12.04.2013

The Great Divide: A Disheartening Conversation Between Book Author and Bookseller

STRINGS released at the end of October, and I have yet to get a book signing arranged. There have been a few reasons for this, but one particular obstacle has been the dearth of independently owned bookstores in my area that might host a local small press author. There are a few, though, and I contacted one of them today to ask for more information on arranging an appearance. A lot of pins and needles happen in this process, at least if you're new at it (like me). It's one thing to build a persona and engage with readers online, but it's a whole other thing to test whether or not your own community will turn out for you or if local business owners would be willing to put out a welcome mat. In fact, it's the sort of thing that makes me want to hide or hire a wicked hot stunt double. But since I know that engaging with the public is absolutely necessary in the push to sell more books (and I don't know if there are any other women who would be a convincing enough stunt double for me), I know I have to bust my hump and bring my books to the a public forum myself.

I pick Charlize for my stunt double. We're the same height.
So today, I contacted a local purveyor of books to inquire about what it would take to set up a signing in their store. It didn't go as I'd hoped. In order to protect the innocent (self included) I will not reveal this business's name or that of its owner, because it is not my intent to disparage this person but to use this discussion as a launching point for a larger one. Here goes . . .

Me: Hi there! I am a local author and recently had a book published by a small press, Hobbes End Publishing. It's called STRINGS, and it is a psychological horror/thriller and it was released on 10/26. I would love to hold a signing at some local independent bookstores, and would love more information on how I might go about arranging one with you. You can read more about STRINGS here: (I leave the link to Amazon's product page as well as my phone #).

Bookseller: Good morning, Allison. Thanks your your message. We always lose money at author readings and signings, however. Me and my wife have decided to change our model a bit in that we’d like to request that each author guarantee putting at least 20 warm bodies in chairs (or pay for the service of renting the space, something along the lines of $40). Second, it bothers me and us that your book is available electronically. That hurts our feelings in a big way, as I’m sure you can understand. (I'm bolding this remark because this is when things kind of went in another direction).

Me (clarifying, because I can't actually believe I just read that): Does it bother you that I offer the electronic copies even though I also offer print?

Bookseller: Yes because electronic books hurt the small bookstore. (He goes on to discuss the evils of e-readers for a bit; I'm editing for brevity).

Me (jaw in my lap): While I appreciate anyone's passion for print books, as it is indeed one that I share, as an author who is intent on making a living selling books, I have to offer my work in mediums that the public will buy. As it turns out, the public overwhelmingly buys e-books, and this has allowed me to have a living doing what I love doing. If I chose not to offer this format, I would make nothing. I'm sorry if this offends your sensibilities. As for e-books making people dumb, I'll just leave that one alone. Although I will say that people reading, in whatever format they choose, is far more important to me. Thank you for your time, but I think we're done here. Best of luck to you.

Bookseller: I do appreciate your position as an author, I do—I’m an author myself—but what offends my sensibilities is not just the financial aspect (though e-books have put hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of bookstores out of business, as I’m sure that you know). Two things really come to mind: 1) the relationship of readers to texts has been at the very least greatly changed and in many ways severed altogether, and the relationship between readers regarding texts has altogether been severed; there is no longer the sharing, the borrowing, the receiving, the gifting, and the like, and that would include your book, too; 2) although studies show that people are reading, overall, far less than previously, it’s not that people aren’t reading any longer, that’s true, but the way that people read is greatly different, and ultimately that harms writers, too, because readers are reading in shorter bursts, with less discernment, with lesser comprehension, and with little if any appreciation for author, text, context, production, dissemination, and meaning.

I wish you could see how hard I’ve worked for years for local authors but without reciprocation. People come to readings with their smart phones, drink our wine, eat our muffins, and then download a copy . . .
So then I did this...
I knew at that point that we were at an impasse, but I did send one more message. I won't post it here, simply in the name of brevity, but I will elaborate on the message's same sentiments below.

First, I want to say that I can respect the bookseller's position to a point. Authors are often clueless about marketing and they don't know how to foster a good following and to encourage them to turn out at local events. I get that. Furthermore, it has become increasingly difficult for small business owners to compete against big fish like Amazon, and I can sympathize with how difficult it can be for bookstores to stay competitive. Obviously this person loves his bookstore to pieces, and I would have loved the opportunity to do whatever I could to bring a little business his way, because as it so happens, I love bookstores too and so do many of my local friends who would have GLADLY shown up not only to have me sign their books but also to peruse this place's offerings. To assume that 1. I wouldn't have gone to every effort to have people turn out at my own signing or 2. That I would have foisted any additional expense for things like food and beverages upon them without first paying for it myself was just a very bad way to handle things. And that's before we even get into the whole debate about the value of ebooks (or lack thereof).

That's the classic debate now, isn't it? I have spoken to several author friends who have held signings in small bookstores, and they have never been accosted in this way with "hurt feelings" for offering electronic versions of their work, but I can't help but wonder if it's a sentiment most of these folks just keep to themselves. Small bookstores have been losing business to big bookstores for decades, and now big bookstores are losing business to online bookstores and ebooks. But should an author be guilt-tripped for being a part of that system? I don't think so.

Cold...dead...hands
Authors, or any other creators of digital media for that matter, should not be branded as offensive simply because they have released their work in an outlet that is friendliest to their needs, and it shows a huge disconnect between retailers and creators whenever a store owner refuses to accept the hurdles that many independent producers face when they try to get their work into a retail market. Of COURSE we're going to offer it electronically! You want to sell books, you put them in to every potential place where buyers exist. That's not intended to be a personal slight against bookstores. It's BUSINESS. It would be absolutely foolish to do otherwise. Should I be forced to take a hit to my revenue stream in order to protect an increasingly outdated business model owned by someone who would probably never carry my work in the first place if I'd had it printed myself, or who refuses to get with the 21st century and find new ways to cater to readers who have drifted on to new platforms? People all over the country who own small bookstores are changing up their establishments to appeal to readers in whole new ways. Check out Powell's Books, who partnered with Kobo ebooks, or Politics & Prose with their nifty Espresso book machine. This is how you usher your bookstore into the new age. Not by tearing down local authors whose only sin was to write a book that they wanted to get into the hands of as many people as possible.

How about some Espresso with that bookstore?
And there is also another niggling observation I can't help but make, but this person also happens to be in the business of selling USED books, a market which does absolutely nothing to directly benefit authors. Unless it can be guaranteed that someone buying a used copy of a book would then go out and buy new copies of that author's work, his business would potentially harm the bottom lines of hundreds of authors. At least if someone buys my book from Amazon (Kindle or print), both I and the retailer benefit from this transaction.

But would I begrudge him that? No. I happen to like used bookstores for the same reason I have freely given away thousands of copies of my short stories over the years. I want to reach as many readers as possible, because readers talk, and it's talk that sells books. And if you can get that one passionate reader who loves your book, even if they borrowed it or downloaded it for free or bought it in a used bookstore, and they told everyone they knew about it, the domino would fall, the tipping point would be reached, and then the sky would be the limit. That is why I believe a generosity of spirit is far more conducive to good business than desperately and bitterly pinching pennies in the corner when someone comes to you to inquire about your services. If a used copy of STRINGS ever makes it into this person's establishment, I certainly hope someone picks it up and reads it and enjoys it and shares it.


And I also hope this person finds an innovative way to embrace the future instead of blaming advances in technology (or lazy authors) for slowing down his business. There is no excuse for myopia. I look forward to meeting with other booksellers who are more receptive to a plethora of book platforms and working with an author who would go out of her way to make sure to generate her share of traffic and sales. I don't consider myself any big shot, but I'm not a chump either.