August 31, 2011
Here’s a shocking statistic courtesy of Fast Company magazine: four hundred independent bookstores have opened in the past six years. Don’t these people know their industry is supposed to be on life support?
But the article went on to say that some bookstores are changing their business models and thriving. Brookline Booksmith in Massachusetts, for example, has increased store traffic seven percent by cross-merchandising books with non-book products. In St. Louis, four bookstores banded together in an alliance that saved one business while increasing sales at the other three.
Of course, this single sunny-side-up piece doesn’t refute how difficult book retailing has been these past few years. Booksellers still face the twin whammies of major recession and ebooks. Yet, in recent visits to local bookstores, I was struck by the fact that even stores that are not leading innovators had plenty of foot traffic on a Friday afternoon.
In the span of two weeks I visited five stores. It’s not unusual for bookstores to see local independently published authors these days. The differences in my case, however, should have been manifest. I didn’t arrive with a print-on-demand copy of my book (there aren’t any because it’s offset printed). Instead, I had in hand an Advance Reading Copy of Primacy, with its handsome four-color cover and a back-ad featuring the publishing plan. I also carried my Kirkus and Publishers Weekly reviews, a sheet of blurbs, and a letter of introduction that mentioned some recent marketing and publicity points of interest.
A few of the people I visited (including the Community Relations Manager of a major chain), seemed genuinely happy to hear that I was willing to make an author appearance. At one major independent, the person I really needed was not working that day, but we later struck up communication via email. Two other independents were supportive, and we’re working on scheduling events.
In one small independent, however, I did get the back of the hand. This particular store has always left me unimpressed: poor merchandising, no marketing to their customers, and a general sense that someone is persecuting them. I didn’t take it personally when the owner said she’d “maybe” buy one or two copies and wouldn’t do an event because, “only your mother will show up.” She might be right but, unlike the others, she’s not asking herself what she can do to drive traffic herself.
In any case, I wasn’t there to sell; I was there, if possible, to help. Even if I could produce three sales for the store, that’s three sales they wouldn’t have otherwise.
But — wait a minute — why wasn’t I there to sell? Because I have a distributor and their job is getting the book into sales channels. This distributor, Greenleaf Book Group, has an interesting business model. They reject ninety-eight percent of the books that cross their path, which gives them credibility with their customers, who are major distributors like Ingram and Baker & Taylor, independents, the chains, and newsstands. Since Greenleaf is discriminating, most of their potential customers are supportive of the mission. The retailers want product of high quality, marketed by ambitious authors. They don’t care who’s paying the freight.
In a previous column, I mentioned my (non-publishing) friend John Moore, who’s CEO of a NASDAQ-listed company. One of the things John likes to say about investing is, “Everyone goes where the boats are. I want to be where the fish are.”
As we watch major secular shifts in book publishing, it has amazed me how many authors seem satisfied by the idea that their book would be available on the website of a print-on-demand publisher, plus Amazon and perhaps one or two other websites. That’s where the boats are. This may be appropriate for a book with a natural audience of a few hundred friends and family, but if you’re writing commercial fiction (or mid-list literary fiction) and can afford the cost of entry (which I realize many people cannot do), you should be aiming where more fish are. We may be in challenging times, but Amazon, for all its success, does not hold all the market share. Barnes & Noble, many independents, and other brick-and-mortar outlets still move lots of product.
The future of the bookstore is hard to predict. Lucky for me, I’m not selling in the future just yet. I’m selling here and now. And as of today there remains a vast infrastructure of distributors, bookstores and newsstands that survives either in part or primarily to bring books to readers. If you can get access to these companies, you ought to, whether you’re already a bestselling author or a first-timer.
I was originally going to focus this column on a parsing of the various bookstores that I visited, along with a prediction of which were likely to survive the next five years, based upon how they’re conducting themselves. But I decided to dispense with the predictions because I don’t want to be presaging anyone’s demise. If I have my druthers, every bookstore will survive, even the one that greets me with a lack of enthusiasm. They may get on board some day, meaning they’re always at least potential markets for my books.
We live in uncertain times, but that doesn’t mean our fate is sealed. A few years ago, in her brilliant one-woman show, actress and author Carrie Fisher talked about having a strange family and how this contributed to her mental illness. But then she stopped and noted that her brother, who grew up alongside her, had no such problems. She concluded: “It’s not what you get. It’s how you take it.”
I would urge all my bookseller and author friends — as I urge myself — to heed that insight. Take my book — or yours — and don’t only chase the hot “boats.” Go also where the fish are biting. They’re still out there. They’re called readers.
Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 25: The Elements of Editing
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