A Geek’s Insider View of the Publishing Industry Pt. 2 — Indies

This NPR piece was thought-provoking, mostly in the ‘I have lots to say about this’ fashion: http://www.npr.org/2010/12/14/132026420/end-of-days-for-bookstores-not-if-they-can-help-it

When you say ‘bookstore,’ the exact image evoked will be different for almost everyone, but there’s a lot in common. The shape of that image has changed over the years, and these days, independent bookstores are right in the middle of a lot of pressures and changes in the publishing industry.

I love independent bookstores for a lot of reasons, including the fact that they’re my professional lifeblood. Chain stores offer a lot of perks, but with size comes timidity and uniformity of stock and a grand lack of agility. A local big box store is constrained in a lot of ways by their corporate higher-ups, with imposed practices, obsession with metrics, and more.

But indies, as quintessential small businesses, have an incredible degree of flexibility and are in prime position to adapt quickly to change in the industry, but they are also walking a razor’s edge. The ‘imminent doom of the independent bookstore’ is a meme that’s been around for quite a while now, and has been in the national consciousness since at least 1998 with You’ve Got Mail, featuring Meg Ryan as a friendly local independent bookseller and Tom Hanks as the heir to a big chain that threatens her business’ very existence. And in fact, many independent bookstores have closed due to pressures from the chains, and more recently from loss of sales to Amazon.com and eBooks.

But the NPR story above mentions that the changing landscape of publishing may in fact be a great opportunity for indie bookstores. They trot out the encouraging example of Greenlight Books in Brooklyn (which I went to last year and is fantastic), a newer indie bookstore that is thriving. The owners found a location that was under-served and has proven supportive.

Here’s the thing. Not everywhere is Brooklyn. Highly urban centers are great places to have independent bookstores. Most of my territory doesn’t fall under that definition. When you’re a bookseller in the heartland, the circumstances are very different. There’s a lot of places where there isn’t a bookstore around for 50 or more miles — and when gas prices are re-approaching record highs, I can understand why someone might not want to spend a 1/4 tank of gas to go to a bookstore when they could browse and buy online.

Fortunately, indies have responses for this, too. IndieBound allows indie bookstores to band together and offer internet sales through a consolidated web presence. And just this month, Google eBooks went live, with a number of partnerships with indie bookstores (http://www.indiebound.org/google-ebooks) — there are differing opinions on what exactly this will do for indies, with some seeing Google being likely to want to circumvent the retailer and sell directly themselves (http://www.bnet.com/blog/publishing-style/why-google-ebooks-could-hurt-independent-booksellers-instead-of-helping/1058)

One of the things I’ll be looking at this coming season is asking my customers who are partnered with Google eBooks what it’s meant to their business.

All of that aside: Here’s what indies mean to me. Indies are community centers, they are cultural commons, they are cultural gatekeepers.

For many people, the local independent bookstore is a Thirdplace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_place), where they meet with peers and neighbors and build community. The increasing prominence of coffeshop/cafes built into/alongside bookstores helps this impulse in a big way. Come for the coffee, stay for the books. Many indies work closely with their local school districts as business and educational partners, which is good business, when the grants are still flowing, at least. Indie booksellers, in order to survive, must be brilliant handsellers. Since they can’t compete with chain stores in breadth and depth of stock, they have to adapt to the customer and sell to their aesthetic more actively.

But Mike, what’s handselling? (just go with me)

Say you walk into a bookstore where I’m working (I have in fact done handselling at accounts when visiting for a sales call. Once a bookseller, always a bookseller), and you’re looking for a new science fiction novel.

First, I ask “what have you been reading lately?” And you say, for example “I’ve been on a M. John Harrison and Michael Moorcock kick, but I’m looking for something new.”

So I go through my brain, think about what I know about Harrison and Moorcock, their style, content, and role in various literary communities such as the New Wave and what they’ve been doing lately. Then, walking over to the SF section if I haven’t already, I think about what I have in stock, because it’s far easier to sell a book I have on hand than to get someone to order it from my online store or special order to pick up later or get shipped to their home. So while I have them in the store, I try to find the right one-to-three books that will pique your interest.

So I go to my shelf and I pick out China Mieville’s The Scar, asking “Have you tried anything by Mieville?” and then mention how Harrison heralded Mieville as a Bright New Hope for fantasy, and maybe talk up the New Weird if you seem interested in chatting, or just talk about the book if you’re not. I put the book in your hand, which then puts the onus on you to put it down.

And if you seem amenable, maybe I grab something by Steph Swainston or K.J. Bishop to add on, building on the New Weird theme, or maybe I go back to a J.G. Ballard to sell you more work by New Wave SF authors. It’s an ongoing process, and every bit of information you give me refines my approach. If I misfire on something, don’t grab your interest, I probe for more information, not satisfied until I’ve given you at least one book that should float your boat. And sometimes, if you’re the kind of customer who all booksellers love, you’ll keep asking for more, and we’ll spend maybe half an hour building you a leaning tower of awesome.

That’s handselling. Sell to the customer and their tastes, not just pushing the same new Hardcover Besteller down everyone’s throats because ‘if it sells, it must be good!’ Many of the bestsellers get that way because they’re good, but there are far too many books out there to read all of them, so you might as well read books that you will enjoy, that will challenge you when you want a challenge, will comfort you when you need to be reassured, will take you away to another world when you want to take a break from this one.

The indie bookseller, at their best, is a literary guide and advisor, helping you find the right book for the right mood — they’re a matchmaker for an audience of serial bibliovores.

Amazon.com can’t do that for you anywhere near as well as a good bookseller can. I’ve used Amazon’s systems for years now, as well as the systems of the other chain online retailers. And it’s my firm belief that we’re nowhere even remotely close to the time when a computer algorithm can handsell and recommend as well as a living-breathing bookseller.

And if the Google eBooks turns out to be a credit to the bookseller, then they can handsell you books right out of the online catalog if there aren’t any in stock, or if you have a preference for eReaders.

The big problem with eReaders as far as indies go is that they steal away stores’ most prolific buyers. If we apply the 80/20 rule to bookstore customers, where 20% of customers make up 80% of your business, then what happens if half of those 20% of your customers buy eReaders? It’s logical for them, because they’re buying maybe 5 or more books a month, and shelf space is becoming a premium, or they travel a lot for work, etc. That steady business that the indie had been depending on then vanishes. But if that customer knows they can continue to benefit from the expertise of the bookseller, get the recommendations as eBooks and support the store which has been a part of their lives for years, it could be a great match.

The story of the indie bookstore is far from over, but the upcoming chapters are going to be very interesting, and pretty much no one knows how they’re going to unfold — not the chains, not the publishers, not the book reps, and not even the booksellers themselves. It’s a thrilling and terrifying time to be in publishing, which means we all have lots to talk about.

One thought on “A Geek’s Insider View of the Publishing Industry Pt. 2 — Indies

  1. The problem with ebooks for the Indies is margin. Most ebooks are cheaper than paper books, sometimes by a lot. This suggests that a one-to-one conversion rate from pbook to ebook customer will simply not succeed. Instead Indies will have to use the web to step out and gain ebook customers via innovative strategies.

    They must try to build online communities which will not be geographically based unlike their physical stores.

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