The independent's role

Here are a pair of posts that I sent to DorothyL, a mystery lover's internet discussion list ( I think that what I'm writing about will be clear from context -- at least I hope it will be. These are my responses to some comments about Amazon, independent bookstores and chain bookstores, comments that didn't give independents enough credit for what we do in relation to the other channels. The "Lewis" that I start out addressing is Lewis Perdue, author of DAUGHTER OF GOD (though it''s not really important that you know that, or any of the other folks I'm responding to).

Posted to DL on 12/9:

Lewis writes that Amazon "allows continual residual sales of books that would otherwise be OUT of print." I disagree, at least in terms of what comes from the major publishing companies. I believe that the effect of Amazon's "residual" sales isn't going to be enough to keep books in print without a community of independent booksellers who are also pushing those titles, keeping that backlist alive.

Lewis also touts Amazon's keyword searching versus dealing with a bookseller. Yes, this is valuable for some situations. I recognize this enough to try to make this function available to my customers, though my technology isn't up to Amazon's standards. Try visiting and type in something like "New York" to see what I offer.

But the real value of an independent is the kind of "out of the box" recommendations that only we can make.

When I talk to my customers, I can sell the obvious ("if you like Patricia Cornwell, try Kathy Reichs"), but I also know how to successfully recommend Alan Gordon's THIRTEENTH NIGHT or Colin Cotterill's CORONER'S LUNCH to someone who wouldn't ever think of trying something with the characteristics of those titles. You can't do a keyword search for something that you wouldn't think of in the first place. I can't tell you how many customers have said of THIRTEENTH NIGHT that they wouldn't have picked it up if I hadn't recommended it and have gone on to buy all the rest of the books in his series. (That's a lot of the reason why I brought this title back into print when St. Martin's let it go.)

Look, Amazon does a lot of things well. I don't dispute that. But no one is designing policies and practices to put Amazon out of business. That's why we're talking about independents right now, which ARE endangered. The issue today is what kind of industry we want this to be, and what effect the shape of the industry will have on the choices we're offered as readers. Amazon will be around for a while. Let's hope that independent stores will be too.

The folks in Bentonville and folks like them at Costco, AMS, Kroger, etc. are having a direct effect on what's being published and how books are sold. The effect is a bad one, targeting the kinds of books that many of us like to read and talk about here. I believe that the only force in this business that is inclined to fight back are independent booksellers. That's why your votes -- your dollars -- matter so much.

A week ago here, we had an exchange of messages about the Wal*Mart world, in which Lewis wrote:

"While editors and reviewers _claim_ to want the original and creative things that READERS truly DO crave, the sad state of affairs is that banality begins with editors who are too afraid of publishing something that is not derivative"

I agree that there's a lot of fear in big publishing companies. But that's not the the real problem. It's the lack of ability among publishers -- as institutions -- to talk to talk to their customers (booksellers) about anything other than a bestseller or something with bestseller potential or something that "transcends the genre." After all, the big publishers do publish a lot of books that we approve of. Often, it's their own inability to sell what they produce that's the problem.

MJ Rose talked about choice fatigue, which I agree is a real issue, but what's the alternative? Better that there are too many good choices for readers than too few. If you believe that the way to succeed is to reduce the number of choices, then we might as well pack it in now. We all lose out (even publishers) in a world of fewer choices.

She goes on to write:

"No matter what the publisher publishers it really is the bookstores and reatailer who chooses which titles to give carry and to agree to give attention to. I know publishers who have stood on their head and promised the moon but the bookbuyers don't like the book and won't stock it -or take a big position on it. And in order to really change the retailers mind costs upwards of $200,000."

Here, in a nutshell, is everything that's wrong with the business. The relationship between publishers and booksellers is such that publishers only know how to try to buy our attention with dollars. And even then, publisher dollars don't end up counting for much because they're backed by so little credibility. After all, are we going to believe anything that a publishing company tells us when, for example, they work so hard to cover up or misrepresent basic information about books such as the authors' identities? (Michael Barron and Elizabeth Bright, to cite two recent examples.)

Dollars aren't the only way to launch an author. It's really just a matter of trust. While there are few individuals in the publishing business whose word I trust -- a few editors, a few sales reps -- that number is remarkably small. It shouldn't be this way. My business' relationship with publishing companies would be very different -- and, I think a lot more profitable on both sides -- if those companies knew better how to talk to me about the kinds of books that appeal to my customers.

Publishers would do well to find folks (inside their companies or hiring from the outside) who understand categories and know how manage their brand in a way that's credible to the rest of the industry. It isn't a matter of dollars. It's a matter of publishing and promoting and selling in a way that fosters trust rather than confusion (and sometimes outright hostility). In most big companies, what they're doing wrong is pretty obvious. It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or hundreds of thousands of dollars) to see how they could do better. On the other hand, even if a Time Warner were to hire me or someone else who truly understands the genre to be their mystery maven, there are so many other institutional roadblocks inside that company that it may be hopeless. A few years ago, a smart person at another small publishing company (not so small these days) said to me that it's impossible for a publishing company to be both bestseller oriented and midlist oriented at the same time. When I heard this, I thought he was wrong. Now, I'm not so sure.

Here's a curious situation that I find really telling. Simon & Schuster doesn't even trust its US sales force to handle its own British imports. Bernard Knight's medieval mystery series is one of those solid, steady sellers, well-liked and popular, but not popular enough to ever be New York Times bestsellers. This series is published by Simon & Schuster UK. But instead of importing them into the US and selling the books through Simon & Schuster's US sales force (which it tried briefly), these books are now available to US booksellers and readers through a different middleman. Why? I think it's because at some level, S&S in New York knows that it doesn't know how to sell a series like Knight's here. Either that or they can't be bothered -- which doesn't reflect any better on the abilities or inclinations of this multinational, multi-billion dollar media conglomerate and its own product. (It happens that I like my Simon rep, who at times has been really helpful to my store. This isn't in any way a comment on my personal relationship with this company.)

This is way longer than I intended to write this morning (now afternoon). When you're shopping through this holiday season, and beyond, I do hope that you'll think about where you're spending your money, and what you hope this industry will look like in the future. As Nicki writes, your dollar is your vote.


This is a follow-up message that I posted on 12/12:

A lot of this discussion has been framed in terms of how a few individual store staffers have treated individual writers, and how Amazon might "offer for sale" a writer's books while a particular independent store might not "stock" (a very different concept) the same title. I don't think that this is the right way to look at the relative of merits of independents, chain stores, big-box discounters and online retailers. As Lev (I think) says, it's a mistake to over-generalize. I've shopped in two chain bookstores in the past few weeks, and I've found attentive, polite and helpful staffers in each of these stores. But despite these experiences (and despite the fact that I also believe that the leadership of at least one of the chains -- B&N -- has some good ideas about the industry in general), I harbor no illusions about these chains stores' interest in promoting and selling the kinds of books that we like to talk about here.

Stuff like what Gene is offering to stores is worth doing because it's about the only thing that writers and stores can do right now to overcome structural obstacles that stand in the way of writers reaching readers. But these kinds of arrangements create their own difficulties, and don't attack the root problem: those structural obstacles. That's where I think that independents can make a real difference, but only if we get your support. As I said, independent stores are the only force in the business fighting for the kinds of things we want to see happen in publishing.

Gene may like Amazon's prices (even though his own book isn't discounted at Amazon). Sam's Club's prices are even better. But the point that John Dicker, author of THE UNITED STATES OF WAL*MART makes, is that low prices come from somewhere, that they have consequences. Nicki wrote here about free trade coffee. The analogy holds for publishing.

Besides, my free shipping policy is even better than Amazon's: order even just one new paperback book from me, and I'll ship free to any address in the US. I hope that you'll order more than one at a time, because, as you can imagine, I don't make money off an order like this. But if that's what you need at a given moment, that's what we want you to have. I don't think you'll find that offer easy to beat, and in general we believe that our store's policies -- free shipping, discount program with a very low cost to join (in comparison to similar programs at the big stores), a large selection of used books, occasional specials (like 20% off right now on the new Sue Grafton), 24/7 website shopping, etc. -- add up to a good value for buyers. Give us a try sometime:

I know, however, that perception works against us, that most people believe that you'll spend more in a place like ours. As a result, people do decide to buy elsewhere. Those decisions may put us out of business. If just 7 people each day decide to buy one new hardcover mystery each somewhere else, then I can't pay my rent for the day. Especially lately, I do think that even some well-meaning folks who want to support us are making the decision to shop elsewhere. I'm more than a little worried about this. Which is way I spend my time posting messages like this here.