What follows is a reaction to a line in this morning’s Sisters in Crime email digest. There’s a new SinC policy that references the “traditional marketplace” for books; in objecting to the new policy, an author wrote:
On Mar 6, 2008, at 6:57 AM, firstname.lastname@example.org wrote:
> there is no such thing as a "traditional market place" anymore.
I can't tell you how discouraging this is. I believe that it's important to the life of my community that we have an independent brick and mortar bookshop here. My store, The Mystery Company here in Carmel, Indiana, (www.themysterycompany.com) strives to uphold the best traditions in bookselling.
We are close to our customers -- not just our local customers, but the folks across the country who deal with us by phone, email or website. We try to get to know them well enough to make personal recommendations. We are passionate about the books that we sell. We are involved in this community, contributing to PTO silent auctions, holding nutty fundraisers to benefit a local adult literacy organization, etc. We've set up and we are paying for a new website, www.indylit.com, to promote book and author events anywhere in central Indiana -- not just in my store -- because we believe that there needs to be more visibility for the literary life in central Indiana. I'm involved in this genre's national and international community, helping out where I can, volunteering to host a Bouchercon.
Still, despite all that I do and all that my fellow independent booksellers do, there are folks who believe that the "traditional marketplace" no long exists, a conclusion that may be easy to reach given the way independents are closing across this country. There are even folks who might welcome the demise. I had a customer in my store this past Friday, a semi-regular. She held up the new Peter Robinson novel -- which we'd sell to her at $23.45 including her frequent buyer's program discount -- and said to me that she could buy it at Amazon for "$17 something." (Actually $16.47 -- I checked.)
This woman had been in my store for 20 minutes already, asking me about all kinds of questions about all kinds of titles, complaining to me about the difficulty in finding small press titles in the chain stores -- books that I had on my shelves for her to find easily if she only came here first. On one hand, I'm glad that we had a good enough relationship that she felt she could be honest about why she wasn't buying this book she wanted from me. On the other hand, I was appalled that it's come to this, that all that I do to try to keep this store open, to be knowledgeable enough about her and the books we stock so that I can make the right recommendations, etc. is worth so little. She did make a purchase -- two paperbacks that Amazon does not discount so heavily -- and left.
"There's no such thing as the traditional marketplace." Sometimes, one can start to believe that this has become something of a rallying cry for elements in the industry who are supportive of chain stores and warehouse clubs, or for those who espouse the primacy of the internet and its apparent efficiencies. To be sure, there are inefficiencies in the traditional marketplace, but in many ways the brave new world isn't all that wonderful for readers, writers and our communities -- our hometown communities or the larger genre community. I don't see a lot of new economy firms stepping up to volunteer to program a regional convention like a Magna Cum Murder or to host a Bouchercon, for example.
"There's no such thing as the traditional marketplace." Yes, this is happening in other industries as well. Our communities have changed, neighborhoods and streetscapes are no longer designed to include small, startup businesses, etc. But for reasons that I've written about elsewhere, I believe that the book business is different. If the local independent store that sells toilet paper closes, nothing will change about the toilet paper choices you as a consumer are offered. But if independent stores close, then the choices you're offered as a book buyer will change -- and change dramatically, and that the change will adversely affect many of the writers whom we want to continue to read.
"There's no such thing as the traditional marketplace." I like to believe that the walls and the shelves that we've built here at The Mystery Company and that surround me as a type this are real, that the services that we provide are valued, and the books that we stock are meaningful, that our customers want the choices that we offer to them, and that the relationships we've forged between us and our customers, between our customers and the many writers who've been good enough to come to visit us, and among customers themselves are important and enduring. This stuff happens because we are part of and believe in the best traditions of bookselling. But I may be fooling myself in believing that all this is still sustainable in today's environment -- you may not be wrong if that's what you believe of me.
"There's no such thing as the traditional marketplace." Whether that's wishful thinking or a lament -- and these days it's hard to say which -- what I know is that either way, a belief that we don't exist is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We're here and we're eager to sell books, but folks who no longer believe in the traditional marketplace are pretty unlikely to spend their dollars here. That's their choice.
I hope that there are enough of you who'll choose otherwise. If you believe in what we do here, if you want shopping for books to be something more than mouseclicks or tall stacks of a handful of bestsellers inside a cavernous warehouse club, then buy your books from me. Or, better yet, find the bookseller in your community who's making a contribution to your town or a bookseller who's making a contribution to the genre. I'm not the only one; you'll find others who are working harder than you can imagine and sacrificing more than you'll ever know to make their communities -- local, genre, national -- the kinds of places you'll want to call home.
There's no such thing as the traditional marketplace? I think that, yes, there is still such a thing. My store and hundreds if not thousands of others who are still hoping that there's enough air in the room for our brick and mortar stores. Some days, it's frighteningly hard to believe that there is a future here. Yes, there are other markets out there too -- niche markets, online markets, etc. -- all kinds of options. I count myself as firmly planted in the traditional marketplace. Believe in us or not -- it's your choice.