My most recent “Talking Indies” column is about independent bookstores and whether their interests mesh with promoting indie authors. The piece is called “Why Bookstores Aren’t Helping Indie Authors—Yet.” You can read it in the Spring Edition of Talking Writing (find the column link at the end of this entry).
I wanted to post an addendum to my column here because a number of indie authors I heard from after the piece was published have gone on record saying they really don’t care about their book being shelved in bookstores. The basic argument is the rather facile one I began my first draft with: “Why put effort into interacting with small businesses that may see a few score of customers a day when posting to Internet books sites provides you with an entre to billions of potential readers?”
The obvious answer, since most writers have limited time to market and sell their work, is “Yes, why?”
If you think short-term, that’s probably a good answer. But bookstores really are, as I say in my piece, “the best places to find people who are actually paid to talk about books to the public.” They’re also clearly unofficial community and cultural centers and shouldn’t your book be part of your local cultural community?
The problem is that many of these stores are working hard to make money. It’s rare for me to go into a bookstore these days and find any other shoppers. Seriously! That’s scary.
And that’s why I think book stores need to seriously re-examine how they think about indie writers. You can find a number of articles online about what writers need to do to get their self-published books into book stores. It’s a lot harder to find articles on what book stores should be doing to attract self-published writers to their shores.
Indie writers are some of the biggest books consumers I know of. Most of us have no problem going into stores and dropping $50-$100 several times a year on books and periodicals. Some of us can’t help ourselves when we go into book stores. So, if a store is carrying our books, it’s very likely we authors will come tramping in regularly, and it’s also very likely we’ll buy anything from best sellers to a classics while we’re checking up on the little chickadees we left for browsers to find. We may well do holiday and birthday present shopping there, too.
Most stores operate by sourcing their books through distributors. This is probably one of the biggest problems indies create for bookstore managers. Even if your book can be accessed through a distributor, it may not be the one the store does its primary business with. I think a standard consignmentship arrangement should be the basic mode of operation with any first blush indie writer who walks into the store peddling their novel or memoir, etc. Pavarti Tyler discusses this issue a bit in my column. Most indies really would have no problem with a 60:40 split on sales if they front the books and the store does the sales. The 60% piece goes to the author/publisher since they’ve paid the authors’ rate for books in the first place. The author would also need to be willing to agree to promptly reimburse book returns. That’s a simple accounting exercise more than anything else and while a wild card in the status quo methodology of a bookstore, certainly not a difficult add-on to monthly business procedures.
Bookstores should also see the value of indie writers who support them and establish some form of workshop or clinic for writers they choose to shelve. Most indie authors are insanely savvy these days about marketing and publishing and printing and writing. And for everyone of us who walks into a store with a novel to sell there are 10 people in the neighborhood dithering over the book they want to write and wondering where to start. Put us in a room full of newbies and we’ll not only chat up the indie process and all it’s agonies, but we’ll also make sure participants understand the need to stay connected to their local bookstores.
In addition, something, somehow, lost on many bookstore owners (certainly those in my neck of the woods) is the fact that indie writers are local authors. Most bookstores have a local author or local book section. That’s a perfect place to display and promote indie work. If you really need to create the sub-category of indie or self-published, so be it, but that’s where our books belong.
If you own a book shop and you get my drift here, I also think it would be a good idea to post a sign prominently at your store saying “We Support Indie Authors.” And don’t just stop with being supportive with shelf space for the self-published, chat up those local indies to your customers. Have a list of local writers and their books shoppers can pick up in bookmark form. This is the 21st century, before long every reader will know an indie author and they’ll understand the importance of supporting those efforts.
To close, here are two provisos for all you bookstore mavens who think I’m full of shit:
1.) Uh huh, you’re right. Quality is essential for all books. You really shouldn’t be selling crap. That means you need to review indie books that come your way. I’d suggest a procedure that you’re up front with: “Yes. We will gladly review your book. Please leave two copies and we’ll get back to you by email in 30-days.” You can usually figure out if someone has done decent work in about five minutes of perusal. You need to figure out what your standards are for “good” and also whether you need to read the whole book to decide whether it’s worth the asking price. My guess is you don’t do that with most books that come into your store. Are corporate publishers really all that trustworthy? In the end, your customers can tell you whether a book is worse than dog feces. Remember, the other side of the coin is equally as interesting: an awesome, quirky read coming from the little old lady who lives two blocks over is something you may well be able to make a mint on if you are a real entrepreneur who understands the idea of risk.
2.) I’ve left this for last. Authors who approach you to sell their books are a special breed. As noted above, a lot of indies couldn’t give a hoot about paper books and bookstores. The whole end-game to some is selling electronic copies of their work online. That’s it. But virtually any writer willing to invest in a paper copy of their book is someone with a good amount of soul. If you sign on and develop a relationship with, say, 20-30 authors interested in selling through your store, you could sponsor a meeting with them once a month to talk about how they’re doing, what they’re working on, and how you’re doing and what you’re working on. You all will likely find a lot in common.
Immediate profit in this new world of publishing is still just about stumbling and bumbling, good luck, or knowing the right people. It’s time for writers and book people to get a bit more long term. I can foresee a world where 90% of the books sold are digital and online. That could happen within the decade. When was the last time you rented a movie from Blockbuster?
I can also foresee a time where 90% of all books are self-published and readers, writers, and store owners come together regularly to talk about holding down the fort and fighting the good fight.
God save all bookstores left standing from this day forth. God save all writers short and tall. And, most of importantly, God save every reader one and all.