Who bucks up whom?

This morning, I'm reacting to a question posed on the Sisters in Crime discussion list, and to a related discussion there about marketing bestsellers versus "long tail" marketing.

Here's the question from the SinC list, posed by Barbara Fister (whose latest book, In the Wind, is terrific):

Very few consumers realize the books they see most prominently featured are a function of money. Am I correct in thinking that, though indies get some coop dollars for promotion, they don't get big bucks for placement - so that in indies you generally are seeing the books the bookseller thinks are good, not just the ones the publisher wants promoted? Mind you, I wouldn't begrudge you the bucks... but to me that would be a meaningful distinction in choosing where to shop as a consumer.

I agree that this is a vitally important distinction.   Generally speaking, display space in chain stores is publisher-driven.  Display space in independents is largely driven by the preferences of real, local book-lovers who know books and know their customers. The distinction between chain stores and independents isn't completely black and white -- certainly not in the way that there's hard line between the inclusive practices of all bookstores versus the very restrictive (and I think destructive) methods of the discount stores (such as Walmart, Costco, etc.).  I'm not saying that the mystery buyer at B&N (whom I've talked with) doesn't know and love mysteries; what I am saying is that he works within one limited system, while as an independent I have the flexibility and freedom to promote and sell whatever books I like, regardless of system.

Independent stores like mine do get some co-op money -- usually for events and/or newsletter mentions. I'm grateful for every dollar that publishers approve for us.  But it's a drop in the bucket, and it takes real work to earn that kickback. (We spend many multiples of what we get in co-op on marketing and promotion.)  So it's not like the major subsidy that chain stores get for doing something that all booksellers ought to be doing anyway -- just putting books out for display in a way that should maximize sales.

Over and over again, I write that you all as consumers have a say in what the marketplace for books is going to look like in the future. Different stores offer readers different kinds of choices, different opportunities to discover new writers you'll cherish, different opportunities for writers and publishers to reach readers.  What the chain stores offer is a single publisher-driven, centrally-planned, top-down system. It's not an awful system and not all of the results of the system are bad, but this system has real limitations. What independent stores offer is careful, individual attention and consideration that can build into a groundswell, a foundation for multiple kinds of success -- local, regional, national.  This isn't a perfect process either, but it's a whole lot more open and it results in many more interesting choices.

A healthy book business would support both models of bookselling.  Even as an independent bookseller, I recognize that there are things that the chain stores do very well.  But there are other things that independents do well.  Publisher money supports what the chains are doing.  It's up to readers and writers individually to support what independents do.  That's where you all have to make a choice, and where I hope you'll realize that every dollar matters.  You keep stores like mine afloat so that we're here to champion the folks we like (here’s a current example). Or not. It's up to you.

On the issue of bestsellers versus the long tail, as raised in the Wall Street Journal, here are two quick notes:

1) I've said this before, so won't dwell on this.  There are basically two ways to make a bestseller.  One is to buy your way onto the lists. The other is to build a readership over time, and gradually find a way onto the list.  It's my belief that while either method can work, the latter is far more likely to result in durable, lasting success.  It's the difference between being Douglas Kennedy or Jilliane Hoffman versus Michael Connelly or Laura Lippman.  (Since I first cited Douglas Kennedy in this context, I've learned that he's actually had some success overseas ... so this example may be even more interesting than I thought.  For what I'm talking about here, I'm focused on his US publishing experience.  The verdict might still be out on Hoffman, though she and her original US publisher have already parted ways.)

2) In this morning’s New York Times, there's a comment from literary agent Amanda Urban that strikes me as shockingly naive. She's quoted as saying "Books can only support a certain retail price.... A book by James Patterson costs the same as a book by some poet."  Like hell it does.  James Patterson is undoubtedly the biggest beneficiary of a system that subsidies the sale of a handful of bestselling writers with huge discounts: 40% off is typical for a new James Patterson title.  That sure isn't typical of a new book by "some poet" or any midlist writer you can think of.

Take these points together and ask yourself this: if the discounts vanished, which writers would still be successful?  It's my belief that folks like Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman and P.D. James, who rose through the ranks based on strong response from independent booksellers and independent readers, will continue to sell strongly, whereas folks whose careers are built only on short-term gimmicks (huge advance, big discounts, costly promotion and inefficient mass distribution in chain and discount stores) will be dead in the water.

I said two points, but I'll add one more.  Remember that when a media outlet like the Wall Street Journal bashes the long tail, it's doing so out of economic self interest.  WSJ wants everyone to believe that the bestseller culture and the dollars that publishers use to support it are necessary components of success.  The reason they want everyone to believe this is that those publisher dollars get spent in places like WSJ.  WSJ does not want publishers to realize that there's a viable model that does not demand that publishers fork dollars over to them.  Actually, this is even more complicated by the cross-ownership of big media and big publishing.  Who owns WSJ?  The same guy who owns HarperCollins.  Is it surprising that these companies will work to buck each other up?