Sunday, May 27, 2012

Dear Indie Booksellers: Please Take Your Eyes Off Your Classmate's Paper And Focus On Your Own Work

Dear Indie Booksellers:

Whether your operation is brick and mortar, strictly online, or a combo plate of both, you have an important role to fill in the communities you serve. It makes me sad to see shop after shop shuttered, and I miss the ones I used to frequent. So please, know that as both an author and a consumer, I want you to not only survive, but to thrive.

But many of you, those whose daily operational thoughts and actions are totally dominated by fear of being driven out of business by Amazon and the few big chains that are still in operation, need some tough love. As you read this, bear that thought in mind: I'm tough because I love.

Also bear in mind, as you feel the blood rushing to your face and your jaw clenching in anger while you read, there are some distinct advantages to being a small, indie outfit (as you probably know better than I do), and there are indie booksellers that are doing just fine without so much as a glance in Amazon's direction; I will get to that by the end of this post, too. Okay, deep breath; here goes.

Please stop obsessing about, and badmouthing, Amazon and the chains. It's no more attractive to retail customers than attack ads are to voters.

Please stop badmouthing consumers who shop at Amazon and the chains. Most consumers will buy some things from Amazon and the chains, and other things from smaller outfits. There's no better way to ensure they'll start buying everything from Amazon and the chains than to insult them.

Please stop trying to base your marketing and community outreach plans on guilting the public into believing their Amazon and chain purchases are leading to the destruction of reading culture as we know it. Nobody wants to be bullied or guilted into a purchase, consumers know they have a right to make the best choice for themselves based on their specific priorities, and they hold that right pretty dear.

Know that you cannot possibly compete with Amazon or the chains on price; you will almost never win with consumers for whom price is the ultimate, or only factor in a buying decision. But also know: this is not a bad thing. Those consumers were never going to be good customers for you anyway.

Know that if your bookshop is generalist, carrying a smattering of current release books in all the most popular genres and a bit of merch on the side, with few exceptions (e.g. captive audience shops like those in airports), you cannot possibly compete with Amazon or the chains on selection. They have massive, distributed networks of gargantuan warehouses stacked to the rafters with nothing but variety.

Please do not argue that you can order any of the same books one can find on Amazon or through the big chains, because we live in an age of pathological convenience and instant gratification. Most consumers who have already made the trek to the store are annoyed if they must leave empty-handed. Now granted, it's not like in pioneer days when Pa would take the wagon into town for supplies on a weeklong trip that could very well end in death on the way there or back. But consumer expectations and demands have changed.

A consumer who can click his mouse twice to order the same item, at a lower price, and often with no shipping expense and two day delivery, isn't often inclined to wait around in your shop for a few extra minutes while you fill out an order form, then wait a few extra days for your supplier to get the item into the mail and a few more days on top of that for book-rate delivery. Faced with the same choice a few times in a row, it won't be long before the customer stops bothering to come into your shop at all.

But also know: this too, is not necessarily bad for you. Consumers for whom convenience is the thing were never going to be good customers for you anyway, you're better off without them.

In the great retail deli counter of booksellers, you're prosciutto; please stop trying to be bologna.

Look around: bologna's cheap and plentiful, you can even buy it at 7-11 and some gas stations. But people who have a taste for prosciutto know it costs more than bologna and isn't as easy to find. Prosciutto lovers are also generally willing to pay a premium for the best quality, and will typically feel the same way about buying other, related items, like cheese and wine. Figuratively speaking, prosciutto lovers are the customers you want, and they want you right back. Does the high-end deli or wine shop try to compete directly with 7-11? Of course not. The high-end place doesn't even deign to acknowledge the existence of 7-11, because it doesn't consider itself to be in direct competition with 7-11. Neither should you consider yourselves to be in direct competition with Amazon or the chains.

Do, and offer, what the 400-pound gorillas can't: passion and specialized knowledge not only of the products you carry, but the communities you serve. I've noticed that most of the successful, healthy indie retailers in any community I've ever called home have one thing in common: they specialize, and whatever it is they specialize in, everyone from the store owner right down to the stock boy is an absolute geek about it.

While all of the stores I'm about to talk about are brick-and-mortar with an adjunct website, strictly online indie booksellers can mimic many of their winning strategies. Where a brick and mortar store has an author reading, you can have an author chat or post an interview. Where the brick and mortar store has an in-store book club meeting every week, you can have an online book club. Where the brick and mortar store staff can wax eloquent on areas of expertise to customers in the store, you can post your specialized knowledge and analysis online, in a blog.

Dark Delicacies, a Burbank bookshop, specializes in all things gothic, horror and supernatural. It's the go-to shop for books, knick-knacks, toys, author readings, and even some clothing and accessory items that fit that description. If you're looking for a onesie with a zombie on it, this is the place to go. It's a fun shop to visit, and filled with so many enticing items that it's near impossible for fans of this type of fare to walk out without buying something. And if you want to know anything about horror/goth books, horror/goth movies, goth art, goth style, dark music or the like, the staff's near-encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm can't be beat. Sure, you can find many of the same items on Amazon at a lower price, but nobody goes to Dark Delicacies for the prices. Burbank is an entertainment biz mecca and it borders on the North Hollywood Art community, so Dark Delicacies is smack in the middle of its target demographic: unconventional people with unconventional tastes. No Amazon or monster chain store can cater so effectively to a specific market sector.

Hennessy & Ingalls Art & Architecture Bookstore in Santa Monica does for art and architecture books and related merch what Dark Delicacies does for goth and horror. The thing about art and architecture books is, they're generally in a larger format and more expensive than other types of books, will often have special features that don't come across in a screenshot, and it's hard to make a purchase decision without actually being able to look at them in person first. Santa Monica is an upscale community that's home to a lot of entertainment types (actors, directors, etc.), so while H & I certainly doesn't want to gouge its customers, it doesn't have to worry much about setting price points high enough to earn a decent profit on each sale. It's become a real destination for students and lovers of art and architecture, well worth the drive for those not in the immediate area, and it serves its clientele very well.

Mrs. Nelson's Toy and Book Shop, located not far from my own neck of the woods, caters to schools, parents, and teachers in particular. Its selection of toys is easily dwarfed by a Toys R Us, but every toy in Mrs. Nelson's is educational, and many of them are hand-crafted imports and award winners. Its selection of childrens' and young adult books is likewise outgunned by Amazon and online chain booksellers, but that doesn't matter. Just like at H&I, many of the books at Mrs. Nelson's are large format picture books, popup books, and books that incorporate some kind of craft or game activity; these are all types of books you generally want to check out in person before making a purchase decision. The young adult selection at Mrs. Nelson's is always better than that at any local brick-and-mortar chain store, as is Mrs. Nelson's selection of books for teachers.

But here again, it's the friendly, enthusiastic staff that puts Mrs. Nelson's head and shoulders above any mere chain store or Amazon. If your kid has to do a book report on a biography, just tell the friendly staffer at Mrs. Nelson's what grade your child is in, what her reading level is, and what her interests are, and you'll be directed to a variety of choices that not only meet the requirements of the assignment, but any of which your child will actually enjoy reading. Any time an entire grade level at a local school is going to be reading some classic or other, Mrs. Nelson's hears about it well in advance from its teacher and school administrator connections and will have plenty of copies on hand when they're needed.

Mrs. Nelson's has a calendar jam-packed with events and talks for kids, parents and teachers, some free and some fee-based (like the craft workshops), but probably the best events of all are the live readings from authors of beloved childrens' books. The authors are always gracious enough to stick around afterward, signing books and meeting the kids who so love their work, and in cases where the author is also an illustrator, you can often find signed prints of illustrations from their books available for sale at these events. I've picked up a signed print from David Shannon's wonderful "No, David!" at a reading there.

Nothing at Mrs. Nelson's is cheap, either in terms of construction or pricetag. But I and plenty of other locals are happy to pay a little more for the higher quality and true community involvement on offer there.

Blake Crouch and Joe Konrath offer more advice to indie booksellers here.
So you see, it can be done, and it can be done well. I'm not saying it's a simple thing to switch from a generalist store to a specialty shop, but I guess I am saying your survival may well depend on it. I want you to succeed, truly. I want a community dotted with Mrs. Nelson's, Dark Delicacies and Hennessey & Ingalls, and I think plenty of other people do, too.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Requiem For The Romantic Ideal Of Authorship

Well, my last post (If You're Not Ready To Invest, You're Not Ready To Publish) drummed up a lot of...sentiment. A surprising amount of that sentiment was negative, and I think it's because an awful lot of us fiction writer types grew up believing in the romanticized ideal of what it means to be an Author. That's Author, with a capital "A".

All those years of being something of a sensitive but clever and observant outsider would finally pay off, as we spent hour upon hour filling page upon page with our sensitive and clever observations. We'd spend the requisite one to three years toiling in obscurity, fielding numerous rejections from editors, agents and magazine publishers. We'd have Meaningful Experiences and while many of them would be painful, they would ultimately inform the work, thereby bringing us closer to that inevitable day when our breakthrough theme, character or plot would finally materialize, ready to catapult us past the less clever, less sensitive and less observant droves of poseurs and wannabes, right to the front of the Next Big Thing line. From there, getting an agent, a contract, a book tour and bestseller would be just a matter of time and checking off the right boxes in the right order.

Then we would purchase and move to a gorgeous, costly yet unpretentious, picturesque writerly sanctuary, like a beach house, ranch house, mountain house, or for those truly committed to maintaining their outsider status, a yurt. Someplace where we could sit on a pier, or rock, or deck, gazing pensively into the center distance, clutching a steamy mug of coffee and ruminating on this thing we call life and how to shape it into our next pithy yet accessible and entertaining opus.

We'd never compromise our artistic vision for sales---we weren't screenwriters, for God's sake---and readers would thank us for it. It would just so happen that our zeitgeisty insights would strike a chord with the general public. More bestsellers and movie adaptations would predictably follow, along with awards and accolades, all of which we'd publicly accept with deep humility and self-deprecating humor even though inside we'd be thinking things like, "Take THAT, Inland Valley Writers Critique Group!" and "Was there ever any doubt?" And so on and so forth, impressive body of work, et cetera, college speaking tours, lifetime achievement award, blah blah, culminating with a glowing and worshipful obituary in every major outlet following our peaceful death of natural causes while we slept. But even then, our work would live on, CHERISHED FOR GENERATIONS TO COME!!

Ahem. Sorry about that, got a little carried away.

What a drag then, to be setting off on that yellow brick road to Authorship at a time when the publishing industry is in crisis, formats are in flux, the hermit lifestyle is no longer compatible with mainstream authorial success, your platform seems to matter almost as much as your writing, book review sections are an endangered species (as are the print magazines and newspapers that used to run them) and anyone can publish anything. No wonder everyone's pissed. We thought that so long as we had the talent and a drive to create, the rest would take care of itself. Or at least, once we'd caught the right editor or agent's attention, other people would take care of the rest for us.

It was a nice dream while it lasted, but now it's time to wake up. This is a time of unprecedented opportunity for authors and would-be authors, but it's also a time of unprecedented competition and change.

If you're in it purely for the art or the satisfaction of telling stories publicly, it's never been a better time to be you. No gatekeepers stand in your way any more, you can publish at will.

But if you're in it to make a living, to substantially supplement a day job income, to build a large and appreciative audience (whether or not you're turning a profit), or have any kind of impact on the culture at large, your talent and drive to create are merely prerequisites. For you, craft is only the beginning.  The work is only part of your work now, and sometimes, it's not even the most important part (like when you're planning a launch campaign). It's nothing like the romantic ideal you imagined, and it blows.

So go ahead: be angry for a while. Rail at the injustice of it. Have many animated discussions with like-minded individuals about how art and commerce were never meant to mix, how marketing is fundamentally incompatible with the pure and noble drive to create. Eloquently hold forth at the bar or coffee house about how Hemingway, Cheever and Salinger were never expected to give even a passing thought to promotion, and how the purity of their work was surely preserved as a result.

Then get back to your manuscript. And your blog. And your website. And your social media sites. And your continuing education in the art and business of publishing. Because actually, it's never been a better time to be you, the writer with commercial aspirations, either. You've got more tools and information at your disposal than any previous generation of writers. It's never been easy to make it as a mainstream, commercial author, the romanticized ideal of authorship has never been true. Maybe it's difficult now for different reasons, but work and sacrifice were always going to be part of the equation.