confidant — and part of the local literary community. If you’ve been working away in beautiful isolation and ordering all your own reading material from Amazon, then how can you expect your local bookstore to regard you as a local author? You’re a local, certainly, and you’re an author, but neither alone is a compelling reason for any bookstore to want to work with you. (They are swamped with authors asking them to carry their books or host events.) They need to know you the individual, and know you have a level of respect and support for their mission before they might consider supporting yours.
Your local store should be the one in the community where you live, where your children go to school, where you and your friends shop, the one with the cafe where you meet for safe first dates, and the place you bring out-of-town family when they visit. If you do not have a local store like this, find one. Pick a store, shop there, chat with the booksellers, ask for recommendations, buy birthday gifts there, attend events, get to know the staff and let them get to know you. It’ll make your literary life more interesting, more varied, and more eventful, and when you finish your manuscript and finally have a book to promote, your local booksellers will be much more enthusiastic and supportive because your success will be personal for them. During the writing process there’s a time for isolation and contemplation, for quiet work and freedom from distractions, but everyone needs a literary community to present their work to, and your local bookstore can be the cornerstone of that.
Bear this in mind: one of the criteria bookstores use in deciding whether to carry your book or to host an event is the question “Does this author have a local network to mobilize in support of their book?” If you haven’t even bothered to get to know people at the area bookstore, this doesn’t suggest you’ll be any better at networking in any other aspect of your life.
Bottom line: No bookstore is compelled to work with an author, especially not one who claims to be local, but whom they’ve never seen or heard from before. Take the time to get involved in your local literary community and support your local bookstore, your life will be the richer for it, and the booksellers will be more inclined to support your book in turn.
This is not to say that cultivating a good relationship with your local bookstore is the only thing you need to make a successful book. It’s just one part of your overall marketing plan — I’ll try to write about some of the others shortly. But, it’s a key relationship, and new writers should not take it for granted.
Recently, I enjoyed a great afternoon running around Dublin bookshops. I visited many of my old haunts and one cool new bookstore. It happened to be the day of Gay Pride, so driving around the city center was difficult as streets were closed for the parade, but once I had the car stashed in a multi-story I was exploring a Dublin that in some ways hasn’t changed much since I lived there.
The spire wasn’t there in my time, nor the odd metal balconies over the river, but I’ve seen them on previous visits. I hadn’t come across the big Polish Embassy on the quays before, but it makes sense since the second language of Ireland has seemed like Polish for some time.
The tiny Winding Stair Bookshop and restaurant has shrunk over the years. From a book-lined restaurant upstairs, to a well-stocked bookstore downstairs and separate restaurant up. It’s probably an indication of the relative importance of books to the Irish populace over the Celtic Tiger years: dining out has only grown in importance, while reading… well, let’s not dwell on that. The ground-floor now houses new books, and not very many square feet of them. However, the place feels like a perfect example of a curated selection. I immediately found most of the new fiction I was looking for right there on the shelves (not always a given in any store, anywhere) and found several books that looked great. Chatting with the staff at Winding Stair showed they are up to speed on new writers.
They had a copy of Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s debut novel, You, (and turned out to be the only store I looked in that day that did). After reading her story collection Nude last year, she’s now on my “must read” list. I was interesting in the new Dermot Healy novel, but after reading a couple of pages a combination of style and heft made me decide to wait and maybe look for a used copy on a future trip.
Hand-written shelftalkers showed me that the staff take their books seriously. Somebody at The Winding Stair is a huge advocate for Kevin Barry, and it’s due to their shelftalker that I later bought a copy of There Are Little Kingdoms and it’s high on my TBR list. [Although I must confess that I bought it elsewhere, because I needed to Google the book and read more about it first… you know how it is.] Kevin Barry’s debut novel, The City of Bohane, looks great, and if the short stories are as excellent as promised, I suspect I’ll be ordering the novel soon.
I also found several books that I’d never heard of and bought one nonfiction on impulse. Many of the other Dublin bookstores had a lot of the big books, and little else (or maybe it’s fairer to say that the else they had wasn’t the else I was interested in), but whoever buys books for The Winding Stair seems to be close to my own reading tastes. A tiny store, but still a great one.
The next day, reading Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s poem “Dancing with Paul Durcan,” it felt strangely apt to discover that it references The Winding Stair. If that isn’t literary cachet, I don’t know what is.
The newcomer to the Dublin bookselling scene since I lived there is The Gutter Bookshop. I’d come across them on Twitter (@GutterBookshop), and heard good things, so it was fabulous to finally be able to explore their shelves. The streets of Temple Bar were thronged after the Pride rally, and there was a healthy crowd browsing in the store. Owner Bob graciously stopped to chat to me despite the fact that the words “I follow you on Twitter” should send a tremor through the bravest soul. The space must be great for events, with all the fixtures on wheels to allow for flexibility.
Gutter is well-stocked: all the new releases and big books, as well as a noticeable sprinkling of quirky and backlist selections. I was delighted to score a copy of Julian Gough’s Jude: Level 1, as I never find his books in the wilds of North Carolina.
I stuck my head into Hodges-Figgis & Easons, the physically large/chain bookstores, but really didn’t see much to interest me. In fairness, Hodges-Figgis has a massive Irish nonfiction selection (if you can’t find it there, it probably hasn’t been written yet) but I wasn’t really looking for new nonfiction right now. Easons had lots of popular fiction and a “Buy 3 for the Price of 2” offer, but I’d already bought most of the books I was interested in. Many of the older second hand bookstores that used to be found down the quays and near Grafton Street seem to be gone. Every time I’m home I find a couple of new remainder and used stores, but these always vanish by the next visit.
A quick stop into Books Upstairs, a tiny bookshop absolutely crammed full of books by the gates of Trinity College, and I netted Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car, a poetry chapbook by Nuala Ní Chonchúir that I hadn’t expected to find. Books Upstairs has been there I don’t know how long, and has so many books that you have to hold your breath and suck in your gut to squeeze down the aisles. Not a store to follow fashion, but this is one of your best bets to find quirky titles from several years ago.
By now, my feet were beginning to drag, so I decided to call it quits for the day and head home to work on the most-difficult decision: which book to read first.
I haven’t read Richard Louv’s new book, The Nature Principle, yet, but intuitively I can get behind it. The argument seems to be the more time we spend with technology, the more time we need in nature to compensate/recharge. I know that’s true for me.
His earlier book was Last Child in the Woods, which was another duh! argument (kids need to play and be out in nature) that seemed to be news to a lot of people.
So AMZN pulled the buy buttons from all Macmillan’s books this weekend. At issue is the publisher’s ability to set the base price for their ebooks (as they do for their print books). AMZN’s response is the nuclear/6-year-old tantrum option (pick your metaphor, there have been plenty floating around Twitter all weekend)–their way or the highway. Authors are concerned their sales will suffer. Other publishers watch eagerly.
Macmillan CEO John Sargent explains why the two giant companies are at odds.
The authors’ view:
John Scalzi at Whatever — lots of discussion in the comments!
Cory Doctorow at boingboing
Several commentators attempt to unpack the bigger picture:
Charlie Stross at Antipope
Chris Meadows at Teleread
Mashable on the The Great Ebook War (a title worthy of many of Macmillan’s affected authors).
Caleb Crain at Steamthing
Can a publisher insist on minimum pricing? Apparently so.
Can a retailer refuse to sell a publisher’s books (some or all)? Of course.
Every bookstore passes on some of a publisher’s books because they’re not right for that store’s customer base. However, using a publisher’s entire print catalog as a bargaining chip in a separate negotiation is a completely different order of magnitude.
Personally, it’s my understanding that publishers are prohibited from charging one retailer a lower price for their physical books than all the others. I don’t see why it should be any different for ebooks. (Not being privy to the discussions, I have to assume Macmillan’s desired pricing would be the same for all ebook retailers.)
AMZN think they can get away with this because they are the largest gorilla in town. Macmillan seems to be anticipating Apple quickly establishing themselves as an equally large gorilla in the ebook business. AMZN have one thing to bargain with that Apple does not, the sale of physical books.
Indie booksellers have sensed the opportunity to use this brouhaha to support Macmillan authors and take some mindshare from the behemoth. WORD in Brooklyn are doing their part to publicize what’s going on, and the ABA have added banners highlighting the availability of Macmillan’s books to the indiebound.org website. These are encouraging first steps, but I hope to see indies following up with events and promotions that lead directly to tangible sales for the affected Macmillan authors. This is not only a chance to serve the large market of readers that AMZN have chosen not to serve, it’s also a chance to re-emphasize indies’ vital role in bringing a wide choice of books to their neighborhoods and to connect readers with writers. Two roles that indies will not relinquish in an effort to corner a different market.
New links added as I find them.
Digital Book World’s roundup of discussion.
Galleycat readers discuss.
A heavy reader who sides squarely w/ AMZN (even above the authors he enjoys).
Author Jay lake weighs in by severing his connection with AMZN.
Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, does the same.
Ed Campion says “not a single bookstore chain has ever discriminated against a publisher like this before”
Amazon claim to “capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms.” Although, right now (Sunday 6pm) the “buy” functionality does not appear to have been restored to Macmillan titles.
Finally, Macmillan buy buttons reappear (6pm ET, Friday Feb. 5, 2010).
[The intent of this post is to step back and consider the industry-wide implications of $8.99 bestsellers. I’m making multiple assumptions where I do not have all the info, so I invite corrections, counter arguments and real numbers before anyone jumps off any cliffs.]
The shoe is on the other foot this morning, with indie booksellers contemplating deserting publishers for cheaper $8.99 books at the mass merchants. Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Target.com are waging a price war over the top dozen-or-so projected bestsellers of the holiday season. To do so they are all willing to make a loss of $5-$6 on each book – which is staggering, because last time I checked market share wasn’t legal tender. Naturally, indie bookstore buyers have concluded that if you can purchase books you know your customers will want, at a lower price than directly from the publisher, and force a competitor to take a loss on each copy, why the hell wouldn’t you?
This is my attempt to make a case not to desert the publishers. [Full disclosure: I work for a small publisher and part-time for an indie bookseller, hence the need to look at the situation from both sides.]
The reason to support publishers by buying directly is because of all the services they deliver which indie bookstores value: selection, curation, marketing, creating demand? (You know, many of the same things we tell customers they’re supporting when they shop indie…) The irony of this situation is not lost on anyone.
The question is, who loses if indie bookstores cancel and reorder at 8.99 from the gamblers who are prepared to take a loss of almost $5-$6 on each copy? Publishers theoretically ship the same number of books, just through different channels. Those publishers are making the same profit whether they ship through Wal-Mart or directly, as giving one channel a larger discount than another would be illegal, right? [Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that the ABA took publishers to court over this exact issue several years ago.]
Our sales reps lose out, esp. if their income is commission based. Many stores depend on good reps to cut through the clutter of titles the large houses publish and showcase the books that will appeal the most to customers in our individual regions and cities. However, so many reps have been let go and the remaining rep’s territories have become so large that many small bookstores don’t see reps often, if at all, so I don’t expect the argument that deserting publishers will hurt your sales reps to hold much water with those stores.
Distributors lose out; leaving them with a large amount of money tied up in product that will move much more slowly than anticipated. This tied-up money could have gone to support smaller, more indie-friendly titles that don’t have to be discounted to sell – the bread ‘n’ butter of indie bookstores. We’re going into the busiest time of the year, the time when distributors are the only way to get hot books in time for the holidays. The last thing indie stores need is for those distributors to be unable to stock up on the mid-list and regional hits that are too small to be on the mass merchant’s radar, but which indie booksellers have carefully cultivated a demand for in their cities.
Distributors provide a valuable service to indies: centralizing the supply of small- and mid-size-press books and saving indies the expenses of time and money to place multiple small orders, often incurring individual shipping costs, and making the returning of any unsold books so much more cost-effective. $8.99 books threaten distributors immediately, and with them would go the ability of many indies to cost-effectively source the small, quirky, off-beat titles that we boast about providing to the reading public.
The $8.99 price tag may just be on a handful of the projected bestselling titles of the year, but the economics of publishing seem to suggest that the results of removing this much value from the industry could negatively affect the industry at all levels.
On the other hand, perhaps there’s an argument to be made that the extra margin indies sourcing their bestsellers from walmart.com would receive will revitalize their stores, or that the money readers save buying their books for $8.99 will spur additional book purchases, growing the industry? I can’t fit the pieces together to make either sound convincing, but I hope others can.
The crazy thing is, after writing all that, I can’t say that on balance it would be a bad idea to cancel your publisher order and get the books $6 cheaper at Target.com or not. Margins are so low on books that those extra dollars on the top titles could keep some stores in business. It’s difficult to take the long view when you’re worried about meeting payroll each month.
Bob Miller at Harper Studio has a great post on the economics of a price war and considering the long-term industry impact of $10.00 books becoming the new norm.
The Booker Prize is my favorite literary award. My annual goal is always to read the whole of the Booker longlist before the winner is announced. I never achieve that goal, but then the purpose of goals like that is aspiration. Why do I have this reverence for the Booker when I don’t attach any special significance to any other book award? The answer is that the Booker is inextricably tied up with my personal ‘Golden Age’ of reading, the time I woke up to the joys of reading for more than simple distraction.
As background, you should know that in secondary school in Ireland I devoured every book about WWII and Vietnam I could find, dipped into the usual science-fiction & fantasy classics (2001, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) and regurgitated the accepted interpretations of The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea for my final exams. I wasn’t a particularly good English student, but I enjoyed stories. After graduation, lacking any clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life and scratching the itch to travel, I moved to the north of England for college.
What I lacked in the way of intellectual stimulation from my classes (business and computers – it was the end of the 1980s, greed was good and computers were the thing to study) I found in the twin forces of the local WHSmith and The Late Show. Before you snigger too much, consider that I came from a small town without a bookstore. Discovering writers like Pynchon — then in the news with his ‘comeback’ novel Vineland — Eco and Rushdie, seemed to take the tropes of my escapist teenage reading and transform them into the social commentary of “real” literature.
My problem was that although I loved to read, I didn’t know a thing about “real” literature. I needed guidance and initially found it at WHSmith. I was an undiscriminating reader, devouring my share of Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz novels, but the merchandising decisions of my local WHSmith – the only bookstore in town – introduced me to many new authors and impressed the importance of the Booker Prize on my mind. Cardboard displays of the shortlist (the first year I remember saw Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day pitted against Banville’s Book of Evidence and Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, among others) looked terribly cool to my young self.
Having had the name ‘Booker Prize’ impressed on my mind, I then heard and saw it everywhere. Articles on the shortlist in the Sunday papers, editorial cartoon’s lamenting the “difficulty” of reading the Booker contenders and interviews with authors on The Late Show.
At the time, the BBC was renowned for great arts programming, and I loved The Late Show, then hosted by future bestselling author Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus, Sacred Hearts) and future leader of Canada’s Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff (who later authored a Booker-nominee, Scar Tissue). The Late Show made me aware of the contemporary arts scene, giving authors and poets the cultural cachet of the indie rock stars with whom they shared the stage. Mainly, I think it was all the Booker hoopla that caught my imagination: the betting, the breathless marketing copy, the front-of-store displays and the entertaining reviews in the papers. Amis’ Time’s Arrow, a book I read because of a fabulously rancorous debate over its merits on some arts show, blew me away (but I haven’t dared go back to see if it still does). Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was required reading for anyone interested in the arts, and debating the fatwa, whether you’d read The Satanic Verses or not, was a never-ending conversation among politically awakening students of for a time.
With the controversies (Was James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, an unreadable book? Was The Unconsoled a worthy follow-up to Remains of the Day?), the clever marketing and the consistently high quality of the books, the Booker was simply the most entertaining of literary prizes, and it still is. I’ll be online refreshing the Man Booker website to learn the shortlist on September 8, and I’m currently working my way through some of the long list (I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, but Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man is my favorite thus far. Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze is beautifully observed and written, but I haven’t finished it yet, so more on that later.).
Although I can no longer watch the BBC arts shows dissect the nominees, the blogosphere provides plenty of discussion and commentary. Below are some links to blogs where readers are also working their way through the longlist and some especially interesting interviews with the nominated authors.
Interview with Sarah Hall, author of How to Paint a Dead Man
Farm Lane Books Blog — reading her way through the longlist
@Suejustbooks – a bookseller who doesn’t blog, but tweets her impressions
Both Eyes Book Blog – has reviewed several of the contenders